During my senior year at Tulane, I had my first experience with a cult of personality.
My creative-writing professor was a campus god, the closest thing the school had to a resident genius. His name was not Kenneth Schlichter, but that’s what I’ll call him here. His beard grew long beneath his chin, but his cheeks were smooth, an antiquated hairstyle that gave him the aura of an old-time transcendentalist. His eyes were small and hard; his demeanor, arrogant and mean. He handled students as if handling creepy-crawlies.
When I complained to another professor about how the class was run—you’d sit at a table with 10 other students, read your story, which first Schlichter, then everyone else, as if on cue, tore to pieces—he defended the professor, saying, “Kenneth Schlichter is an artist with a particular pedagogical style: he says he has not done his job properly if he hasn’t left blood on the floor.”
I’d had trouble with Schlichter from the start. I had a different taste in writing, for one, a different idea of what makes a good story. Taking this as a sign of disrespect—So I didn’t love Ann Beattie, so what?—he developed a keen dislike for me.
I felt it when my turn came to read my work to the class. He ripped into every story but went after mine with a special gusto, an undisguised glee. I sat through the general pummeling that followed without protest or complaint, because that’s what you were supposed to do. I knew using my story as the occasion to make a general complaint about the professor’s method would seem like sour grapes. Nobody likes a whiner.
So I waited. I waited in the way of an advocate who waits for the perfect test case to bring to the Supreme Court, the case that will demonstrate the fallacy of the entire system.
In the meantime, I refused to take part in the weekly table-read beatdown. I absented myself, which did not go unnoticed. I recited the first graf of a Camus essay we’d been reading in Philosophy to myself as I sat glowering: “What is a rebel? A man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes, from the moment he makes his first gesture of rebellion. A slave who has taken orders all his life suddenly decides that he cannot obey some new command.”
The test case came as a story about the art of pool hustling written by a girl in class. She did not want to be a writer. I knew this because we were friends in what I’d taken to calling every place that was not Kenneth Schlichter’s workshop: “the outside.” She was a business major who’d enrolled in the class in the spirit of self-actualization, growth. She was the carefree amateur who, on a dare, takes the stage during open-mike night at Dangerfield’s.
Schlichter lit into the story as soon as she’d read the last sentence—“And the girl slept the righteous sleep of the hustler who knows she will never have to play the game again.” The fact that it had been a good story, better, in my opinion, than many of those New Yorker and Paris Review stories we had to read for class, was just another occasion for Schlichter to pick up his favorite terms, which he wielded like hammers. “Cliché.” “Trite.” “Sophomoric.”
The conch shell then went around the table, with each student, the good along with the bad, joining in. It was like something you’d see outside a bar at three in the morning, drunks in a circle, kicking some poor bastard to a pulp.
“What is a rebel?,” I asked myself. When the spotlight fell on me, I defended the story briefly, then went after the nature of the class itself. “The professor and his methods are unsound.” It was an uprising and, as such, attracted a handful of followers. You could almost hear the groan of cracking ice. Spring was in the air, regicide.
Schlichter looked at his watch, threw up his hands, and called for a 15-minute break. The girl who’d read the story gathered up her business text and copy of Granta and ran out. I hung back to talk to Schlichter. He was furious. “If you don’t like how I teach my class, you are free to drop,” he said.
“What are you even doing in here?,” I asked.
“I am teaching my students how to become writers.”
“She left in tears,” I said.
“The truth hurts,” he said.
“She doesn’t even want to be a writer,” I said. “She’s a business major. And now, because of this, she’ll never do another creative thing.”
“If that’s the case, then she shouldn’t be in my class.”
A few weeks later, when my next turn came around, I read a poem I’d written about the professor. It was coded but clear, and I read it only because a friend said I’d never have the guts. It was called “The Unique Cliché,” and it ended with the following stanza:
Schlichter did not criticize my poem—he said only, “That’s not poetry”—but instead ended class early, then refused to interact with me for the rest of the semester. As if I were invisible. As if I had died.
