Bart the Scribbler

If I hadn’t included Bartleby the Scrivener in my curriculum that semester, none of it would have occurred. Bartleby’s not uncommon for an introductory literature course. I don’t assign blame to any one individual, but if I hadn’t used it, maybe what happened to Bart and I wouldn’t have happened.

He seemed like a normal kid when the semester started. He answered when his name was called for roll. His name read Brian Simpson, but he wanted to be called Bart — three guesses why. He pretended to pay attention when I lectured and even raised a few poignant questions. He seemed like a potentially bright student.

The day came early in the semester when the students were assigned the Melville story. It was to be a simple study in the use of character in literature. Nothing mind-blowing, it was just a simple reflection on the first-person narrator, Turkey, Nippers, Ginger Nut, and, of course, Bartleby. It was a fairly difficult read. I thought it might weed out some of the lesser-enthused students from those who might be interested. Of course, when I addressed the class, nobody wanted to contribute.

“What did we learn about the narrator from the interaction between him and Bartleby in the story?” I asked. Blank stares answered.

I don’t know why I asked Bart. It might be because his was the only name I remembered at the time. He did have that easy-to-remember moniker.

“Bart, would you like to take a shot at answering how the relationship between Bartleby and the narrator helped define the NARRATOR as a character?” I asked in my best authoritative voice. I raised my hand into the air in theatrical fashion without even looking at Bart. I always felt that dramatic appearances and voices would help grab the kids’ attention. After a moment of letting my performance sink in, I looked directly at Brian Simpson. He returned my stare and answered his reply.

“I’d prefer not to, sir,” he said.

I must admit, the first time he answered me that day, I was thoroughly amused. A few of the other students got it and guffawed at the cheap laugh. I smiled at him, but he did not return it. He remained placidly calm.

“Well, at least I know one of you has read the story for today,” I said. I returned my attention back to the class. I spent the rest of the class period lecturing and receiving mostly unenthusiastic responses. Bart didn’t speak up again that day.

A few classes after that one, I had another opportunity to talk with Bart. We were analyzing Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and I asked him a question. I noticed he was doodling on a piece of paper, drawing little cartoon characters like he was still in high school. I was somewhat irritated by his lack of concentration and I thought it was my duty to disrupt his juvenile behavior. I gave him my sternest look and my gruffest voice.

“I’d prefer not to answer today, sir,” he said. He continued to draw without even looking up.

The class was deadly silent. They could see on my face that I was no longer amused. We were no longer studying Bartleby, so his answer now seemed downright offensive. What was I supposed to do, though? I didn’t want to create a scene. Contrary to what most students believe, professors don’t enjoy dressing down students in front of others — at least, I didn’t. Taken aback by his response, I simply shrugged my shoulders and carried on with the class.

Subsequent classes saw the same behavior from Bart. I made sure to ask him a question each class just to test his endurance. He assured me that he was more than capable of outlasting me by answering with his now obligatory answer. I should have rebuked him quite noisily at some point during the semester. The other students might take a hint from Bart’s behavior, though none of them ever attempted such a thing. He would continue to doodle to his heart’s content, ignoring me until I would directly address him. He would inform me of his preference to refrain with an amused countenance.

I cannot fully explain why this student held power over me. All I can say is that I respected him to a degree. He had chosen an identity from literature that he had creatively chosen to assume. I was intrigued to see where his experiment would take him.

There was a problem with Bart though that would eventually have to be addressed. He was no longer turning in his assignments. He had a row of zeroes running across my grade book that started from the very day I became reacquainted with Bartleby the Scrivener. I decided it was time for a confrontation.

Eventually the time came for the mid-term exam. The other students dutifully went about the task of completing their exam while Bart sat in his back corner writing on his exam. I could see from my perch at the front of the room what he was doing.

One by one, my students rose, handed me their exams and walked out of the room. All of them did this, save for one. When Bart was the last student in the room, I rose and approached his desk. I was a little unnerved by the anticipation I had amassed from the thought of this altercation.

“May I see your exam, Bart?” I asked him. I fully expected him to answer “I would prefer not to,” so I swiped his test from the desktop before he could protest.

Sure enough, the paper was full of scribbling. He may have started doodling legible characters when he had started, but he had finished by drawing oblong circles and squiggly lines all across the front. The paper had become so thick with ink that the pen markings had run through his paper onto the desk beneath it.

“Bart, is there any reason you continue with this behavior?” I started. “It’s getting a little tired. I understand where you draw your inspiration from, but this is no way to act at a college level. I’m sure you can be a good student, but this behavior is not helping you in the least bit.”

“I just would prefer not to do the work, sir,” Bart said.

“I understand that, but it’s not really fair to the other students,” I said. I was prepared with all of the normal clichés.

“It’s normal to find homework and tests tedious,” I continued, “but in order to be successful here, you need to apply yourself and finish your work. Now I’m willing to let you finish your test and turn in your work at your leisure. That’s not something I would concede to very easily, but in your case, I’m willing to make an exception. Do you think you can make an effort to finish your work for me, Bart?”

He looked down at his desk where his scribbling was freshly imprinted. I thought that I might be making a breakthrough, but he looked up from his pondering with that cool look I had become accustomed to.

