For almost the past three years, I’ve been doing a Harry Potter. I have not, of course, been living in constant fear of a magical, fictional serial killer, and occasionally having it off with my best friend’s sister. I’ve in fact been attempting something much more difficult – invisibility. When you’re a sub-honours student, no one should be noticing you in class save a single long-suffering lecture buddy who keeps on having to lend you a book, a pen, a shoulder to cry on when you’re instructed to read Paradise Lost again. The only reason a member of staff will ever be alerted to your presence is if:
a) You are texting, talking or doing something odd like brushing your hair or teeth.
b) You are committing the cardinal sin of being overly keen. (An actual real-life example of this perversion: a girl raising her hand to inform the lecturer, and a class of over 100 people, that she had already read Madame Bovary in the original French edition.)
Speaking rarely in class, and handing everything in on time, I’ve been flying under the radar. But as my university career draws to a close, the time has come to turn on the charm. A good reference from a tutor is like gold dust, and, because the country is currently awash with jobless, degree-toting twenty-somethings, I have become a reference prospector. (I am currently operating without a ten-gallon hat and a gold pan, but it may come to that. I’m not proud.)
The process of ‘academic wooing’ (for want of a better phrase) is tricky. Academics are, of course, shrewd individuals. And some of them are not only leading experts in their fields, they are also totally and utterly terrifying.
I spent the latter part of my third year trying to get one such terrifying genius to react to my presence with anything other than indifference. Those of you who have never entered the hallowed halls of the School of English won’t be able to comprehend just how scary this man’s class really was – a seminar that could bring sweat to the brow and a chill to the blood in minutes. He was teaching a class on American drama, to a group of, in general, deeply confused American exchange students, who were obviously regretting having taken a class at a British university where they were being taught about their own culture by an Englishman. If they had planned on getting by on nationality alone, they learned a painful lesson that semester, since this pashmina-clad Nosferatu opened on the first day by stating: “They are strange people, the Americans. Oh, some of them are here.”
I was at a slight advantage from the off, being British, but I still had to contend with being female, Christian, and a bit left-wing. Making a number of attempts to disguise all of these facts, I was finally thwarted by this nugget of wisdom in about Week 7:
“That’s the nature of happiness; it is God’s gift to idiots. Intelligent people are deeply unhappy. Or at least I have always found it to be so.”
It was impossible to disguise my snort of amusement/indignation. Only 12 of us had been brave enough to show up that day, and those 11 traitors snapped their heads in my direction within seconds, indicating my guilt to our bohemian tormentor. I believed myself to have just committed academic suicide, expected a shriek of “You’ll never eat lunch in this town again!” But instead, I think (and I’m just going to play amateur-psychologist here for a second) he appreciated my reaction, because at least it proved I was listening.
It’s so easy to go to class and do the expected amount of shutting-up and writing-down that when a student, and even a Cowardy Custard like me, has any sort of reaction to what’s being taught, it is rewarded. Not that I assume the aforementioned academic will bring my Reference Rush to a close, but it’s my biggest achievement to date in this arena – he acknowledged in class the following week that the statement he was about to make “may enrage you”. He didn’t rate my feelings enough not to say it at all, but at least he remembered that I was the sort of person who got enraged about things, right? So I was enraged; shamelessly so. Just to help him out, of course.