II. The Flat A
“I did not expect this level of work from my students,” the English professor said. He was a tall man with a hooked nose and steely grey eyes. He wore a grey suit, and he had perfect posture. His words were slow, with equal importance given to each one.
“My name is Professor Donahue, and I’m the teacher for Language Arts. I expect nothing but perfection from all of you. I know that some will rise to the occasion, and others are not capable of the same.” He sauntered across the front of the room.
“If you wish to drop this course, the door is open and I will harbor no ill feelings,” he continued. “However, if you stay and display mediocrity, do not expect me to behave mercifully with you. In this classroom, you must put your best foot forward and continue to surprise me, or else I will not hesitate to drop your grade by the letter.”
“What you have highlighted in the baseline assessment is pathetic. You had to write an essay about your favorite author. How difficult was it to present your points neatly and justify them?” his tone was icy, and everyone in the room held their breath. He wasn’t screaming, and perhaps that was the scariest thing.
My heart rate sped up, and I felt terrible. Mum was not wrong in telling me I wasn’t doing well enough. I should have been able to secure an A star in this class if I tried harder. Professor Donahue’s disappointment in me showed.
“The number of you that selected J. K. Rowling was astounding, in the worst way possible. She is a successful author, there is no doubt about that. However, I was expecting someone more… original?” he posed it as a question, but you could tell by the glint in his eye he was sure of what he was saying. ”And if you decided to choose her, I expected you to do much better than you did.”
“Those of you who picked Jane Austen was also a considerable number, and yet none of you could satisfactorily bring out her true talent.” I held my breath. “But one.” I had picked Jane Austen, but my lack of A star meant I wasn’t the one he was talking about. I needed to find out who it was and what they had done.
I was unsurprisingly not the only one with that question. A brunette in the front row had her hand raised confidently, and when Professor Donahue nodded, she asked in a high-pitched voice, “May we know who that was, Professor?”
“That information is confidential,” he said. “And even if it wasn’t, revealing to you who it was would make that person an automatic target to your bullying, so I wouldn’t tell. The first thing you must know in my class is that excellence is quiet, Miss…?”
“Albert, Professor. Julia Albert.”
“Now, which one of you can tell me why Jane Austen is your favorite author?” he asked, nodding at Julia. When nobody raised their hand, he said, “If your answer is even satisfactory, you will get points for class participation.”
I slowly put my hand up, but I was the only one. Didn’t anyone else care about participation points? “Yes, Miss…?”
I cleared my throat. “Morgana Sallow.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t hear you.”
“Morgana Sallow, Professor,” I said, my voice slightly raised. If everyone’s eyes weren’t on me before, they were now.
“Yes, Miss Sallow, pray continue,” he said, leaning on the edge of his desk and weaving his fingers together.
“Jane Austen was a feminist in the genuine sense of the word. In none of her books was there a single scene that didn’t involve a woman, directly or indirectly. She would fail a reverse-Bechdel test.”
I breathed in and out and continued, “She also portrayed very moral characters. In Mansfield Park, the heroine, Fanny Price, is not likable, because she is weak, but she has strong morals and sticks with them, albeit quietly. In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth hates Anne at first, but still cares for her needs.”
“That is correct, Ms. Sallow. I agree wholeheartedly.” I was a little taken aback by his positive response, but it wasn’t like I could ask him why did you grade me an A? “Now, enough about Ms. Austen. How many of you know the origins of your name, why were you named the way you were, etc.?”
I put my hand up, as did a handful of others.
“Miss Albert, let’s start with you.”
“My parents named me after Julia Roberts, sir,” she said.
“Was your mother or father a fan?” he questioned.
“Grandmother, Professor. She rules the roost at our house.”
“All right. Miss Sallow, your name is rather uncommon. Why don’t you tell us what the inspiration behind it was?”
I put my hand down. “Morgana is a Welsh name with roots in the words Mor and cant. Mor means sea and cant means circle. I am a Water Sign, which is why my mother named me after the sea. Morgana is the name of the antagonist in King Arthur’s tales, and my mother expected me to be a powerful woman.”
