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The Ten-Minute Paper

Excerpted from DISAPPEARING ACT, available from AMAZON

If Mr. Riordan hadn’t pissed me off,I never would have met the professor.

It started when I was in my last years in high school. I had been at St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s since kindergarten, and I was comfortably settled there. I had my friends, my girlfriend, and the teachers and classes that I enjoyed. I wasn’t thinking much about college.

Nonetheless, in my junior year, I took the standardized exam, called the PSAT, which was meant to prepare me for the SAT (scholastic aptitude test). On the PSAT, I received a very high score on the English portion of the test (literature, history, and all things not math), and a low score on the math. No surprise; I had never been good at math.

Although the results of the exam were supposed to be confidential, my math teacher, Mr. Riordan, apparently got a look at them. Math was Mr. Riordan’s life, and he couldn’t understand why anyone could do poorly at it. If they didn’t do well, he believed, they simply weren’t applying themselves. In fact, those are the words Mr. Riordan used to berate me, publicly, in class.

I was mortified – and angry. What business did he have reading my confidential reports and chastising me in front of my classmates? I was so pissed that when I filled out the application for my SATs, I checked “No” to the question, “Do you want us to send your high school a copy of your test results?” How little things can snowball.

That was in the fall or winter of 1973. I had not made a great number of college applications: St. John’s University in Maryland (it had a renowned “great books” program), the University of Chicago (my father’s hometown alma mater), and Columbia University, right up the street from us. Although I had visited the two out-of-town schools, neither was for me. In my heart, I knew I’d go to Columbia.

Near the end of July, a month before college was to begin, I received a letter from Columbia.

I had been rejected.

I was stunned. After some investigation, we discovered what had happened. As a matter of routine, when reviewing my application, the university had contacted my high school, asking for my SAT scores. The person who looked into the matter found no record of my results – how could they? Because of Mr. Riordan, I had blocked my school from receiving them – and without making any further inquiry, this person had blithely told Columbia that I had not taken the SATs. Although the university stated in its brochures that the SAT was only one factor in its decision-making, it was apparently the one factor that was more important than the others.

I sent Columbia my SAT scores as soon as I discovered this, but the university – now delighted to accept me – said it was full up, and that I’d have to go on the waiting list.

Not wanting to jump off the educational wave, I hopped a train to Washington Square Park and interviewed for a spot at New York University (NYU). I was accepted immediately, and began studying at NYU in the fall of 1974.

And that’s when I met the professor. 

He was my first college professor in my first college class. It was called “19th Century English Literature,” and met on Thursday at 1:30 P.M. I remember getting there early. Standing at the podium, peering through reading glasses as he studied various papers, the silver-haired, slightly portly man reminded me of W.C. Fields, even down to a reddish, bulbous nose.

Students were shuffling in, and they were still taking their seats at exactly 1:30 when the man at the head of the room began speaking. He told us his name was Professor Egerer (he had written it on the blackboard) and this was a class in 19th century English literature. Someone opened the door and entered. 

The professor stopped speaking. His gaze remained steady as he silently watched the latecomer take a seat.

He resumed speaking. Two more latecomers entered, talking to each other. The professor stopped speaking. His gaze was steady as he silently watched the latecomers be seated.

After this happened a few more times, the professor broke off his lecture and told the assembled students: “This class does not begin at 1:29 or 1:31. It starts at 1:30. If you can’t get here on time, don’t bother to come.”

A profound silence settled over the room. I’m sure few of the students were thrilled with the reprimand – indeed, one complained to me  after class that the professor seemed to be a nasty man and that she was dropping out of the class. I wasn’t upset, however. I was intrigued.

Text Box: It turned out that punctuality wasn’t the professor’s only quirk. He gave us a list of nine mammoth books we were supposed to read – if I remember correctly they were Jane Austen’s Emma, Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.  Trollope’s novel alone was over a thousand pages, so that was a lot of reading for a one-semester course.