He skipped my turn in the circle, and never let me comment. Whenever I handed in an assignment, it was back in my mailbox moments later, unread and always given the same grade: B. This was smart. How do you complain about a B? But it was not the grade that bothered me; it was the lack of interaction. I wanted to be read. Schlichter knew that, so that’s what he would not give me.
We were required to write a long story for the final, almost a novella. I spent months on it, assuming, because this would mark the end of our relationship, he’d cast aside his feelings and read my work. Wrong. It was in my mailbox 10 minutes after I’d turned it in. Grade? B.
I went to his office; he refused to see me. I met the chairman of the English Department, who listened with sympathy, then promised to talk to Professor Schlichter. He called the next day and told me to re-submit my story. “He’ll take another look,” he promised.
Once again, it was back in my mailbox 10 minutes after I’d turned it in. The original B had been crossed out and replaced by an even bigger B. The department chair got angry when I went to see him again. “What do you want?” he demanded. “This man, this literary man, has given you a better-than-passing grade. Be happy.”
Summoning Captain Ahab
I told my mother, brother, sister, and friend Jamie the story over winter break, but none of them cared. “My parents are getting divorced, and you’re bitching about a B?,” Jamie asked.
I tried to tell my father what had happened, but couldn’t get his attention. He was busy with other things. Finally, near the end of break, he sighed and said, “If I sit down and listen, will you finally shut up about this?”
As I told the story, I could see by his posture and the look in his eyes that I’d gotten more than his attention. He started out apathetic, then became curious. By the time I’d finished, he was enraged. When he asked, “Did that bastard really say he likes to leave blood on the floor?,” I knew I’d inadvertently summoned Captain Ahab.
He fired off the first angry letter before I was even back at school. By the end of the semester, dozens of complaints, explanations, and suggestions of redress had gone back and forth between Herb Cohen, the chairman of the Tulane English Department, the dean of the school of arts and sciences, and, finally, the university president.
I still have the carbon copies. “Kafkaesque,” “quixotic,” “ignoble”—the letters are riddled with the words Herbie (of course, to me he was Dad) used whenever grappling with what he considered the machine. He wanted more than promises. He wanted action.
The professor must be removed. The girl who’d been driven from class must be apologized to. The school must examine the method used in its workshops. When these demands were denied, he added others. The chairman of the department must be replaced. Every student in the class, with the exception of his own son, must have his or her grade retroactively changed to an A.
Conference calls followed, proposals and counter-proposals, all of which, because Herbie kept me out of the loop, I was oblivious to. I assumed he’d dropped the matter when I started the second semester of my senior year. I’d stopped caring about Kenneth Schlichter. If I didn’t care, why should he?
I was shocked when I spotted Herbie standing under the big moss-covered oak tree outside the administration building that spring, a thousand miles from where he was supposed to be.
“What are you doing here?,” I asked.
“I have a meeting with the president, the dean, and that professor.”
I got confused, then irritated, then angry. “It’s over,” I said.
“Not for me.”
“What do you even want?”
“It’s all in the memo.”
“This is crazy.”
“I’m not doing it for you,” he said. “I’m doing for the next kid.”
Years later, long after I’d graduated and joined the workforce, I called home looking for my father. “He’s not here,” said my mother.
“Where is he?”
“He’s meeting with the president of Tulane.”
“What do you think?”
It made no sense to me. I begged him to stop. He said he would not stop until he had achieved his goals. In the end, the department chairman was removed, or maybe just stepped down—five years had gone by—and a letter had been placed in Kenneth Schlichter’s file. In other words, he’d achieved nothing.
But that’s not how he saw it.
“You are forgetting about the difference between the what and the how,” he told me. “The what might seem like nothing, but this case was all about the how—that being me getting on them, and staying on them, and acting like a lunatic.”
“The next time that professor is about to destroy some poor kid,” he explained, “he’ll stop himself because he’ll be thinking, Maybe this one has a crazy father, too.”
Rich Cohen is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL