Not Sure What You Mean by Unrelatable: A Study in Humanities

I never skip class. I’ve never just not gone to a class. Sure, I’ve taken “sick” days and days where I’ve actually been lying on my couch with a 102 degree fever, but skipping class? Coming in late? Never. Nada. Not happening.


But, on May 24, that all changed.


“MOM!” I yelled from my bed that morning.


My alarm had gone off at 6:30,  but was I getting up? No way in hell.


“What’s wrong?” my mom said, rushing into my room. I never bother my parents in the morning: one of my dad’s favorite things to brag about to his co-workers is that I can get up and make breakfast on my own.


“I’m not going to humanities this morning,” I said smugly.


Humanities. Humanities.


The night before, I had gotten a C- on my Great Gatsby essay. The essay that I had started a week before it was due, that I actually made an outline for, and that I had put many hours into. I had come up with my own topic and ran with it. I had put so much thought and effort into this piece. Here is an excerpt from my not-done-the-night-before essay that I actually cared about:


The Great Gatsby is a book that tricks you. It tricks you into thinking that the theme and the characters are unrelatable, but,  when digging deeper, it is evident that everyone can identify with at least one character in some way–and that is what is the most painful and the most shocking about this novel. Each of these main characters reflects and reminds us of a part of ourselves, which proves the Great Gatsby to be an “inclusive” novel.  


When I was sure my argument was well-developed and it was perfectly proofread, I electronically submitted the paper at 11pm.


I went to go take a shower and when I came back to the computer to finish up some math homework, I saw that I had one new email from my very favorite, should have won the teacher-of the-year-award, humanities teacher. (He actually has published 7 books and has a PHD from an Ivy League and has taught at schools such as Harvard, Brown, and Sarah Lawrence College, but still.)


I took a deep breath, and opened up the email. I mean, I wasn’t that nervous. I felt more confident than usual, since I had put in so much thought and care into this essay.


Jane, he starts off,

See my comments on the attached. What’s good about this essay is that you make a real effort… The problem — it’s a big one — is that you don’t really support your assertion with evidence. I’d like to see you work on this some more. I’m hoping that the detailed feedback will give you a map. We can also meet if you’d like. I give this paper a C-.


Ok, first of all, can I just say that I hate when teachers say, “We can also meet if you’d like” after they give you a horrible grade? I mean, come on, you couldn’t have met with me before I got the C-? And now that I hate you because you’ve given me the bad grade, I am NEVER meeting with you.


Second of all, the detailed feedback he had sent me included words and phrases such as, “Awkward”, “confused”, and, my personal favorite, “Not sure what you mean by unrelatable.”


I’m sorry, but how can a guy who graduated from, like, five different Ivy League schools not understand the word “unrelatable?”


Also, let me just add in that none of this supposedly “detailed feedback” was bolded…or colored…or italicized…so I had to search high and low in this seemingly-cursed word document for his critiques. At one point, I thought that I had forgotten to proofread, but then I realized that it was just him.


But, anyway, back to this so-called genius not being able to understand what “unrelatable” meant. Listen, I haven’t even written seven books (yet) nor do I have a well-thought-of American History blog where I talk about my students (yes, true story,) but I can certainly tell you what “unrelatable” means.


Unrelatable means something that you can’t relate to.


Yeah, yeah, I know that you’re not supposed to use the actual word when defining the word, but whateversave that for your SAT tutor. When you can’t relate, it means that you don’t feel a connection. You don’t feel connected to whatever it is you’re seeing, learning, or, in this case, reading. Even though the word “unrelatable” isn’t technically a dictionary-definition-kind-of word, it’s the kind of “urban dictionary” word where you should be able to use your common sense to figure out what it means! The novel appears unrelatable, even though it really is relatable…duh!


So, clearly, my point about The Great Gatsby being unrelatable didn’t seem to “connect” with this humanities teacher.


Which brings me back to the morning of May 24, the day that will go down in history, when I skipped my first ever class.