The professor didn’t believe in term papers. He always thought (as he later explained to me) that students would not read any of the course books until they had a paper to write, and by then, it would be impossible to read them all, meaning they would rely on the then-popular summaries called Monarch Notes. So to get us to do the reading, the professor scheduled dates when we were supposed to have finished each novel (roughly every two weeks or so), and then we would have to write a half-hour, in-class essay on a subject he would give us on that same day. Classes were filled with biographical and historical facts about the novelist and the period. He rarely offered analysis or interpretation of the novels; we had to do that, so we really had to know our stuff. 

The class helped make me a better writer. I could knock out a half-hour paper pretty easily – I got top marks on them – and after struggling over a term paper in another class, I said to myself, “If I can write a good essay like this in a time-constrained situation, why couldn’t I do that with longer, written-at-home term papers?”

I tried it. I prepared the same way I had prepared for Professor Egerer’s papers; absorbing all the background material I could on the subject, and “drowning” myself in the books for the class. Then I got an egg-timer and set it to 60 minutes (and after that another 30 minutes, since egg-timers didn’t go to 90 minutes), and I’d sit down with the term paper question, and just write – from memory, without consulting research books, as though I were taking a test. And, you know, it worked. I got the basic draft of my ideas written out. Then I went back and added quotations and citations, and then did some editing, expanding, and rearranging of the text. But the hardest part, which was getting the first draft written, was done in 90 minutes. I’ve used that technique – minus the egg-timer – ever since.

I wrote even faster than that when I took the final exam. We were given ten questions to answer in two hours. Here’s where my poor math skills really came into play. Once the test began, I made a quick calculation: two hours, ten questions, that’s 20 minutes a question. A snap! I wrote at a leisurely pace and before I knew it an hour had elapsed and I was only just starting on question four. That’s when it hit me: there were 120 minutes in two hours, not 200, and for me to finish completely, I’d have to move at warp speed. Never did someone write so briefly and so quickly about so many questions. I got writer’s cramp, but I apparently did okay: I passed.

I got more than technique out of that class. I developed a friendship with the professor. We talked about literature after class, and I was always impressed with the breadth of his knowledge. It led me to take three more courses with him: “The Bible as English Literature” and “The Romantic Poets: Parts 1 and 2.” In these classes, we’d have a weekly ten-minute paper to write at the start of class. These were pretty open-ended; the professor would assign us sections of The Bible or a set of poems by Shelley, Wordsworth, and Keats to read, and then, in class, he would write a phrase like “Lot’s Wife” or “The basic problem in ‘Lamia,’” and we’d have to craft an essay out of it (since the phrases weren’t always questions, we’d have to have thought a bit about the material before we came to class. Thinking! What a concept!).

Those were heady days, and after I graduated (from Columbia, where I had transferred in 1977, on the advice of all my NYU teachers, who said, “It’s a better degree”), I kept in touch with the professor. The routine was the same: we’d have lunch at his club in midtown, talking mostly about literature and rarely about ourselves. We wouldn’t speak for months – on the breaks from school, he often traveled to Italy – then I would send him a postcard or an article I had written, and soon after (if he was in town), I would receive a phone call asking me to lunch at his club.

That ritual went on for years: an odd extension of my school years, and one in which I always felt slightly out of my depth. The professor would often begin sentences with the phrase, “As you must remember in…” and then he would cite a novel, a play, or some poem that I usually did not remember or even know about, and I felt I must eventually be caught out in my ignorance.

But I never was. For the professor was off-duty now, not testing my knowledge, but sharing his. It was a peculiar friendship, if you can call it that, because outside of knowing that he lived near Washington Square Park, I knew next to nothing about him: whether he was gay or straight, married or divorced, had brothers or sisters. All I really knew was that he enjoyed teaching, and that he had a vast wealth of knowledge to back him up.

Then, one September day, when I knew he’d be back from his summertime journey to Italy, I sent him a postcard. Although I waited for the expected lunch call, it never came. After some weeks, I called the professor’s home, and somehow, I was not surprised when a strange voice answered. I asked for Professor Egerer, and there was a slight pause before the voice, with all the precision of a ten-minute paper but none of the compassion, said: “I’m sorry. Mr. Egerer died four months ago.”

July 27, 2014