(And Existentialism)
    [The author, born in 1930, grew up in extreme poverty in Limerick, Eire, and sailed to New York at age 19.
    After 2 years in the US Army, he went to college on the GI bill in the early 1950s.]
All I know of university classes is what I saw a long time ago in the movies in Limerick, and here I am sitting in one, the History of Education in America, with Professor Maxine Green up there on the platform telling us how the Pilgrims educated their children. All around me are students scribbling away in their notebooks and I wish I knew what to scribble myself. How am I supposed to know what's important out of all the things she's saying up there. Am I supposed to remember everything? Some students raise their hands to ask questions but I could never do that. The whole class would stare at me at wonder who's the one with the accent.

The professor is saying the Pilgrims left England to escape religious persecution and that puzzles me because the Pilgrims were English themselves and the English were always the ones who persecuted everyone else, especially the Irish. I'd like to raise my hand and tell the professor how the Irish suffered for centuries under English rule but I'm sure everyone in the class has a high school diploma and If I open my mouth they'll know I'm not one of them.

Other students are easy about raising their hands and they always say, Well, I think.

Some day I'll raise my hand and say, Well, I think, but I don't know what to think about Pilgrims and their education. Then the professor tells us ideas don't drop fully formed from the skies, that the Pilgrims were, in the long run, children of the Reformation with an accompanying worldview and their attitudes to children were so informed.

There is more notebook scribbling around the room, the women busier than the men. The women scribble as if every word out of Professor Green's mouth were important.

There are good-looking girls in the class and I'd like to ask one if she knows what I should know before the midterm exam in seven weeks. I'd like to go to the university cafeteria or a Greenwich Village coffee shop and chat with the girl about the Pilgrims and their Puritan ways and how they frightened the life out of their children...

Every day I'm learning how ignorant I am especially when I go for a coffee and a grilled-cheese sandwich in the cafeteria at NYU. There are always crowds of students who drop their books on the floor and seem to have nothing to do but talk about their courses. They complain about professors and curse them for giving low grades. They brag about how they used the same term paper for more than one course or they laugh over the ways you can fool a professor with papers copied directly from encyclopedias or paraphrased from books. Most of the classes are so big the professors can only skim the papers and if they have assistants they don't know from shit. That's what the students say and going to college seems to be a great game with them.

Everyone talks and no one listens and I can see why I'd like to be an ordinary student talking and complaining but I wouldn't be able to listen to people talking about something called the grade average. They talk about the average because that's what gets you into good graduate schools and that's what parents fret over.

When they're not talking about their averages the students argue about the meaning of everything, life, the existence of God, the terrible state of the world, and you never know when someone is going to drop in the one word that gives everyone the deep serious look, existentialism. They might talk about how they want to be doctors and lawyers till one throws up his hands and declares everything is meaningless, that the only person in the world who makes any sense is Albert Camus who says your most important act every day is deciding not to commit suicide.

If ever I'm to sit with a group like this with my books on the floor and turn gloomy over how empty everything is I'll have to look up existentialism and find out who Albert Camus is. That's what I intend to do till the students start talking about the different colleges and I discover I'm in the one everyone looks down on, the School of Education. It's good to be in business school or the Washington Square College of Arts and Sciences but if you're in the School of Ed you're at the bottom of the scale. You're going to be a teacher and who wants to be a teacher.

Some of the students' mothers are teachers and they don't get paid shit, man, shit. You break your ass for a bunch of kids who don't appreciate you and what do you get? Bubkes, that's what you get.

I know from the way they say it that bubkes isn't good and that's another word I have to look up along with existentialism. It gives me a dark feeling, sitting there in the cafeteria listening to all of the bright talk around me knowing I'll never catch up with the other students.

There they are with their high-school diplomas and their parents working away to send them to NYU to be doctors and lawyers but do their parents know how much time their sons and daughters spend in the cafeteria going on about existentialism and suicide?

Here I am, twenty-three with no high-school diploma, bad eyes, bad teeth, bad everything and what am I doing here at all. I feel lucky I didn't try to sit with the clever suicidal students. If they ever found out I wanted to be a teacher I'd be the laughingstock of the group. I should probably sit in some other part of the cafeteria with future teachers from the School of Education, though that would show the world I'm with the losers who couldn't get into the good colleges.

The only thing to do is finish my coffee and grilled cheese sandwich and go to the library to look up existentialism and find out what makes Camus so sad, just in case.

--- From 'Tis, A Memoir
Frank McCourt
© 1999, Simon & Schuster
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