I am become a nervous boat!

I am become a nervous boat!

This is just to illustrate the perils of attempting to compose a letter in English, with the aid of never so weighty and prestigious an English dictionary, when English is not your first language. The same would apply to any other language, of course.

It’s a line from an anguished letter sent by a postgraduate Agronomy (or was it Food Science?) student in America. I remember it now, the ultra-thin prison notepaper, the raggedy scrawl…

I was working at an agricultural college at the time, and the department I worked in specialised in postgraduate distance learning courses – similar to the Open University but for agricultural subjects only. This particular student was a long-term prisoner in an American jail – I seem to remember Elk Creek or Moose Gulley or Buffalo Gulch. He was studying because he was allowed to, and perhaps also to maintain his sanity during a long incarceration.

It struck me as odd at the time that anyone who already had an agricultural degree of some sort, as he must have done to gain entry to a postgraduate course, should have ended up in that hell hole in Moose Gulley, Buffalo Gulch or whatever in the first place. I don’t know what crime he committed. He was never asked. At the time I hoped against hope that he wasn’t on Death Row. Nobody enquired about that, either.

Poor chap, his most recent batch of study materials had failed to reach him. Someone inside the jail had stolen them, he was convinced. And he was desperate. Exams were coming up. Kind ladies, I know not what to do, he wrote. I am become a nervous boat!