Home > My Oxford Year(12)

My Oxford Year(12)
Author: Julia Whelan

Why is he telling me this? Why can’t I stop looking at his pants?

He sits down in the chair opposite me, runs a hand through his hair. Then he gestures behind him at one of the closed doors. “There’s a bed in the back.”

Why is he telling me this? Why am I still looking at his pants?

He looks down at his knees. “Good for those all-nighters, I suppose,” he mutters, making it even more awkward. “So. Of writing. ‘A Man’s Requirements.’ What do you think of your paper, then?”

This catches me off guard. He’s supposed to tell me what he thinks of my paper. “Um,” I begin, and then clear my throat. “Well, since you’ve asked . . . I think I made some significant insights, observations, and analyses.” He just looks at me. He has this ability to go still, as if he’s stopped breathing. Like a vampire. Which makes me realize I’m not breathing. I look away and force myself to take a breath. “But enough about me, what did you think of my work,” I joke.

“‘Work’ is a most appropriate word,” he answers smoothly.

I stiffen. He’s thrown my word back at me. I recognize the rhetorical technique and hold my ground. “That doesn’t sound like a compliment,” I reply, in what I hope is an equally smooth manner. “Did you find something wrong with it?”

“Wrong with it? No,” he answers, shrugging, his casualness somehow stinging more than his criticism. I notice that he doesn’t even have my essay in front of him. As if, after reading it through once, quickly, he’s committed its mediocrity to memory. “In roughly twenty-five hundred words,” he goes on, “you managed to explore the birth of feminism, the breakdown of arranged marriages, the celebration of the Peter Pan syndrome from an historical perspective, and the persecution of women’s sexuality reaching its apex in the Salem witch trials.” He pauses, but his eyes stay with me. Maybe he did commit it to memory. Maybe he wants to use it as an example for the class. Then he continues, “Extraordinary.” I beam. “You managed to do everything other than the assignment.”

I stare at him. The wrong kind of example for the class, then. He leans in. “Describe the poem as you would a friend. How does it make you feel?”

I blink at him, realizing the gravity of my error. “Oh,” I say lamely. “I guess I . . . digressed.”

“Digressed? Ella,” he says, leaning fully forward, “you failed to do what was asked. You went wildly, tangentially astray. Impressively astray, but astray nonetheless.”

I blink at him. This was my Hail Mary attempt to prove myself here, and I failed. His word. Failed. I’ve never failed. At anything.

I think Davenport must see the embarrassment on my face, because he shrugs and changes his approach, sitting back again. “Look, Ella. I wanted to chat with you about this before the full term gets under way.” Horribly, I know what he’s going to say. “You have the opportunity to—”

“Get out now and run back to the States?” My voice is as controlled as I can manage.

He quirks his head at me. “Why on earth would you suggest such a thing as that?”

“Well, clearly my work isn’t up to par. The American is obviously out of her league.” I can feel the defensiveness spewing out of my mouth. I mean, who does he think he is? I’m working for the presumptive nominee for the presidency of the—

“Why would you think you’re out of your league?”

“Are you a shrink?” I snap. “Or is this just part of the Socratic method, answering-a-question-with-a-question teaching style here?”

“Sorry, was there a question in there?” He is completely calm, genuinely curious.

My eyes shift to the floor, but I can feel him peering at me. I take a breath, realizing I’ve stopped breathing again. I swallow, but something is stuck in my throat. My dream, probably. I think I’m choking on my Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience. My Oxford.

He’s somehow managed to outmaneuver me.

Softly, he says, “Ella, this has nothing to do with . . .” He pauses, choosing his words. “The paper was terribly well written.” I’ve noticed that Brits use negatively connotated words in a positive context and I’m not sure how I feel about it yet. “It was dreadfully insightful. But, here, it’s not about displaying one’s knowledge or academic prowess, or how convincing the argument may be. There are only ideas to discuss. The ideas are the wheat of the mind. Everything else is chaff, better left for the consumption of the sycophants who fancy themselves academics. For a thousand years, that’s what this place has been about. Is it antiquated? Yes. Stodgy? Absolutely. Seemingly pointless? It would seem so in this new world order, and yet, Oxford is Oxford, and we persevere.” He reaches over to the table sitting between us, picks up the poetry anthology. He ruffles its pages. “Tell me, Ella, why, out of all the poems in this book, did you pick this one?”

