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Just deserts

I suppose that I misunderstand idioms because English is my third language. Or why I mishear words. I just learned that the song “Killing me softly with insults” is actually “Killing Me Softly With His Song.”
I still think it makes more sense my way. Another phrase that makes no sense, an idiom, is “getting his just deserts.” To me it implies getting a deserved sweet reward, right?
Apparently not. Which took me back to the olden days, when I was a freshman chemical engineering student at Northeastern University. All engineers had to take drafting classes. Imagine that. I liked drafting but the homework took forever and, in general, I didn’t do homework. (I’m not proud of it)
One of our classmates was a weird kid, a loner who had trouble expressing himself. I’d heard Howie was a genius, or at least a near-genius. What was clear is that he had social and physical issues. He wrote in very large letters, much like a child, quickly filling notebook after notebook he stuffed into a full bag which, of course, he regularly dropped, creating a frantic scene when the notebooks spilled and he feared their loss.
I’m not sure how much of a genius Howie was, or how well he was doing, but drafting class was a no-go for him. Toward the end of the school year a bunch of us decided to help him—I had more reason to help than others, but that is another story—and tried to tutor him, enough to at least get him a passing grade.
In part we wanted to show the flunkies who teased Howie without mercy that he could pass a course they were likely to fail. Out of the 105 freshmen that started chemical engineering studies, only twenty five graduated on time.
But Howie could not draw a straight line. Literally. He held his pencil like Anthony Perkins held his knife in Psycho, which explained why, rather than drawing a straight line, Howie’s pencil ripped a jagged tear through the paper.
We couldn’t get him to relax his grip on the pencil. We made some progress, at least in explaining what he was supposed to do, even if he physically couldn’t, but when the time for finals came, we weren’t hopeful.
Proctoring that final we found a teaching assistant, a young woman we’d never seen before. Our drafting professor—a very elegant man in fitted suits who started each lecture by removing and exquisitely folding his jacket—had proctored every test till then. It shouldn’t have mattered.
Emo, one of the kids who’d worked the hardest with Howie, was a genuinely nice guy and a good student. He reminded me a bit of Perry Como, a mellow crooner with his own TV variety show. When he finished the test, Emo turned to Howie, who was sitting on the draft table behind him.
“How you doing, Howie? You doing good?” Emo asked in a natural voice. I was sitting a couple rows back. When I heard him, I looked up from my paper.
The TA, an athletic young woman wearing a tartan skirt, leaped from her chair and charged Emo, finger pointed, accusing him of copying from Howie.
The room broke out in laughter.
“No, no, I wasn’t cheating,” Emo said, offering the test. “See? I was done.”
“I saw you with my own eyes.”
“No, no,” Emo pleaded, “you don’t understand…”
Loud laughter isn’t the normal response to having a classmate caught “cheating.” Maybe that confused her. Maybe she felt we were questioning her authority. There weren’t many female engineering students in 1962; we had none in our class.
“Oh, I understand, I most certainly do,” she said, as she tore Emo’s test in half and threw it into the trash can. “This will teach you to cheat.”
That’s what I mean by ‘just deserts.’ You would think the phrase means something good, some well earned just reward. I suppose it doesn’t.

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  1. Jeff
    August 4, 2015 at 10:08 am

    Did Howie get the girl? Now that may have been a ‘just desert’. The word comes from the French, who confuse everything – on purpose. (A female drinking fountain? Where am I to put my mouth? Does it matter? etc.) It means deserving of reward OR punishment. Monty Python, unlike W. Allen or I. Bergman, put the French in their place… with a single chocolate mint. The man received both reward and punishment.

  2. August 5, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    I’ll post more about Howie. The likelihood that he’d ever get any girl, was small. Did I say small? I meant really small.

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