When I was in college, I wrote an essay in a seminar. In such a small class, we read everyone else’s writings each week and needed to be prepared to share our observations or else face the ignominy of our teacher either excusing us from the room or glaring at us until we cracked.
One of the other writers had written this spectacular story about four people at a dinner party. She had moved the reader through the thoughts of each of the characters, until she got to the fourth person, whose social anxiety receded when he started choking. His inability to control noises that interrupted her stories irritated his wife, who glared at him until he read her vexed expression and retreated to the kitchen. Separated from the group, he choked to death. The ending was so powerful that I was sure my prose was inferior.
When my turn came, I waited through the usual polite beginning, as my classmates shared what they thought worked. Great, I thought, it won’t take long before we transition to the unnerving category of “what could he have done better.”
It took some time before people starting quibbling with my choice of words. Certainly, I could maneuver through the minor discomfort of a new word here or a different turn of phrase there.
Professor Brilliance sat in his green corduroy pants, with his oversized left foot rising and falling diagonally above his right knee to his rhythm, tilting his head to the side, awaiting a worthy insight.
“Well,” he said, scanning the room slowly, “has anyone spotted clichés?”
Oh no! Clichés? Clichés! I thought I had scrubbed out the clichés. I quickly scanned words that floated unevenly above the page, hoping to find any and expose them before anyone else did.
His foot stopped, and so did my breathing.
“No,” he nodded slowly, “I didn’t see any, either.”
This had to be only a temporary respite before the scissors started slicing.
“Now, let’s go over the introduction to this fine piece,” he said.
Was that sarcasm? Did he mean that it was fine, or was he acknowledging its shortcomings?
As we went line by line through the piece, my writing held up to the scrutiny. Some of my classmates even defended a few phrases, suggesting that they found them perfectly fine just as they were.
The professor saved his lone arrow for his final remark.
“This is a solid piece of writing,” he said, before adding, “for someone your age.”
And there it was, ladies and gentlemen. The backhanded compliment that sent me back to the children’s table, wondering what the adults might be discussing.
Now that I’m older than Professor Brilliance was when he shared that line, I have considered whether he had a point and the answer is, yes and no.
My experiences have changed my perspective. I recognize the value of history, even if I despised memorizing dates and names for a test. I also understand the Chinese devotion to their elders, not because I’m older, but because I have an increasing appreciation for all the decisions my parents and their generation made.
At the same time, when I hear the ideas my children share, I don’t minimize them in the context of their shorter lives. Instead, I recognize the wisdom that comes from their experiences in a handheld techno world they maneuver through more deftly than I.
All these years later, I guess I’d have a comeback to my professor’s observation. “Maybe you’re right,” I’d say, “or, maybe, I’m young enough to know better.”