"If you pass physics," my mother told me several weeks ago on the telephone, "of course we'll be happy." She spoke for herself and my father. I assented from where I sat in the bushes behind my dorm. "If you fail physics," she added, "we'll be creative."
I blessed her and counted myself the most cared-for person in the world.
Then last week I sat on the steps of the New York Public Library, gazing upon the rump of one of the stone lions, with tears running down my face. I could hardly have chosen a more private place for grieving. New York overflows with people committing strange acts. No one noted me crying over my "F."
Many good nouns begin with the letter "f": fortitude, fearlessness, and fervor-and to grow more particular and perhaps thereby more meaningful-F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The writer of the Jazz Age got expelled from school at 16, then advanced to Princeton, where he got bad grades but made a good showing in campus theatrics.
His story, along with those of other academic failures, served to a degree as anesthetic. In the aftermath of my sad revelation I went to the The Strand, a Manhattan store containing 18 miles of books. I bought a T-shirt of The Great Gatsby, with Daisy Buchanan's eyes blinking out of a blue background. Like me, she happened to be crying.
If anyone deserves to spell "physics" with an "F," I do. Sitting on the steps I wondered: Since I had so much time to avoid my homework, why did I not take opportunity to preorder some sackcloth in size 6?
My educators, among them the deep-hearted Dr. Gene Edward Veith, with his doctrine of neighbor-love through the vocation of schoolwork, conveyed a deep sense of academic responsibility to me. Good ethic, I hear (and believe), would have made up for my scientific deficiency.
"What have you been doing all afternoon?" my mother asked me during finals week.
"Writing," I said.
"How do you justify that?"
I can't. I hunt the Muse with a sword and pistol and hope that words will flood for me in a magic midnight. How little that seems to have to do with microfarads.
But negligence matters in the kingdom of heaven. It is right that heaven's rumblings-in the form of conscience-rattle downward to my kingdom of one. In believing this I resign my right to shirk obligation in favor of mad creative midnights.
In philosophy they call my conduct akrasia: acting against one's own moral judgment. In the Bible Paul stamps it with a cry: "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?"
In the face of all this moaning I continue to hope that from dirt, flowers spring.
My mother, who celebrates when somebody in the household breaks a dish (to remind us that life is about people, not dishes), forbears. She says, "I don't know what God is teaching you."