(Well, okay, I didn’t technically “skip” it…my mom called the school office and told them I was coming in late because I had a “doctors appointment.” But still, I missed humanities that morning and that was all that mattered.)

That entire morning I sat in bed, computer in lap, with my Gatsby book by my side. For some reason, I was determined to fix this paper. I don’t know why, either, because I’m usually the type of person who brings out my inner Cher from Clueless to try to find a way to negotiate with/sue my teachers in order to give me a better grade, but this time was different. I was determined to get this paper back to Mr. Humanities that very night.


It was kind of weird, actually. But then again, I’ve never gotten an email like that from a teacher nor have I ever started a paper the week before it was due and worked to no end, so I’m guessing that’s probably why.


So, all day and all night I slaved away on that stupid paper. I found tons of new quotes, tried to make my thesis more clear, in other words, make something that was more up Mr. Humanities’ alley and less up mine. And I even changed my title. Come on, you know when you change a freakin’ title of an essay that means you really revised it.


I e-mailed the re-write of the essay at around midnight, and went to bed feeling extremely relieved and maybe a little cocky. I was done with that Great Gatsby essay forever, and I sent my re-write in less than 24 hours. I deserve at least, like, nine awards. Probably more.


Jane, Mr. Humanities’ reply to my re-write starts off.


This is better. The thesis is clear and you’ve gotten rid of the a lot of the distracting, unsupported assertions. As I note, though, the quality of your evidence is not quite as strong as I think it should be; you don’t seem to pick your examples with as much care as I’d like to see. So while I think it’s certainly acceptable — I’ve changed your grade to a B — I invite you to work on this some more. But that’s up to you. Have a good weekend.


You know what, Mr. Humanities? No. I’m not going to have a good weekend. In fact, you’ve ruined my weekend…so don’t even bother signing your uppity email with that.

At this point, I was ready to accept the B. (Wow, Mr. Humanities, maybe I’ll make that the title of my next book) I mean, a B is not the end of the world. I had worked hard enough on that essay (all in less than 48 hours, may I add), so why not just call it a day and take the B?

But then, I checked my overall grade point average in humanities…

and decided not to take the B.


So, by now, you all probably know the drillI sat not in my bed but on my couch this time, with my computer in my lap and my stupid god-damned Great Gatsby book by my side. By now, it felt like me and F. Scott Fitzgerald were old pals. Mr. Humanities wanted me to add a motive to my paper, which he defined as the “so-what?” in an essay. So why does your argument matter?

I worked all day, I worked all night, and by the end of the weekend, I was finally done (literally and figuratively) with this stupid essay that has made me never want to see the Great Gatsby movie.


This time, I had changed my argument to one I didn’t agree with and didn’t like. I used all the big words I could find on, found even more quotes, and even made a bibliography, which wasn’t even necessary, but I obviously had to spice things up a little bit. I saved the essay, hit send (with a subject line of GREAT GATSBY WITH MOTIVE, just in case he didn’t understand that I was now writing the essay for him and not for me), and closed my computer. I never wanted to see another word document again.


Monday morning, I sat in my free period at school, and checked my email. I knew that his reply to my reply to his reply to my reply to his reply was sitting in my inbox.

And it was.

Jane, he wrote, like usual.

This essay continues to improve. I do think you understand what a motive is now  that’s good. As I mentioned last time, I might have liked to see you refine your evidence, and in particular I might have liked to see a motive that goes beyond essentially agreeing with an author and making a more original statement. But there’s no question that this piece has a clear argument, buttressed by real evidence and an evident structure. I hope you feel these revisions have strengthened your sense of craft. Revised grade: A-


Thank God! Finally, an email from him that didn’t require me to re-write something?! I thought this day would never come. And I get an A-? Wow, Christmas must have come early this year. Humanity for all!



2 thoughts on “Not Sure What You Mean by Unrelatable: A Study in Humanities”

  1. I’m pretty sure that when he said “not sure what you mean by unrelatable”, he meant that you didn’t properly explain this so-called unrelatability

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