a dirty, dark shack

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                                                                                 (apologies to Hemingway)

At lunch today, I talked to a man at Ocean Eddie’s about our preference for pubs that are dives. The tide came in beneath the floor boards and we sat at separate tables with patio umbrellas on the deck . He drank a draft and some of the head dripped over the side of his glass and onto the table.

He told me about his favorite dive, outside Danville, Virginia. Then he asked about mine. 

“No contest. The Shack.”

There was a bar in the woods on the Gulf of Finland just outside St. Petersburg, Russia, I frequented in the late night early morning hours back in the nineties, but it burned down. It was a small place to drink and sing Gypsy songs and meet people you’d never want mad at you. The windows barely kept out the weather, including a storm blowing off the Baltic one night. It was well after midnight and we ordered a bottle of Georgian Merlot and several plates of shashleek, a Russian shishkabob dish the owner grilled on a hibachi in the sand out back.  A gypsy band I knew showed up, including a guitar player and a violin player and a woman singer I had never met. Hours passed as we sang and drank; I milked one glass of Merlot for hours while others indulged with more energy. There were four of us from America, three musicians, a waitress, the owner and his cat, and one other customer, Alexi, and we sang and drank while some storm from the west intensified.

I tried explain to the man at Ocean Eddie’s what it was like. I watched a surfer wipe out, took a sip of my beer, and described that night: 

“This duck blind of a building sat among birch trees, but that simply made me more aware of the weather, wondering when one might topple through the roof. It was exhilarating, an adrenaline rush that had nothing to do with the wine; it was just being there . It felt dangerous, subversive, but it was just a bar in the woods. Being in Russia just a few years after the coup helped mystify the atmosphere.”

I told him how the band took a break and came to our table and we spoke in broken Russian and English about the storm and how we hoped it wasn’t high tide soon since the water was just a hundred feet away, maybe less. Then the other customer, Alexi, the two hundred eighty pound drunk Russian who hated Americans, started to yell at me like he did the first time I ever met him, the first time I walked in the place a few years earlier. It was as if he never moved. He had mostly kept to himself on my previous visits to the Shack, sometimes talking to me, mostly not, but this night something got under his skin and he yelled at me like he did that first time, “I hate Fucking Americans.” He startled me but he had a drink in front of him and the woman from the gypsy band was sitting with him and told him to quiet down and he did.

But his eyes all night seemed deep and vacant as he kept looking through the window at the storm, and once in awhile when he noticed me watching him he would lean forward and say, “I hate fucking Americans!” But then a sound like the sky opening slammed on the walls and ceiling, and we all ducked, we cringed, and I thought for sure one of the birch trees cracked and was going to kill us all. I went down on the floor with my friends and the gypsy band and Alexi cursed and fell against the back of his booth. He suddenly looked so small, and the thunderclap crashed on us again, this time blowing open the swinging window near Alexi as rain and wind sheered a path across the booth to the other wall. Dima put his violin under his coat and our shasleek flew off the table onto the floor. The shack cat went for it but the wind and rain chased him back under the bar and into his bed.

“I would have gotten the hell out of there. The trees would have scared the crap out of me.”

“I know, right?! but leaving in the dark in the storm in the woods is the only thing that scared me more than being there.” We both drank our beers.

Another flash of light lit up the shack and Alexi was trying to hide under his booth but he was too big, and I watched him, and he looked out the window for some time until the weather calmed, then he looked at me, and with a nod he said, “Horosho. Horosho” which means, “okay. It’s okay.” He looked at me as if to ask me to come sit with him but he didn’t know how. Instead he closed the window and latched it. He nodded to me, “Horosho. Edeesuda.” It’s okay, come here. A few of us gathered and sat at his table, and Dima took out his violin. Alexi smiled at me, looked at the closed window with a stoic face, then turned and smiled again. He looked at the waitress and said “pivo,” beer, and he motioned to us all so she brought us all beer. When she returned she told us she didn’t know what Alexi would do if something happened to the Shack; she had no idea what he would do, that he practically lived there. I asked Alexi if he lived nearby but Alexi just nodded at me and said, “I hate fucking Americans,” and we laughed and toasted each other.

Dima played, then Sasha joined and then the singer, and the beer tasted good. Alexi sat quietly the rest of the night. The storm passed and the sky quieted down.

