Friday, September 23, 2011

FIPE HUNT: The five-paragraph monster that lurks in the lives of freshmen

I dedicate this post to everyone who has ever had to teach or learn the five-paragraph essay.

Hopeful freshmen with healthy colons on a beautiful autumnal day at the beginning of their college careers.

An ulcer-stricken freshman after a semester doing battle with the five-paragraph essay.
      Every September, several million 17- and 18-year-olds, fresh from the realities of pushing perfume at Sears or backpacking in the Rockies, enter for the first time the Oz of college. They should be warned: higher education offers nothing as real as rose water or as substantial as trail mix. The halls of academe are instead built on foundations of dream—and nightmare. On the one hand, for example, these fresh-faced freshmen will get to float through immaculately crisp November afternoons while huddled under improbably cozy blankets on impeccable 50-yard-lines with impossibly gorgeous dates who have implausibly clear skin and unthinkably excitable hormones, and this will spoil them for the plain, pock-marked realities of real life forever after. On the other hand, as if to pay for such rare dreamy moments, they will have to endure certain horrors: they will be asked to wrestle with Plato and Chomsky and other thinkers who are out of their weight class throughout interminable afternoons in musty lecture halls; they will be forced to torture rats until the pitiful inbred rodents learn to tap-dance on metal bars in rank psychology labs; they will be made to spit verbs and disgorge adjectives in strange languages that they will never have to speak in real life. But of all the unrealities the kids must face there is one that is more preposterous, more unnatural, more terrifying than all the others put together. It is . . . the Five-Paragraph Essay. The abominable Fipe.
     In the real world there is no such thing as a Five-Paragraph Essay. It does not exist in books, newspapers, or magazines. It is said to live only in locked desk drawers in the dim, airless corridors of the top floor of the English Building. It is quarantined there like the four-legged chickens in the cages of the aggie school and the recombinant viruses in the retorts of the biology lab. If allowed to escape, the Fipe could in fact be a danger to the general environment, spawning five-paragraph corporate memos, five-paragraph love letters, and, gasp, five-paragraph emails. Given its origins, however, it is unlikely that the Fipe could live for long outside the English Department’s stale atmosphere. For the Fipe is a monster conceived by the high priests of the ivory tower: The Freshman Composition Instructors. The Instructors themselves are creatures who fainted and failed in the real world long ago and who thereafter retreated to a tiny fantasy-filled empire where, like the Wizard, they can impose whatever strange and arbitrary rules they want on those unlucky enough to stumble into their domain. They reign by bluff and bluster. “Connect!” they bellow. “Explain! Develop!” They sometimes speak in magic tongues designed to awe their subjects: “Ref! Org! Awk!” they cry. Before them the callow freshman cowers, like Dorothy in the smoke of the Emerald Palace. Whenever they sense rebellion, the Instructors simply send their subjects out to find the Fipe, thereby distracting them from all other pursuits.
The Most High Instructors of Freshman Comp: Keepers of the Five-Paragraph Mysteries
     But few are they who have seen the face of the Fipe. In fact, it is said that only the Most High Instructors themselves know what a genuine Fipe looks like. Its brow is thought to be gray, lined, sweaty, and vague—it bears, in other words, the unmistakable symptoms of A Main Idea. Its body, like that of certain insects, has three indented parts, each connected to the head by a network of nerves as fine and fragile as spider’s silk. It has a tail, sometimes long and bushy, sometimes short and bare. It is reported to feed on specific examples and concrete images. (“The beeping watch on his hairy left wrist, for instance, gave Jane the hives”—chomp! “Two wet sweat socks and a pair of soiled jockey shorts lay on the bishop’s pillow”—gulp! “An orange cat patchy with ringworm recited the prologue to The Canterbury Tales in the fetid pound”—chomp! gulp! burp!) The Fipe’s favorite pastimes are said to be arguing, analyzing, clarifying, comparing, contrasting, supporting, defining, discussing, reflecting, and telling tales; no one, according to legend, can stand to be around it long. The Fipe is rarely passive, except when unwell. No two Fipes look, smell, feel, sound, or taste exactly alike, though each must be perfectly Fipe-ish in its own way. No freshman has ever caught a genuine Fipe, though once a semester a girl who wears heavy glasses will come running into English 1101, Section 32, flushed with hubris and armed with a perfectly printed manuscript, swearing she has snared one. Three days later, The Instructor, wearing a smirk of sympathy, will return her offering to her, its body bleeding red ink and its forehead carved with a large scarlet “C”—and that will be that. The Fipe, whatever it is, will remain at large. The girl with the heavy glasses will never be seen again.
The girl who thought she had snared the Fipe instead received a scarlet C and was never seen again.
     In recent years, a movement has surfaced in some English Departments to end the annual autumnal hunt for the Fipe. The movement’s adherents, some of whom were once inner-sanctum Instructors themselves, claim the creature is nothing more than a superstition, like the Fat Liberal or the Blushing Republican. In fact, in some areas of the country, mostly on the coasts, mysterious campus sects are said to practice rituals designed to call up creatures larger and smaller, less perfect and less symmetrical than the Fipe; youthful members of such sects are encouraged to bring in shapeless eight- or ten-paragraph animals that bear only the vaguest resemblance to the Fipe. These creatures are said to be pleasing to the eye, and the youngsters inordinately fond of them. The Most High Instructors consider all this heresy, of course, and the Fipe hunt remains in effect throughout most of the nation. Without it, The Instructors claim, the minds of the nation’s youth will deliquesce into sugar-free, decaffeinated soft drinks, and they will be left as errant as butterflies. The heretics say that that might not be so bad.
     In the meantime, this autumn, as always, as the whiz of the Frisbee and the roar of the frat are heard throughout the land, eager freshmen have once more wandered onto our yellow-brick campuses. With their bright eyes, clear heads, and healthy colons, they have arrived blissfully ignorant of the Five-Paragraph Essay and its dangers. Before the final bell tolls, the healthiest of them will be bleary, blithering, and ulcerated. Making certain of that will be the Most High Instructors of Freshman Comp.
     And the Wicked Which of the Worst: The abominable Fipe.

A freshman paper bloodied in the quest for the five-paragraph essay.


The original version of this essay first appeared in Memphis magazine in October 1987.

No comments:

Post a Comment