When I was starting to plow through that list of the 101 greatest books, I was taking biology. I don’t remember finding many science books on those lists. Maybe Darwin’s Origins or Newton’s Principia. But that was about all. I couldn’t have said it then but what I was studying by reading those 101 was human beings; or in a round about way, I was studying myself as a human being. I didn’t think of myself as studying culture; I didn’t feel uncultured or decultured. Those books were a great bounty, an overflowing of the human spirit. Gifts. That’s how I saw it. Manna from Heaven.
I liked biology because it too was mostly about human beings, at least the biology we were taught. We had the beginnings of some ecology stuff and that was interesting, but what we had mostly was the human body and its diverse and intertwined parts. How could one not be interested in the pancreas since one had one. Or the liver, with its intrequing name. One cannot live without one’s liver. So I studied hard and it was easy and interesting to know the names for the parts of one’s body.
And what do you know but the teacher—he did know his stuff–, an ex-military little punk with the vestigial remains of a flattop in his thinning hair, said, “Well, one of you got a 100 percent on this last test. So I guess I am getting soft and that test was too easy. Maybe I will make another and have you take it.” Well everybody knew who had gotten that hundred, and for a second, I felt really put on the spot by the idea that my success would make everybody take another test. But he was joking. If you can call that a joke. Kind of sick military humor, where whoever you might be you have got to be the toughest, especially if you are boss or a teacher.
And we had to write a research paper on some biological topic for the class, so I decided I would research blood. Human blood, I mean. And I enjoyed looking into it; blood was a happening place. Lots of shit was going down there. But I rapidly ran out of good sources. I must have been inspired because I called a guy at the state university that one of my neighbors knew and asked him if I could visit him and get more information on the blood. So one Saturday I rode my bike clear over to the university and the guy showed me all kinds of periodicals stacked up there in his office. He asked me a bit about what I knew and gave me periodicals or copies of things he thought I might understand.
And I whacked out an organized 15 pager on human blood. I had a hard time in spots understanding what they were saying. But I cut out what I couldn’t understand or put in some quotations when I couldn’t understand what they were saying enough to put it in my own words, though I did think I understood it in their words, or let’s say I understood the need for their words at this particular spot in the paper. I worked about as hard as I ever worked on a paper in high school. And I can remember getting it back and slowing opening the cover to see I had gotten a fucking B+ and the single comment: “You could not have understood what you wrote here.”
Now what the fuck was that about? I’d really like to know. Had he accused me of plagiarism that would have been one thing? But if it had been plagiarism that shit-heel would have given me an F, so what the fuck was he saying. I couldn’t have said–and I knew it–that at the moment I got the paper back I understood everything I had written in it. But at the moment I had finished the paper I did. It had taken him a fucking month to return the papers, so sure I had forgotten some stuff. That’s the nature of biology.
That grade hurt in a bad way because I tended to idealize my teachers, and felt maybe he was right rather than the fuck didn’t understand what I had written so he had decided that I could not have possibly understood it given his nature superiority. What a fuck! Completely lacking in any generosity of spirit. Had I received a paper from a kid that looked like he had written what he couldn’t understand and I couldn’t understand it either I would give the kid a break and give him an A. Why the fuck should he be knocked down for my ignorance. Not my biology teacher. Since he as teacher was superior to any student in that room, he couldn’t admit he didn’t know something.
Every body should be required to read those 101 books. It doesn’t take long to know that you don’t know shit.