Below the Beltway

Cap and clown: Gene returns to his alma mater

Below the Beltway
(Eric Shansby)
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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, October 31, 2010

This is excerpted from a speech I gave last week at New York University, my sort-of alma mater, after being given the 2010 College of Arts and Sciences Alumni Achievement Award.

I want to thank you for this great honor. But as a journalist and truth-seeker, I have to raise an uncomfortable point. While the dictionary informs me that "alumnus" may indeed apply to someone who attended but did not graduate from a college, there might be a problem, in my case, even with "attended."

I am not referring to the lack of attention caused by enough drugs to stupefy a rhinoceros -- though that was a factor for me, too. I mean that even though I somehow amassed sufficient credits to almost graduate with the Class of 1972, I did not actually go to classes. In my junior and senior years, I chose mostly courses with professors who did not take careful attendance and who required only a final paper, which I usually dashed off the day before it was due, often with only a nebulous connection to the assigned subject. I was hoping that after grading dozens of earnest Sociology 101 dissertations on peer-group inter-dynamics in a pluralistic society, a professor might find it entertaining to consider an impromptu deconstruction of "Bazooka Joe and His Gang."

Oddly enough, this strategy was often successful, but not always. At the end of one semester, I finally actually went to a class to deliver my term paper on Gestalt Approaches to Criminal Psychology, which as I recall I wrote as a Socratic dialogue between Lee Harvey Oswald and Raskolnikov. All I had to do was find the classroom, sidle in, quietly deposit this preposterous document, and get the heck out. So I walked up to the first person I saw in the hall and asked if he knew where Dr. Smith's class was. He said, "I am Dr. Smith. Who are you?"

I didn't get that F, I earned that F.

I'm not saying I was a bad student; to be a bad student, one has to actually be a student. I spent virtually all of my waking hours as editor of the Heights Daily News, the daily newspaper run by a small staff of grungy, hollow-eyed, sleep-deprived fanatics and misfits. Those of us who weren't in danger of flunking out had already done so and were technically trespassing, living furtively in the newspaper office, hunted like outlaws.

We took ourselves very seriously. We believed we were in bitter, head-to-head competition with the New York Times, even though our newspaper was the size of a refrigerator warranty and adhered to several eccentric rules of journalism we had invented, including that it was okay to deliberately misspell a person's name so long as you made it funnier. People hated us.

It was during my time at the Heights Daily News, however, that I learned the three important lessons that made me what I am today -- a semi-well-known American journalist with a vaguely recognizable name who is a proud almost-graduate of a school he didn't really attend.

Lesson One: With careful rotation and inversion, it is possible to get four days of wear out of a single pair of underpants.

Lesson Two: You can write any lie you want as long as you qualify it with the word "reportedly." That way, it's always accurate because you, for one, have just reported it.

And finally: The human mind is an imperfect machine. Absolutely any journalistic transgression you commit, including gross violations of the norms of human decency, will apparently be forgotten with the passage of enough time. Thirty-eight years seems to do the trick.


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