At Ocean Eddie’s we sat on the pier in the August heat. “Then it burned down. Dima wrote me and told me it burned to the ground and everyone was pretty sure local businessmen who owned a hotel not far did it, but they could never prove it.”

“Places disappear, man. The place in Danville closed up years ago. Hard finding a new one.”

Unfortunately, the distinguishing feature of a “dive” is that it is about to burn down, be condemned, fall apart, or otherwise render itself uninhabitable. I love those places, right before the fall. It is important, then, not to become too attached. 

I thought of the places I frequented that have closed. The Shack, Rasputin’s on the other side of that city, the Blue Door Blues  and Jazz Club in Prague (where the door was brown and they didn’t play either blues or jazz), the old Jewish Mother right here at the beach, and I just read that Sea Gull Pier on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel is closing as well, talk about a dive. But the Shack wins for losing. It was both literally and figuratively on the edge of everything. It was the stereotype of some Soviet-era bar in the middle of nowhere, and I always half expected Rasputin himself to wander in. It burned, though, like most of the traditions and purity of Russia. It seems the city is built on ashes. 

He drank more of his beer and then asked, “So where are you going to go after this place is gone?”

“Well, luckily I have other places I like.” I sat quietly for a few minutes and thought of some: Big Sams at the Inlet is a shack, for sure;  There’s the Golden Tiger in Prague which I love; Maria’s Pub in Santiago is my new favorite, the Burton in Allegany. Things burn or get torn down or simply fall apart. It’d be nice if these places were always there for us when we return to them; or for people like Alexi who never leave. I go because I meet the people that way, real ones, with personalities and a severe lack of pretense. Mi Casa Cafe in St Augustine, Yorktown Pub. Some lady’s garage just west of Portomarin, Spain.

“Well I need to find a place. A shame really. I was just getting used to it here.”

He could tell from my face I had no idea what he was talking about.

“I’m guessing you didn’t hear. It was in the papers and the old man in the bait shack told me a few weeks ago. They’re closing it up, tearing it down and rebuilding some steel pier, gift shop, amusement, hotel complex. This is Ocean Eddie’s last season.”

He left and I sat and watched lone surfers working the small waves.

Damn.

Well, this place doesn’t have what it takes to be a shack anyway. Maybe thirty years ago when it was falling apart, but after it was cleaned up and painted, not so much. Ironically it came into its own just in time to tear it down.

No, a dirty, dark shack has to be open late, at least until three. It needs old floor boards and low lighting, it most certainly needs low lighting though bright lights is all one can find these days. It is best if the vast majority of clientele do not speak English and look as if they escaped a gulag. These are the people to talk to. This is where to find honesty.

A dirty, dark shack doesn’t serve drinks with umbrellas and it doesn’t own a blender. Even electricity should be a last resort except for keeping the beer cold. It should serve only a few food items and those should be grilled. A pet is helpful. And just for atmosphere and to pay homage to Hemingway who understood sometimes a person needs a place to go late to sit alone and have a drink, a dirty dark shack should have an old man in the corner; someone who looks like he still has the dust from the road. He should look like he is always just a few hours from where he wants to be. And he should be wearing flip flops. He most definitely should be wearing flip flops. 

 

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Sweet Surrender

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Truth be told I’m simply overwhelmed. There is so much going on in every aspect of my life it is difficult some times to keep anything straight at all. The irony is that when I returned from Spain I did so with a conviction toward “simplicity.” I came back focused and determined to concentrate on what I learned on the Camino, that the simplest things in life are the most valuable and fulfilling. But somewhere in the course of the past two years things got away from me. And here I am back in the thick of spread too thin.

I’m not complaining since I can control what I add to my life and what I don’t. But still the current trench is somewhat deeper than usual and it makes it difficult to see the sky.

So, I walk.

I walk along the Rappahannock River near the Chesapeake Bay, or back along the small roads running along the marsh lands under tall pines and past duck ponds. Deer, geese, osprey, egrets and eagles are normal companions on my walks. In the winter I don the proper clothes and keep going. In the summer I’m down to a t-shirt, sunblock shorts, and my Merrell hiking sandals and I sweat my way through eight or ten miles. I think, I write in my head, I remember what needs to be done and I plan on what I will no longer do. The endorphins engage and at night I get down more thoughts about projects I’m working on.

