A useful lesson for writers, scholars, teachers, and anyone else doing some kind of creative work, especially for the clever person, from a famous teacher.
It was his favorite subject and he knew it perfectly, but they had sent him to the exam for not having finished an assignment, so he knew passing it would not be easy. He knew they weren’t going to make it easy for him. It was a premonition that proved correct the moment he approached the examiner’s desk. “Now, then, little boy . . . which question do you choose?” asked one of the examiners. “None! his teacher answered for him. The teacher added, amid some confusion: “He’s going to talk about all the material.” . . .
From the back of the room, there was a murmur, and one of his classmates predicted, “They’re going to crucify him.” However, the examiners at the table didn’t interrupt the young man’s presentation, nor did they ask any questions.
Finally, his teacher said, “Strictly speaking you should get a ten, but we will give you a nine. This is not to punish you, but it’s so you always remember that what matters if fulfilling your duty every day: performing systematic work without letting it become routine; building things up brick by brick rather than in a fit of improvisation that seduces you so.”
The teacher was Jorge Bergoglio . . .
He was teaching at the Colegio de la Inmaculada Concepcion in Sante Fe, Argentina, a Jesuit school. The story appears as the introduction to one of the chapters in Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words, edited by Francesa Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin (Putnam, 2010).
A friend to whom I sent the story protested that Bergoglio was being grossly unfair and simply exercising power over the student. The student, Jorge Milia, now a writer, told the story in his memoir De la Edad Feliz, where he writes, “I never forgot that lesson, which I keep in mind even today, and I didn’t think they could’ve treated me more fairly.” It appealed to me, because I know well the seduction of improvisation Bergoglio warned against.