“Don’t start yet.” These are his first words. I can’t see his face when he says it, but I imagine the sort of pit-of-fire-type vengeance glare I’ve always pictured the Emperor Nero himself having. I have to crane my neck over his crooked shoulders to get a glimpse of anything he’s writing. I’ve resolved at this point that it will always hurt to see a neat little red X written on every page. Or every line. Without turning around, he repeats, “Do not start yet.” 

I respond with the exact sort of half-concealed bafflement he’d expect me to show. “Why?” I ask. But, remembering that I’m actually trying to redeem myself (and my grade) here, I try to sound a bit more professional: “Can I ask—I mean, Professor, may I ask why?” Very cool. 

He wipes the dust from his desk before doing anything (his room can’t be messy, and his desk can never be messy before the student sees it—particularly either a very well-liked or very despised student). But then he moves his very inward sloping shoulders away, thus revealing my failed term paper in all its glory: “Emperor Nero and his Council of Flatterers.” It’s practically unrecognizable now with all its X’s and /’s and ?’s in at least three different shades of red ink (that means multiple read throughs). He positions the paper under his Tiffany lamp. I watch it sparkle. 

“You cannot start now,” he finally responds. “Because then you won’t stop. You won’t think. You’re not helping anyone then. Not yourself, not your paper, least of all your professors.”

“But the next paper’s due in one week.” My voice croaks a little. I have to make a show of my worry—that’s how it’s done. He hasn’t offered me a seat; I take advantage of the opportunity to do a little nervous shimmy with my legs.

“Why, then, did you seek my advice?” He asks, pushing the blade of his fountain pen harder against my poor, bruised paper. “Are you seeking an extension on the next one?”

“Well … no. I—just—you didn’t write any feedback? There were a lot of Xs—which I greatly appreciate, of course—it’s just, I don’t know what’s the problem? What am I supposed to fix?”

He faces me directly for the first time. He looks a lot different in-person than he did over Zoom. A lot smaller. His glasses are fogged over, his eyebrows rise to his widow’s peak—all in all his posture is just a little more slouched than I would have anticipated. He looks at me (who is mid nervous-fidget and currently quite pigeon-toed) with a mixture of uncaring animosity and disbelief at my ignorance. He doesn’t answer my question the way he’d probably like to: “Let’s attempt to break it apart together.” 

“O-kay,” I say, after a moment of performative hesitation.

He flips immediately to the third page, “Just one example: paragraph four, sentence seven.” I don’t know whether I should be flattered that he’s numbered each line of my paper.“ King Nero’s deliberate utilization of anaphoric, monodromic locution is resonant to the so-described treatment of Herodotuseses’ recollection of so-named ‘barbarians’ of the east-Asian pacific’s so-called ‘end of the world,’ all of which points to a deliberate backage-upith of cathartic emotional resonance which, when taking into account with King Nero’s of course deliberate promulgation of insipid sounding…” He sets the paper down, “I think we can stop there.”

“O-kay.” At this point I don’t know what’s wrong. I think it sounds like a good sentence: professorial, ties back to the thesis … a very strong motive, if the Writing Center has anything to say about it. 

“We will start off by doing as such…,” he draws a long, red streak through the entirety of the sentence. He looks up, waits for the effect. “This sentence isn’t salvageable. We’ll craft a new one.”

“O-kay.” Just got to sit and listen now.

“Let me first ask a question: is English your first language?” he asks. I always thought it was self-evident, but that’s okay. Just have to endure a little battery along the way, is all. Anything for the A

“Yes…?” There’s an opportunity here to lie, which would earn me major redemption points. I could have said ‘no.’ But, as a moral individual, I resist the temptation.

“Why, then, do you not understand how to use prepositions? Here,” he hands the red pen to me, “write the following phrases: it’s ‘resonant of,’ not to—and, by the way, is simply ‘resonates with’ not the clearer alternative?” I copy each of his words verbatim. “… and, also, what do you even mean by ‘resonate’? ‘Relates to, Reflects’, and—perhaps for a non-R alternative—‘is similar to.’ Those are all better alternatives. Actually—oh, give me that,” he takes the pen out of my hand, “This process will run more smoothly if I just show you what I mean.” He rewrites the word anaphoric just to redraw a large X overtop of it. “What does ‘anaphoric’ actually mean?” he asks. I open my mouth to answer, but he silences me, writing the word ‘repetition’ with a check mark beside it. “I won’t even question your unusual placement of ‘monodromic’—just get rid of it entirely.” 


“—quiet while I work, please.”


“—shhhhhh.” He dashes out the ‘so-named’ and writes problematic next to my direct Nero citation. After some time he says, “Speaking of repetition, there is a lot of bad repetition in your paper. I would avoid that next time.” 


“Shh! Just watch.” He is rewriting the entirety of paragraph 4 by hand. He has re-hunched his shoulders and shifted away from me, so I can’t actually see what he’s fixing. But I can stay quiet. I’m thinking, if I sit here long enough—all this professor’s time and energy and efforts will somehow culminate in my very own A paper. That’s all feedback is, right?

“This feels important,” I whisper.

The professor shakes his head, rewriting “Herodotuseses” in what I assume is the more correct “Herodotus’” next to a handcrafted chart of Latin-English plurality. “Finally,” he whispers back, “you’re saying something right.”