“I would prefer not to,” he said.

I felt my cheeks flush red with blood. I was not angry, but embarrassed. How could he continue to be so defiant in the wake of my most generous offer? I could easily get in trouble for making such a proposal, but I was willing to take the chance. Couldn’t he see the lengths I was willing to go to ensure his success here?

“Fine. Then I will be forced to give you an ‘F’ for the class, Bart. I strongly suggest that you withdraw before it comes to that,” I said. I abruptly got up, crumpled his test into a paper ball and threw it into the trash receptacle. I shoved the other exams in my briefcase and exited the class. Bart remained in his seat nonchalantly witnessing my tirade. I knew he wasn’t going to be influenced by my temper, but I performed the act for my own edification, not his.

As expected, Bart did not withdraw from the class and continued to blow off his assignments. He was present at every class, but did not contribute. I no longer called on him. I consigned myself to the realization that he was a lost cause. I saw him occasionally when I walked the halls of the campus. I made every attempt to be cordial, saying hello and smiling, but he never addressed me in return. He passed me as if I wasn’t even there.

Inevitably, the end of the semester came. Bart turned in a scribbled-on final exam and I gave him the grade I felt he deserved. Having failed Bart, I thought that I could put that part of my academic career behind me. I vowed I would never let a student dominate in that fashion again.

I taught the same course during the summer directly after the spring semester when I had the pain of teaching Bart. The first day of the summer semester, I was flabbergasted to find Bart sitting at a desk in the back scribbling away. The other students must have thought I had seen a ghost because I stood at the front of the class for several minutes without speaking. Eventually, I made my way to my briefcase and checked my roster sheet again. I had checked it when I first received it to make sure that the name Brian Simpson was not on it. His name was nowhere to be found as I looked it over a second time. I looked up at Bart to see if he was watching my disbelief, but he continued to be focused on his scribbling. I stumbled through that first class, growing angrier every time his visage passed my gaze.

The next class period, I made it a point to get there early to cut him off. I stood in the doorway and waited. When he appeared at the end of the hallway, I stayed my ground. He walked towards class and held my heated stare the entire way. He stopped a foot short of me, easily entering my personal space as if it already belonged to him.

“Go home,” I said.

“I’d prefer not to,” Bart said.

“I don’t care what you would prefer, you are not coming in this classroom,” I said. I was ready to exchange blows if it came to it. He stood there waiting for more, so I obliged him.

“Your little act was cute for awhile, but it has overstayed its welcome. I checked with the registrar and you are not enrolled in this class. You have no right to be here, especially since all you want to do is play games and waste my time. GO HOME,” I finished with built-up vigor.

Bart stood where I was sure he could feel my heated breath. He showed no emotion and calmly observed my pent-up rage. He stood there for several minutes without decision, and eventually turned and walked back down the hall with a quiet pace.

I was satisfied with my hard-line stand, but the next class found Bart in the same seat. I quietly apologized to the other students that I could not conduct class that day and went directly to the department head. I told her the whole story, and after the appropriate channels were taken, Bart was expelled from the university. The campus police were notified and he was barred from showing up on school property. I heard that he had shown up several times in the parking lot and had to be escorted off, though he never resisted the show of force.

I suppose I should have felt good about my actions, but I did not. I felt miserable. I had lost the contest. Bart had challenged my abilities as a teacher and he had won. Worse, he had used the medium that had been my passion against me. I certainly should have seen the conclusion of our relationship simply by perusing the literature. After that summer course had ended, I informed the department head that I would be engaging in a year-long sabbatical. I was not certain I would return.

I had occasion to see Bart one more time. I was at a supermarket shopping amongst the other civilians when I saw him. He was with a small group of young people. He appeared to be carrying on like any other youth his age, not showing any indication of his former persona. He was engaging in conversation. He was laughing and he was joking. I felt I had to talk with him in this vulnerable state.

I approached Bart and he saw me coming. His comfortable face calmly transformed back to its familiar appearance. He looked as if he expected my coming. His companions stood speechless, like followers of some learned prophet.

“Bart, I had something I wanted to say to you…” I said.

“I know you,” he said, “and I want nothing to say to you.”

I was startled by his reply — his dedication to the persona — but I continued anyway.

“Bart, I’m sorry things had to happen the way they did. Maybe you were right to do what you did or maybe I was right to do what I did. I know that your life was altered by me, but I want you to know that you have altered me as well.” I paused to compose myself. He calmly let me continue, preparing to finish his performance. I helped him the best that I could.

“I hope you are happy with who you are…and where you are,” I said. I offered my hand. I now understood the answer to the question I had asked him last spring in that fateful class.

He smiled at me and obliged my hand.

“I know where I am,” he said, and doing so, finished his role as Bart the Scribbler and mine as the narrator of the tale.

He left me and we both continued to play the parts in life that we preferred to play.

{If you appreciated this writing and want to help support the continuation of this blog, please consider sending a donation to:

Scott C. Guffey
P.O. Box 53
Michigan City, IN 46360

For a full explanation of author impetus, blog mission statement, and donations appeal, click About.}

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