But it is a required retreat, and that isn’t always healthy either. So I am going to simplify again, ease my way out of the trench. This afternoon I heard an ancient John Denver song I have not heard I believe since I’m seventeen years old, and it made me remember the simplicity of being seventeen, the innocence. Ironically I was very plugged into events and society back then. About to go to college for journalism made me aware of things around me, and like Woodward and Bernstein (younger readers can go Wiki them now) I was going to be uncovering the next scandal, so I wanted to know what was going on. But it seemed different, and I think it wasn’t because the times were more innocent or that less corruption infiltrated the government and businesses and colleges, but because there was less coverage, less inundation by media and watch-dog groups, Go Pro and Facebook posts, and Twitter, and on and on.

Left Turn:

I was on a bench this morning at the beach next to another bench with a guy about my age, emaciated, deeply burned black skin, who looked as if he hadn’t been in a shower in a while. He said, “This might be the most beautiful morning in a very long time!” At 7:30 it was about 68 degrees and the sun still hadn’t risen so high. I agreed with him. He went on, “This tells me it is going to be a good day.” Again I said I was certain he was right.

Than this:

“What is it you do? You on vacation? Where you from?”

“No I live here. I’m just out for a walk before headed to the office. I teach.”

“Where do you teach?”

“Today I’m at TCC. Tidewater Community College.”

“Oh that’s absolutely fine! I never made it to college. I could have! I got out of the army and could have gone to college but I never made it there. What do you teach?”

“Writing.”

“Oh well I’ll tell you what you oughta do! Bring them students down here and have them write about this beautiful day! This’ll inspire them.”

I agreed. We were quiet a moment and I fixated on what a tremendous suggestion that was.

“You know I was going to ask you for some money but I can’t now.”

I reached for my wallet. “Oh I’m sorry, absolutely, it isn’t a thought! Let me give you enough for breakfast at least.”

“Absolutely not,” he said. “We’re friends now and I don’t take money from friends. I’ll ask one of these fine tourists from out of town.”

I handed him a five. “I’m actually from New York, originally.” He smiled and took the five.

We talked a few minutes more and I left. We don’t have enough conversations like this. We don’t talk enough about nature, about sunrises and breezes. We listen too much to the wrong information. I’m turning toward simplicity; at least I’m going to try again. I don’t want to be homeless on an oceanfront bench, for certain, but that was still the most valuable conversation I’ve had all day.

I headed to campus singing to myself. For the life of me I couldn’t remember what I had to do that was so urgent.

You’re in the Way

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Sadly, another seven-week break quickly comes to an end, and in a few days I’ll find myself in front of hundreds of college freshmen. First, however, we have faculty meetings. The buzzword before this break, and for several semesters prior, was “Retention.” College enrollment has decreased across the country, and administrators are worried about how to keep the students from dropping out.

Then there’s me.

We all received an email asking what we thought faculty could do to “retain” students. The question wasn’t meant to “blame” faculty, though some took it that way; instead, it was a plea for help, a way of saying “We are at a loss as to why they’re leaving; what do you think?”

Here’s what I think: They see no reason to stay. Most college students don’t drop out because they aren’t up to the task, and while money is a major issue even that is not difficult to deal with. No, most community college students don’t see the point in attending.

First of all, many have the ability to do the work, they’re just conditioned to be lazy. We live in a world of convenience and college course material is not at all convenient.

Last year on the first day of the semester I asked students to all write a 150 word introduction to a paper about their first day at college. When they finished I asked them if they thought they would have done a better job if they knew I was going to read them all but only give A’s to the top five and I would fail the rest. They agreed they would have done better. So I raised the stakes: I asked them if they knew that the five introductions which caught my attention and made me want to read the paper would each receive one thousand dollars, would those introductions be better written. They all sat up straighter and said with absolute affirmation, “Yes!” There it is. I told them, “So you always could do better; you just couldn’t be bothered.” When I put some reward in front of them, something more tangible than an A or the promise of being better prepared for the world, they suddenly were bucking for honor roll. Take the reward away and replace it with the obscure grading scale as the only immediate satisfaction, and boredom quickly kicks in.

