blue and white boat on body of water

Lord Jim

It’s a ridiculously warm 85° on this April mid-afternoon. I’m lying on my hammock, realizing I either shouldn’t have left it out all winter, or I should’ve cleaned it well before climbing in. The sun is out, and I’m under the newly returned shade of the backyard crabapple tree. The leaves are small, but there weren’t any at all last week.

Three large pine trees are arranged throughout my view as I look up at the sky, flanking the neighbor’s dead, pussy willow tree. It’s been dead for a few years; useful now only as a trellis for the neighboring trumpet vine to overtake by midsummer.

The warm weather feels good, but I’m not especially happy about it. Average temp for us at this time of year is mid 60s. Tomorrow will be our third straight day of record heat.

Instead, I’m tired. Grateful to be so busy with work I love, and yet wishing also that I was not so busy. And after what was already a full day, I have a few hours to myself before heading out tonight for more activity.

My lying on the hammock means that a bunch of things will be left undone this afternoon, before tonight’s appointment. Tomorrow night we leave for a weekend vacation on which my daughter and I are going to run a half marathon. Much will be left undone this weekend too.

My blog hasn’t been updated in a week, and even this Wise & Shine piece is barely getting written in time for my posting deadline.

And that brings us, finally, to Conrad’s classic novel, Lord Jim.

Back in high school I had months to read the assigned book, knowing that our class study of it was slated to begin right around this mid-April time slot. But it was my senior year. I was busy. Busy with important things. Also busy with unimportant things that I preferred.

Eventually, we came down to the final weekend; my last chance to cover the back half of the book and make up for the slacking I had done for several weeks. As luck would have it, that was also the weekend we were going to Boston on a high school band trip. It was the big trip we had waited three years to take; a high school highlight.

There I stood, in my bedroom, with my copy of Lord Jim in my hand; holding it over my suitcase, about to throw it in. I threw it on the bed instead, zipped up the suitcase and went to Boston. 

We had a great time that weekend! I didn’t think about Lord Jim at all. 

And then came Tuesday afternoon. It was our first day back in class after returning home Monday night. It was time to write that important essay on the book I didn’t read. Not only did I not read it, I didn’t even bother to study the Cliff notes like the other kids who were hoping to fake their way through.

The essay question basically asked us what Joseph Conrad was trying to tell us through his novel, Lord Jim.

Faced with getting a zero and killing my grade for the semester, I tried to write as honestly as I could. In my essay, I described how I had procrastinated for several weeks, and then, on my last chance to catch up, threw the book aside and enjoyed our big Boston band trip as much as I could. 

From this experience, my essay said, I learned that I need to address my procrastination problem. But I also learned that sometimes enjoying life with friends and taking time off from work is much more valuable than actually doing the work. I admitted having some regret as to my time management decisions, but not too many.

That’s what I wrote about. I didn’t mention any characters or plot points. I didn’t talk about any of the messages Joseph Conrad was trying to convey. I signed my name on the paper, handed it in, and hoped that the teacher I most respected wouldn’t think I was a total loser. I did expect to get zero points though.

Several days later, the graded papers were handed back. I had gotten a “C”.

A “C”!!

In the notes, my teacher expressed her disappointment that I had robbed myself of an opportunity to read a great piece of literature, but also that she appreciated my honesty, and the fact that I did learn some important things from my “Lord Jim experience”, despite them not being directly connected to the text.

I couldn’t believe it! That was the best “C” I ever got!

36 years later, I’m thinking about Lord Jim again. I’m thinking about “taking another trip to Boston” as I leave my pile of deadlines, tasks, and projects on the bed; zipping the suitcase without them for a while.

Maybe I’ll sleep in. Maybe I’ll just chill out and relax. Maybe I’ll read a classic book. Wouldn’t it be ironic if I choose Lord Jim?

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25 thoughts on “Lord Jim

  1. That’s a beautifully told story, Todd. And one that anyone who’s ever been in school–that’s a pretty big group of people–can relate too. You move seamlessly between the backyard scene to the Lord Jim story. Really great writing. Like you, I have found that honest is almost always the best policy. Your teacher could have failed you but she could see in your paper that you had learned something about yourself and about your life. Had I been your teacher, I likely would have given you a B. School is really about finding out who we are; it’s about discovering what we love; it’s about learning important life lessons that don’t always meet a tidy set of learning objectives. Your essay response showed that you were doing what all perfect students do.

    1. Thanks Troy- you really made my day with your kind words! The teacher I had at the time was one of my all-time favorites. Thanks again for the compliments on my writing – I really appreciate it!

  2. Love this…especially your confession and honesty…that you were busy…but…”Also busy with unimportant things that I preferred.” Oh gosh, yes! Cheers to you and your thoughtful teacher! 😊

  3. This made me chuckle, as in my final year of high school, I was the lead in the school play – absolutely no time to read the English novels – so, I would conveniently forget my text and ask to borrow the teacher’s each time testing came along. There in the margins, were all the notes I needed and I ended up with the English award that year. Not as honest as you, but I’m sure there is a lesson in there about ….resourcefulness?

  4. Well done Todd! I like when you say that you also learned that sometimes enjoying life with friends and taking time off from work is much more valuable than actually doing the work. It is indeed! I was doubtful about going for a drink after work with my colleagues next week, but know I know, I will go.

    1. 😁 Thank you Julia! I think I just got lucky and pulled that stunt with the right teacher😁

  5. I love this and the honesty you were able to express to the teacher. I really struggled with being able to be completely honest and had to learn to become open and vulnerable. It wasn’t because I was dishonest or lying, but I knew I was being judged harshly by a few people, so I hid my feelings deep down inside. I always admired people who were able to take those chances at complete honesty! Bravo to you!

  6. What a brilliant strategy, Todd! And I love that you could put it aside and enjoy your trip to Boston. It seems like too often we don’t do what we were “assigned” and also don’t enjoy what we are doing instead. If we are going to blow it off, let’s follow your strategy – live fully in the moment we elect instead and then be honest about it! Great post!

  7. What a great story Todd! I love that you were rewarded for your honesty. The sign of a very astute teacher. Your point about ditching the book instead of taking it with you – to me that’s saying, I’m either all in on the weekend or I’m not. I believe life is about being all in. It’s either a fuck yes or it’s a no. Being all in means you inevitably have to sacrifice certain things. If you try to do everything you don’t really achieve anything. Take it easy Todd. Thanks for the great post. Enjoy your holiday/half marathon! 🙏

    1. Thanks very much AP2! That teacher was one of the best I had- and not just because of this incident 😁Great point about about being all in. Thanks for reading!

  8. O, if I could have a teacher to give me a “C” grade for idling and postponing writing on a subject I know will generate thousands of readers and help interrogate a cultural practice that is killing my nation! But, I am glad I don’t, for I want to do better and get on with my writing.

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