“Because it speaks the truth about men.”

“Ah, right. So men are only capable of loving a woman for six months?”

“I think she rounded up.”

This gets a small chuckle out of him. Then he sets the book on his lap, pauses, and looks up again. He does it methodically, deliberately, taking time for each movement. So unlike the freewheeling jerk I first encountered at the chip shop. “So, this what? Reminds you of an ex-boyfriend? You’ve most certainly had your heart broken. At least once?”

I snort. “I’ve never had my heart broken.”

“Right. Sorry. How could you? Believing a man is only capable of loving a woman for six months.”

“Oh, and you don’t? Because from what I’ve heard, you’re the poster child for—” I stop myself. That’s too far.

His crazy-blue eyes flash with excitement, galvanized. “Poster child, really? How intriguingly scandalous. Please, do continue.”

All I can do is shake my head.

He smiles. “So, we know each other, know all about each other.” He sits back, grinning. “We sized each other right up in the chip shop, didn’t we? Weighed and measured. Had someone of lesser intellect declared their knowledge of either one of us, he would be thought prejudicial or quick to judgment. Can’t tell a book by its cover and all that. But we’ve sped-read each other, and, luckily, we’re the clever ones. After all, we’re Oxonians.”

This wrings a tight smile out of me.

He looks up at the ceiling and appears to pluck his next words out of the air there, reciting from recent memory. “‘Dismantling arts curriculum at such a crucial time both sociologically and solipsistically stunts the adolescent’s complex comprehension skills, ultimately ushering in an electorate that only thinks in black and white at a time when, if we are to survive, we must think in Technicolor.’” Now he looks at me. “I quite like that.”

He Googled me. The bastard Googled me after I purposely didn’t Google him. I don’t know whether to feel flattered or betrayed. But now I look like a hypocrite, the Education Evangelist who can’t even follow a simple assignment.

“Now I would have thought,” he continues, “that the woman who wrote that article would have quite a bit to say, actually, about how a poem makes her feel.”

I throw up my hands. “It was one article. I’m not even a writer. I’m not saying I know how to build an arts curriculum, just that it’s a necessity, not a luxury!”

He leans forward, excited. “Exactly. It doesn’t define you. But it is a first impression, isn’t it? You’re the hypercompetitive American, a Rhodes scholar no less, who sees Oxford as a series of hurdles to clear like levels in some video game, and I? I’m the hypocritical poetry scholar, espousing grand theories of love whilst shagging a different wench every night. Brilliant, glad we got that sorted. But who are we, really, eh? We’ve told each other what we think, but we’ve no idea what we feel. That requires a conversation. Having words, having language, to connect us to ourselves and each other.”

He looks down at the book again and opens it. His rhythm has changed. He flips through it with excited purpose, some destination in mind. “To truly experience a poem,” he mutters, almost to himself, “you need to feel it. A poem is alive, it has a voice. It is a person. Who are they? Why are they?” He sticks his finger in the book, and closes it, holding his place. Then he looks back to me. “Hearing her words, as she speaks to you, you think and feel certain things. Just as, hearing my words now, you think and feel certain things. Reading poetry is a conversation of feeling between two people. It shouldn’t answer anything, it should only create more questions, like any good conversation. What did she make you feel? That’s what I wanted you to examine.”

I’d like to tell him that was a remarkable explanation of the assignment. Of life, for that matter, but all I can do is nod. I don’t think I’ve been this quiet since I was in utero. Possibly not even then.

“Here,” Davenport says, handing me the book with his finger still trapped inside. He opens it and points to a piece of text. “Read this. Starting here. Aloud.”

I take another breath, then read, trying to steady my voice.

“Ah, love, let us be true

To one another!”

I roll my eyes. “Give me something less obvious.”

“Obvious? To whom? You’ve read it, brilliant. Now feel it.”

This is too much. “Look, I get it, I get what you’re doing, saying.”

“Feel it.”

“But, I get it.”

He smiles impishly at me, those eyes twinkling. “Read it again, Ella. Please. You might be surprised.”

“Please” does something to me. I look back down at the poem. The idea of being surprised in some way intrigues me.

“Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams

So various, so beautiful, so new—”

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