One more: In my Humanities class I asked my students to read Hamlet, or watch a good version since it is a play, and to come in the following week ready to discuss why is it still so relevant and still taught in classrooms four hundred years later. The following week they came in predictably and embarrassingly unprepared. So I asked if I gave them another chance to read or watch Hamlet and come back ready to discuss it, the five people who all contribute the most intelligent material to the discussion will all get brand new I-Pads that day, would they be ready? They all, again, laughed and agreed, and one student said he would watch every version and memorize the Spark Notes. I said. “So you can do the work, you just don’t bother. Listen, you’re wasting your money, your time, my time, and you are, without a doubt, in everybody’s way. You really should reconsider college. You’re not up to it.”

The dean of my department hates when I do this.

Listen, we’ve lowered the bar so far we are trying to come up with new ways to beg them to not leave. We’ve compromised entrance and placement exams, we’ve offered accommodations up the whazoo, we’ve got work-study students calling the students who leave and asking them to return, and we are allowing them to do more work online in case they “can’t make it to class.” Colleges now offer courses so outrageously simple that pre-teens can master the material: at the university, “Curves: the shape of women in art”; “The Simpsons: A comprehensive study”; and even at Amherst—AMHERST—they offer a course on the music of (Dear God) Miley Cyrus. I am not kidding. What can we do to retain students? Here’s an idea: maybe we have so lowered our standards that a “college education” doesn’t command the respect it once did. If I were in college today I’d leave too.

In addition, students don’t see the point of spending tens of thousands of dollars for a degree when they’ve been conditioned that the degree is a means to an end, and the end is not looking very hopeful. Forty years ago a college education offered hope. There was a brick wall out there and the degree was the ladder of hope necessary to climb over. Now many students only see the wall itself, and a college education doesn’t offer any better hope of clearing that wall than a dozen other avenues, all of which are infinitely cheaper and less challenging.

We need to make the wall irrelevant. College should become the destination, not an exit ramp from high school to life. It needs to be the arena of discussion and connections so that students see being in college as the objective. But offering simple-minded courses shows the student such disrespect, curriculum committees should be embarrassed. Keep the courses challenging; make having a college degree something not every person can or should do. Raise the bar so that if students can’t make it, then they shouldn’t be there to begin with. A degree can then once again command the respect earned through hard work, focus, and discipline, and not through the music of Miley and binge watching cartoons. Then, if students drop out, it is because they aren’t up to it, and not because we bored them out of there.

Unfortunately some students have parents who don’t prepare them. Some come from high schools that only made things worse. Some are too spoiled, too smart, too dumb, too hyper, too distracted, too angry, too tired.

Too bad. Yeah, welcome to the fucking race, Frosh.

It isn’t like they aren’t warned about what is required of them. Every course outline in college now spells out in anal-retentive detail every aspect, expectation, and demand for the semester. All students understand how many times they can be late, how many absences are allowed, when papers are due, what happens if papers are late, how long papers must be, and what to do in an emergency. They know professors’ phone numbers, emails, office numbers, and if they check some social media, they can learn professors’ temperament, workload, travel schedule during the semester, and more. No matter what shit-field these poor bastards had to wade through before they arrived, make no mistake, once they’re registered and sitting down, every single student is well informed and warned about what is expected of each of them going forward. They are told that if they don’t understand or have a problem or need to discuss things or are completely clueless as to what anything means, they should come see the professor, or a counselor, or an advisor or the dean. But many simply don’t bother. Retain them? Ha! Get them out of the way! DING! We have some lovely parting gifts for you.

Many students simply aren’t up to the challenge of college and it is way easier in the real world to seek out and find challenges they know they can conquer. The worst part is that in a world of college grads with outrageous debt who can’t get jobs, many new students wonder why they should go to college in the first place. Colleges don’t seem to offer as much promise for the future as they did when I was eighteen.

And now we are assigned with the task of “keeping them here” until they complete at least two years. The students who understand the value of a college education will need no explanation at all; and the ones who can’t figure out why they have to study anything other than the subjects in their field will never grasp the concept of a “higher” education. No, Higher Education is not about legalization, sorry.

