A Section in Hell


THE OTHER DAY, spurred by a fear that I had heard something moving around inside, I cleaned out my desk. Among the many things I found were my application essays (which I read with a shame not unlike that of Harrison Williams watching himself on the Abscam tapes), a half-eaten crispito, and an official guide to life at Harvard.

Since I had last read this book as a high-school senior, a strong sense of obscene irony caused me to leaf through it. One passage in particular stood out: "Sections are an integral and rewarding part of life at Harvard."

Sitting back and laughing, I wondered if I had ever heard a more euphemistic phrase in my life. It might as well have said, "Torture and starvation are integral and rewarding parts of life in Third World countries."

Rewarding indeed. Anyone who has ever had to walk from Currier House to the Mather junior common room in the pouring rain to hear an assemblage of his more loathsome peers argue about whether or not Herodotus supports pygmy autonomy knows just how rewarding sections are.

On my list, "sections" fits in just one notch above "spinal taps."

FIRST OF ALL, I hate going to sections. Not only are my section times usually between five in the afternoon and nine in the morning, but they are always in the worst possible locations. Therefore, at eight o'clock on Friday night I find myself sweating to death in the Boylston boiler room, or on the fifth floor of the Peabody Museum, wedged between two stuffed wolverines in attack posture. "Wanna go out tonight, Ben?" "No thanks, guys. I have to go to the basement of the Semitic Museum and learn about skinks."

As if going to all of these remote outposts of Hell wasn't bad enough in itself, look what's waiting for me when I get there--a group of Harvard people.

I could tell you about section leaders, and my theory that they are aliens sent from a hostile planet in order to undermine our nation's social fabric, but I won't. The occasional mutants who conduct my sections are nothing compared to the students who attend them.

While I can avoid students in lectures and in general life, in section I am stuck face to face with them. Even worse, I have to listen to them "communicate" and "share their opinions" with me. Watching Harvard people in section is like watching Tom Snyder and Phil Donahue interviewing William Buckley, except you can't change the channel.

Since I would never dream of learning the real names of the things which infest my sections, I always give them functional names of my own. Therefore, as I sit in a room listening to The Angry Young Man assail Chekhov's validity as a dramatist, I find myself avoiding the unsettling gaze of Morticia, surveying the impressive dimensions of the Snufalopagus in her sweat suit, and looking wistfully at the pale, frail features of the Pardoner.

IF YOU THINK all of this is a bit harsh, that I'm just bitching at shadows, then let me take you into a section of mine, one so intolerable that I only went to it twice.

Here I am in a fiction-writing seminar, an experience which is similar to tying gobs of fresh meat to my body and leaping into a nasty stretch of the Amazon. One by one, the piranha enter: Poodlehead, a doe-eyed boy who has already submitted two wretched, thinly-veiled masturbation poems; the Prioress, whose presence causes the room temperature to drop five degrees; Quasimodo, Sigmund the Sea Monster, the Village Idiot, the Whore of Babylon, and a host of other low characters.

Bringing up the rear is the harried face of Ned, the section leader, who can be intimidated into agreeing with anything. He sits down meekly, and sets a little pile of papers in front of him.

"I made some copies of..." he begins, but he is immediately silenced by the roaring voice of Sasquatch, who disagrees with his comments on her last paper.

"Uhm...we'll see about chang-Aaagh!" He leaps a good foot as the door flies open and in leaps the Antichrist, a.k.a. Littleface. The latter name comes from the fact that his face occupies only the lower fifth of his head; the former comes from his personality. "Oh, h-hi, Peter," says Ned, the section leader.

"Sorry I'm late," he says, strutting his way around the table. "I was just over at The Advocate, telling them to tone down their praise of "Incest Dog," my latest work. I mean, I wrote it in less than an hour."

Ned, the section leader, has composed himself at last. "For today, I ran off some copies of Ben's last story. It's quite interesting..."

His voice fades, and the room begins to spin. The previous week, over-whelmed with laziness and desperation, I had turned in a ridiculous war story I'd written in eighth grade. Now it is coming back to haunt me like an illegitimate son.

CHRISTMAS HAS COME early for the piranha, who size up my story like an unwary calf caught midstream, preparing to strip it to the bone. Leading the attack, of course, is the Antichrist. Making horrible little humming and clucking noises, he rips through my story, eyebrows galloping wildly across the unnatural expanse of his forehead. Each mark he makes is a slap in the face, a stain on my honor.

He finishes, twists his accreted features into a look of gentle disdain, and laughs, "Well, I'll be the first to admit it. Bert's story here has a few problems."

At the Antichrist's signal, the other piranha churn the water red, Poodlehead pulling some kind of obscure homoerotic significance from it, Sigmund pointing out a spelling error on the third page, and so on.

Thinking he is delivering the coup de grace, the Evil One pronounces his verdict. "Brent, this needs a hagggahlot of work, and mucho revision. I mean, your imagery is so...so...generic."

"Suck my imagery."

"What?!!!" A chorus of shocked face cries. Ned, the section leader, faints. The Antichrist's eyebrows almost touch his hairline.

"Hmmsugghmyimegrrry," I cough, as if that is what had happened the first time, and everyone is relieved.

You can guess who was absent the next week. I did consider dropping by the next week and rolling a grenade into the room, but I figured the Antichrist would be impervious to such weapons.

IF YOU'VE BEEN paying attention through all of this, you'll see that my point is really self-defeating. The guide was right; sections are rewarding. If you noticed, I didn't kill one single person, which clearly shows that I have learned patience. I have also learned to appreciate the good points of things I had once loathed and despised, like dogfighting.

I have learned to smile knowingly when I have done no reading and am not even sure I am in the right class. And, finally, I have gained great wisdom from my fellow students, a point no better illustrated than in a comment made one day by a classmate known to me as Steamshovel Mouth.

There was some argument about the plot of Love's Labour's Lost, and she suddenly cut the matter to the bone. Raising her hand high and proud, she proclaimed "Shakespeare's no fool."

Thank you for sharing that with us, dear.