The setup (i.e. the summary of the summary of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener (by way of Sparks Notes )
The Lawyer, the narrator of the story, has already been surprised once before by Bartleby’s refusal to examine a document, as all scriveners (law-copyists) are required to do. Bartleby said he would “prefer not to,” and the Lawyer was so surprised that he hadn’t argued with him.
A few days after this incident, there is a large document to be examined. The Lawyer calls in all his employees to work on the examination. But when he calls Bartleby to assist as well, the scrivener again replies that he would “prefer not to.” The Lawyer presses him, wanting to know why he refuses, but Bartleby can only reply that he would “prefer not to.” The Lawyer tells us that something in Bartleby’s nature “disarmed him,” and Bartleby’s steadfast refusal to do what was asked of him confounds the Lawyer.
The Lawyer has now become fascinated by Bartleby, and watches him closely. Though the Lawyer admits that “nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance,” he eventually comes to pity Bartleby. The Lawyer decides to “cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval” by determining to keep Bartleby on his staff as something like a charity case.
Bartleby again prefers not to examine his papers, and [another employee] becomes enraged by it, threatening to beat up his reluctant fellow scrivener. The Lawyer tries tact, asking Bartleby to run down to the post office for him, but again: “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby continues on at the chambers for some time doing nothing but copying, while the Lawyer pays [others] to examine his work.
The story (i.e. what happened in my junior English course taught by Ruby Caron, who was promoted to high school guidance counselor the following year)
Having read [Herman] Melville’s short story Bartleby the Scrivener, Mrs. Caron was out and showed a film version as would many absent teachers of my day.
Following Bartleby “the film”, Mrs. Caron left the following assignment with the substitute: “Summarize Bartleby the Scrivener.” Having scribed (pun intended) my heading on my paper, I began and ended my synopsis with the following sentence: “I would prefer not to.”
Though succinct and somewhat effectual (if I may be so ostentatious), Mrs. Caron failed to see the genius. Perhaps that is why Mrs. Caron suggested I was “not college material” and advised me to “choose another career path.”
Years later, while in town for my grandfather’s funeral, I spotted Mrs. Caron during visitation in the parking lot of the funeral home. Intentionally approaching Mrs. Caron who dangled small talk, I said, “Mrs. Caron, do you remember telling me my senior year that I was ‘not college material’ and suggested that I ‘find something to do other than college?’ Well, I wanted you to know that I’m now working with the Texas Education Agency in Austin helping schools that are identified for ‘school improvement for missing AYP’ after I spent the past 14 years as a teacher, principal, and consultant. Thanks for the advice. Good call.”
Dumbfounded, a milquetoast “congratulations” was all she could muster as I walked away.
When encountering ill-advised words spoken through the filter of preconceived notions that challenge me to adopt a narrow-minded viewpoint, I offer these words: “I would prefer not to.”