So how about this: Admittedly, the grades are clearly not the most enticing element to make students want to bust their collective asses; I’m with them on that. So maybe they need to understand that the key to success in college isn’t simply showing up, it is how they act in class, how much they focus on what is going on at the moment, how well they can tune out distractions, how well they show respect for the professor, their peers, and the subject matter, and how sincerely they knock on the door and say, “Help me understand, please, how to get through this to your satisfaction.” If they don’t understand that, I don’t want them in my class to begin with, let alone beg them to return.

They’ll be back, though. As a professor at a community college as well as a university catering to retiring military students, I know they almost all come back, and are almost always infinitely better students at an older age than had they come right out of high school. We don’t need to “retain” students; we need to find the ones wandering around in their late twenties and say, “Are you ready yet?”

They will be ready eventually. And they will no longer make excuses. They will know something that their eighteen-year-old counterparts have trouble grasping: if you’re not going to take going to college seriously, seriously get out of the way and let someone who gives a damn have a shot at it.

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“The best index to a person’s character is how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and how he treats people who can’t fight back.” ― Abigail Van Buren

Humorist Dave Barry once wrote that a person who is nice to you but is not nice to a waiter is not a nice person. It is terrifying how we overlook the faults of people whom we otherwise are friends with, or agree with, or admire. Rare is the person who has the integrity to act with respect in all situations.  

It is called character.

This has been written about often and I am certain I can’t add anything to the discussion, but I do wish to at least raise the issue. Because for quite some time and for apparently some time to come people seem to celebrate those with a lack of character. We have seen it on television for many years now with reality shows featuring housewives and bachelors and lost people and even naked lost people. It is in the way they yell at each other, make fun of each other, curse and degrade and ridicule each other. Talk shows have done this for a while as well. Most famously, perhaps, is Jerry Springer where it isn’t unusual to see people throwing chairs at each other after it is revealed Guest A is not the father of Guest B’s baby, and then Guest C comes out to say he is the father, only for the host to confirm the father is actually Guest D. This is entertainment, and it is being played out in communities throughout the country. This is what we’ve become.

It is called lack of character.

I’m not going to speculate on causes; I’m not a sociologist or psychologist or talk-show host. I do want to recall, however, some basic rules we were all taught as kids. This is similar to the bestselling book, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Only really, we learned it before then.

  1. Be nice to people. The Golden Rule thing. Do unto others….
  2. Don’t speak poorly about people, especially if that person is not in the room.
  3. Don’t make fun of people.
  4. If you wish to criticize someone’s performance on a certain job, stay focused on the performance and do not attack him or her personally.

A brief interlude to point out that in basic essay writing classes there are things called fallacies. There’s the sweeping and hasty generalizations that any half-brained student should avoid. There’s the deceptive ideas and statistics that any person with character would never lower him or herself to. And there’s the slandering issue, where the writer is required to stick to the issue, and NOT attack the person.

  1. Let the other person talk, or, if arguing, hear them out with the same respect you want in return.
  2. Don’t lie.
  3. And just to reemphasize the essential element of a good character as listed in number one, Be Nice To People.

If our young children violate any one of these basic character traits, we correct them and show them how essential it is in life for vertical homosapians to act like dignified humans if they wish to be taken seriously and respected. It is the core of every preschool, kindergarten, elementary and beyond education, especially at home.

Back to Dave Barry’s restaurant parable: If you’re on a date and your date is being nice to you but then is consistently an asshole to the waiter, most likely any clearly thinking person would not go on a second date with that person. It is only a matter of time before that unkindness and lack of character is turned on you. At some point we step back and look at a person not solely for the aspects we agree with, but for that person as a whole—his or her attitude, actions, demeanor, decorum.

You’re getting ahead of me here, aren’t you?

We have had leaders with whom I disagreed completely, some of whom I thought simply did not have the mental capability to hold a milk jug, let alone a public office. But none of them in my adulthood were foul-mouthed, characterless, embarrassments. And everyone can read this and say, “Of course, Bob! No kidding!”

So the question is this: Why do some bullies get so much support?

