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  • Mike Murphey

Beowulf, Grendel, and Ninth Grade Math

Updated: Mar 26, 2019



Writing, for the most part, is an individual sport.

One of the most difficult things about any artistic pursuit is dependence on the mirror of your patrons’ reactions for any sense of quality in what you’ve produced. Baring your soul before a group of strangers is one of the scariest things of which I can conceive. Eventually, you’d think you reach a point where you are secure in your ability and can slough off the negative reactions.

When someone doesn’t love something I’ve done, though, I still find myself questioning whether I’m any good at this. I suppose some degree of commercial success bolsters confidence, but that’s only theoretical right now.

So, we must grab our validation wherever we can find it.

When I was in junior high and high school in the little New Mexico town I write about in Section Roads, two teachers stand out in memory as having a lot to do with my belief I might be able to write humor. One was Mae Gilbert, a high school English teacher I had in my junior and senior years.

Miss Gilbert liked the things I wrote and said so.

During my public education, I labored under the shadow of my sister, who was valedictorian of her class. I was not the valedictorian of my class. I was not even close. And from sixth grade on I encountered teacher after teacher who, less than enthusiastic about my performance, reminded me, “Well, you sister …”

When we studied Beowulf in Miss Gilbert’s class our senior year, we each had to write some sort of project related to the story. I took a risk by writing the story as a series of letters between Beowulf, Grendel and some of the other characters. I hoped it would be funny, and, as we all know, funny is hard because sense of humor is such a subjective thing. One person's funny can be another person's dumb.

Reading what you hope is funny to an audience is like stepping off a ledge with no assurance there's a net. Until someone laughs. When I read my Beowulf piece in class people laughed. Miss Gilbert laughed the hardest.

The next year I took a class in radio broadcasting at New Mexico State University and we had to do a production tape involving sound effects and various voice actors. My tape was the Beowulf-Grendel letters. I gave Miss Gilbert a copy, and she told me she used it most of the rest of her career in teaching Beowulf.

The most satisfying thing, though, was whenever my sister went to visit Miss Gilbert—one of her favorite teachers, as well—she said, “All she wants to talk about is your damn Beowulf tape.”

The other teacher was, of all things, a junior high math instructor. Donald Dye was a stickler about paying attention in class. He would lecture, all the while looking for any sign of inattention. The worst sin was to be working on something else, like writing a note or surreptitiously reading something.

If it was a note, he’d sneak up on the culprit using his teacher stealth magic, snatch it up and either read it to the class himself, or, if it was something really embarrassing, have you read it.

On this day, I had my math book out as he talked, but I’d begun a short story the period before. The story, I thought, was funny, and I was on one of those rolls where the words are flowing, and I just couldn’t stop. So, I hid it under my math book and snuck the bottom of the page out to keep writing.

I became so involved that I let my guard down and suddenly, his hand reached from nowhere and snatched the paper. He glared at me and began perusing silently in order to decide whether he’d embarrass me, or have me embarrass myself. I watched in fear as his glare became a smirk, then a smile, then a chuckle.

He handed it back to me and said, “Go ahead. This is going to get you a lot further than math ever will.”








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