“I see. Your father is Alexander Sallow, am I right?” he asked, and I nodded. “As you can see, every single person has a history behind their name, some more than others. When you are naming characters in your stories, you must keep in mind who are the stakeholders responsible for. In Miss Albert’s house, her parents are not the only stakeholders, her grandmother is one of them, too. Sometimes one parent is not a stakeholder. Sometimes neither are, and a member of the extended family is.
“You must also pay attention to details about the person. Were they born with a rare eye color? Which month were they born in? Under what circumstances was their birth? I know a friend of mine, for instance, whose grandmother was born in World War 2 and her parents named her Bellona, after the Roman goddess of War and Strategy.
“Think of interesting histories behind names and reasons the authors could have chosen particular names. I want examples. I’m giving you ten seconds. Ten,” he drawled. “Nine.” I thought of my example. “Eight.” I raised my hand. “Seven.” A boy in the seat in front of me raised his hand. “Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.” He clapped his hands together and then gestured towards the boy in front of me. “Mr…? The one in front of Ms. Sallow?”
“Maximillian Abbott, sir,” he said, and when the Professor nodded, he continued. “In Pride & Prejudice, there is a girl of gentle disposition named Jane, who the author named after herself. Was Jane Bennett a self-insert character? Possibly.”
“That example required little thought, Mr. Abbott. That was a substandard attempt at getting more participation marks. Miss Sallow?”
“In Harry Potter, all the members of the Black family named their children after celestial objects. Andromeda, Sirius, Regulus, Bellatrix, Orion, etc. One exception to this rule was Narcissa Malfoy. Why was she named after a flower? Her parents named her two sisters after constellations, but not her.” I paused.
“The most logical explanation was that she was one of the three mothers that aided in saving Harry Potter’s life, Lily and Petunia being the other two, their parents had named both of which after flowers. All three mothers were fiercely protective of their only children. I can only describe this as a stylistic choice by the author. There are multiple other people in the series with influential positions named after flowers. Pansy Parkinson, Poppy Pomfrey, Lavender Brown, and Fleur Delacour being some of the most important.”
“That is interesting, Miss Sallow,” he said, giving me the second compliment of the day. I was a little confused, in all honesty. “Homework for today: write an essay on one book or series you would like to analyze in terms of names. Harry Potter is out-of-bounds for all those except Miss Sallow, and Pride & Prejudice is out-of-bounds for all those except Mr. Abbott. I trust that you will do a decent job. It is due next Monday. Class dismissed.”
“Miss Sallow, I’d like to speak with you,” the Professor asked. Shit, I’ve done it now.
“Yes, sir? Is there anything I can do to help you?” I replied, ignoring the stares of my classmates as I collected my things before approaching him at the front of the classroom.
He said nothing until everyone left. I had soon understood he was a man of brief words. “Your mother is not happy.”
I sighed. “I am aware. May I know why I received an A in this class?”
He looked confused. “For your excellence? Nobody has ever scored anything more than a B plus in my class. Ever.”
“Oh,” I said, rather stupidly. I was beating myself up for this? I should have been celebrating. “What did you mean then, my mum isn’t happy?”
“Didn’t you get the letter?” he asked. I turned on my heel, walking away from him.
“Don’t talk to me about the letter,” I said, but I found I couldn’t leave—the door wouldn’t open.
“I’m Apollo, god of the sun and multiple other things,” he said slowly and softly. “Your mother, Aphrodite, wishes to meet you and to attend Hades and Persephone’s wedding. Why are you so reluctant?”
“This is a sick joke,” I laughed, kicking the door. “Telling me my mother isn’t my mother and someone who has never bothered to see me is? What makes you think I’ll believe it?”
“This,” he said, handing me an envelope from his table. I walked to him and took it from his hand, tearing it open.
Five pieces of paper dropped out. I bent down to pick them up. Two were photos: a woman with black curly hair was standing with a man with fiery red hair and the other was the same woman holding a baby with curly red locks.
“That’s my dad,” I muttered.
“And that’s your mother,” he replied.
“And that’s me,” I said, pointing at the baby.
The other three were letters. I took all five of the pieces and placed them in my English notebook.
“Don’t think I believe you,” I said to Professor Donahue, making my way towards the door. “However, I will think about it. And read the letters.”
“Very well,” he replied. “Oh, and Miss Sallow?”
I turned around. He had walked up to me and placed a card in my hand. “My number. Call me once you believe it.”
I pursed my lips and tucked the card in the book.