I found part of the answer in twenty-seven years of teaching community college: If I say what the students want to hear, they don’t hear anything else. They don’t do research to find out if I am right or wrong, they don’t discuss what I say with others to find out the validity of opposing viewpoints. In the wisdom of Paul Simon, they “heard what they want to hear and disregard the rest.” (da da do da do da da dum, do da do da do da dum)

But we want a person of character to lead us because that person represents who we are as a nation. We want a person of character to negotiate for us because there will be effects months and years down the road we, and others, must answer to. We want a person of character to command the military because we can then trust that decisions will be based upon the desire not to engage in war, and not based upon the desire to “bomb the shit out of them.”

We want a person of character to execute the duties of the executive office because even if we don’t trust that person, we can then at least trust they will act on our behalf with concern for the character of our nation.

Barry’s restaurant again: Even if you completely agree with the other person, admire his or her ideas and ambitions, trust his or her judgement on how to handle difficult situations, if the person lacks character and bullies the waiter and makes fun of him, that person doesn’t show the dignity necessary to be with you, and you shouldn’t lower yourself to such an absence of standards.

I guess I got political. It is a view, after all, from the wilderness.

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Copy Cats

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I often plagiarize myself. I write phrases or concepts in one essay and use them in another, or, often, both. Sometimes subject matter blends across pieces and some semblance of work I wrote elsewhere peeks out its phrases in new work. It happens. Tim O’Brien does it. Hemingway. St. Luke. Borrowing from oneself for reuse is more dangerous due to accusations of repetition than for self-plagiarizing. I’m just saying it isn’t taboo.

When I was a student in a world with card catalogues and reference librarians, where no one—no one—knew what a computer was, where you wandered through “stacks” at the library looking for documentation in old reference books from deep in the bowels of the building, plagiarism would have been easy. Odds were low that some keen-minded prof would think: I know exactly what reference book from the library’s bowels this came from! The professor would rely upon consistency of voice within the paper and through other papers and compare the writing to other work done in class. Today for every one site a student has for plagiarizing a paper, we have three sites to find it. Hell, just Googling some key phrases often brings up the original source. Sometimes colleagues and I will order pizza and hang out and search sentences from a stack of papers. It’s addicting.

One night at work last semester I started wondering what motivates them to steal other people’s work. Time and laziness, I am sure, are at the top of the list, since they think it is easier, though I still claim it has to be just as hard to search around for other people’s papers which meet my requirements as it is to just write the thing themselves. Fear is another factor “forcing” them to plagiarize. Fear of bad grades, of losing their grants, of disappointing their parents, of disappointing themselves or me. So I went to work and gave them an assignment. I wanted a 750-1000 word argumentative essay on any subject. I told them what concepts should be in each section and how it should be structured. And then I instructed them to “not write one single original word.” That’s right, they were required to “lift” every aspect of the paper, and if they were good, the entire paper all at once, from some other source or sources.

Word quickly spread I was requiring their papers be plagiarized. Many questioned my motives and suggested I wasn’t teaching them anything valuable. I assured them the most essential part of the lesson was the students’ discovering we are keenly aware of the difference between their writing and someone else’s.

The papers they turned in were mostly choppy and poorly structured. A few met the mark with seamless transitions and flawless sentence structure while still meeting the paper’s requirements. But a few lazy students tried to get away with turning in their own work! Can you believe it?! When I asked why they would do such a thing, they said they didn’t have time to plagiarize. Punks. Still, those who did successfully steal other people’s writing said they believe they had a better understanding of what I was looking for in an essay and they believe it made them better writers, or at least better at structuring, which is not a small thing in freshman English.

Still, the first day of every semester I read them the Plagiarism Riot Act, which is also printed clearly on my outlines:

Do not turn in anyone’s work but your own. Do not turn in someone else’s writing, answers, ideas, proposals, or bad humor; do not, as some have, turn in an article published in Time Magazine or written by Hemingway; do not, as some have, turn in work written by me; do not put quotation marks around the entire essay and declare you did give credit. If you do plagiarize, do not ask for an incomplete; do not come to class anymore; do not contact me, do not pretend you have a future. God gave you one face and you paint yourselves another by doing something stupid like quoting Shakespeare and allowing others to suppose your thoughts are original. Stop pretending you can do college level work. Stop pretending no one will notice. Stop pretending you’re anything more than howl-at-the-moon-lazy-ass-stupid.

 Go ahead and copy this and pass it along. I’d be honored

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