Tuesday, December 28, 2004

C is for Coetzee, that's good enough for me

Here is your new favorite author: J.M. Coetzee.

When I say "your" I mean "my". He is your favorite author because he wrote Disgrace, a novel about a jaded professor who sleeps with his students (not in a good way, but in a predatory "I can take advantage of THAT one" fashion). When his latest victim falls into a consequent depression and drops out of school, her family seeks legal action. The professor refuses to apologize for his action and decides to visit sunny South Africa...because what better place to seek salvation! Actually, his daughter lives there. She's raped. The professor is beaten. And the next door neighbors have a party a few days later, and the culprits are in attendence. However, the culprits are not treated as so. In fact, the next door neighbor tells the professor that he must not make noise (by going after the men who raped his daughter), that these are "good boys". It's clear this man would like nothing better than for all the white landowners to leave (in fact, it's implied that the rapists attacked the daughter because she is white). The professor tells the daughter that it's time to leave, that she could be hurt again, possibly even killed. So what does she do? She marries the next door neighbor! Now, she is under his protection, she gets to remain in her home, and he has gotten what he wants: her land.

It sounds ludicrous to you and, of course, bleak. But what you start to understand is that South Africa is a very, very different place than America. Disgrace and salvaltion and success and beauty mean very, very different things there--and you can only begin to glimpse an understanding of how different. Walk around in this professor's shoes for those last few chapters and you'll catch that glimpse.

The second book you've read by Coetzee is Elizabeth Costello. This "novel" is actually a series of lectures and anecdotes about "animal rights" which Coeztee wrote previously. Now, he's collected and revised them so they reflect the work and life (and death) of a fictional writer. The writer is eccentric, abrasive, and occassionally confused--but she is always adamant about the rights of animals. You like this writer because she is not like all the stereotypes of those dolphin-loving activists you make fun of by wearing "I ate Flipper" T-shirts. She talks about what "being" is--and how "being" is different for a human and animal. What is it like to be a bat? Or an ape? You cannot know, and so she dismisses those who argue about what it is to suffer or to be happy as it applies to animals. She relates the story of an ape who is "taught" to communicate--but the very act of communciating on a human level means that this ape's "apeness" has been left behind.

The thread that you see dangling through at least these two works has to do with your perception, your human-ness and your ability to see (and therefore connect) with all that you are not. It sounds funny now that you've written it out. But in our modern world of proliferating religions, cultures and Republicans it is a very important theme, you think. What is it to be South African? Or Iraqi? Israeli? Nebraskan? A bat? You think of Wallace Steven's "Snowman" and especailly the last three lines: "For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is". You realize that as a reader, as a writer and as a human being, your job is to listen--to listen carefully to all that you are not, to forget what you are--even if it's for a moment. That moment is transient; you cannot be a snowman or a bat. But that moment can shake you, reverbrate through your being--and that can change you.

Coetzee and milk are good for breakfast too!

Monday, December 13, 2004

Teaching Students to Masturbate

This last week of teaching saw the culmination of my Hamlet unit in A.P. English. One of my prodigies asked if he could use the television and my computer for his performance, and, of couse, I complied. As he prepared to lauch into his soliloquy, he produced an image on the TV of an Anime-type blonde in the shower (with steam covering all rated R bits) and sat himself down in a chair as if he was watching the television.

He then proceeded to masturbate.

He's acting, true. His clothes are on. But it is clear what his character, Hamlet, is doing. It is clear because the groaning sounds of a guy masturbating are coming out of the speakers of my computer. The groans strengthen in frequency and volume. And then there is a climax.

Did I mention I am filming? I want to make sure I capture any decent performances so I can show them at Open House. I think I may have missed some of the visuals, as I am no longer looking into the camera lens. I am wondering how unemployment works. I'm pretty sure I am gaping in horror.

Having sheathed his "bare bodkin," Hamlet speaks; this is the soliloquy in Act II, scene ii, the "O what a rogue and peasent slave am I" speech (click here for the full speech). His speech is full of passion and acted well, with good discretion as Polonius would say. More than that, the speech is full of self-loathing. This Hamlet sees himself as a villain, a pervert, a whore who can only jerk-off with words. This Hamlet fantasizes about revenge in the same way a teenage boy fantasizes about screwing a super-model. And after the fantasy has played itself out, the utter loneliness sets in. Alone with his impotence, the pathetic portrait of what Hamlet is becoming takes shape: "O what an ass am I". The portrait is clear because the psuedo Anime-porn on the TV has been replaced by the image of this teenage actor; his face stares back at him--and us--througout the soliloquy.

Enthusiastic applause ensues, then silence...perhaps the class is waiting to see what I do. What should I do? The performance was brilliant, brave, discomforting and true. If I had seen this on stage I would have shook my head; how could everybody have missed it? Why hadn't anybody taken it this deep before? For the rest of the day I couldn't shake the disgust I felt, seen through Hamlet's eyes. But I have a responsibility to the class, to the school too, right? What about my role as teacher? Do I say "That was an amazing performance, but..." But what? But it made me uncomfortable? Isn't that what the living theater is suppossed to do? But. But the sexual content isn't appropriate for a public school classroom? Students should have the option to walk out beforehand?

What do I do?

Sunday, December 05, 2004

My Kid's a Liar

So I picked Gryphon up from school like I usually do, but this time he was late. Ten minutes after the bell had rung, he shuffled up to the car with that tight-faced expression that he gets after a cry.

"Hey little dude." I said. "What's up? What happened?"

"I hit my knee and kind of hurt it on a chair walking out of class" he said.

"Okay, well why were you late?"

"I had to go to the office to get me back in the classroom. I forgot my sweatshirt. Mrs. Strange leaves like right after class and the door is locked."

This explanation didn't make a whole lot of sense to me, so I asked him to explain it again. He hit his knee--then walked around in a daze for ten minutes until he realized he was without sweatshirt? He repeated the tale and it didn't get any clearer. The world of a nine year old is a muddled, confusing place, full of allusions to Pokemon and rules to nine-year old games which I think even they don't understand, so I decided to just let it go. But after years of teaching adolescents, I had developed a "spider-sense" of sorts which alerts me to the danger of"the con". And my spidey-sense was buzzing.

I hesitated. As far as I know, Gryphon had never, ever lied to me. I mean, sure there are the little kid fantasy lies ("I saw an elf in the backyard watering the ferns") but never I willful changing of the real facts, the facts that could get you in trouble. So I just drove home and forgot about it.

Until the next day when my wife informed me of an e-mail she'd received from our friend Mary (whose son, Drew, is in Gryphon's class). Apparantly, Drew and Gryphon were sent to the office for screwing around in class.

At this point, I had all sorts of thoughts. All the evidence against my kid was hearsay so far, so I needed to ask (interrogate) him about it. If his current no-lie policy turned out to be still in effect, then everything would be peachy. However, if he was lying (as I was almost sure was the case) then I would have to destroy my kid. I just didn't see any alternative. But there was also a part of me that was strangely excited--even proud--at the aspect that this kid would lie straight to my face. My son has balls! This was the threshold to all sorts of possibilities. Would he steal the car next week? Would I come home early from work to find him rummaging through my desk for porn? Is he secretly crank calling people under my very nose?

Putting all of these thoughts aside, Jake and I picked Gryphon up after school and drove straight home to have a "talk" in his bedroom. As soon as we entered, he muttered "Oh great" under his breath. I've noticed he mutters under his breath quite often, especially when upset. He's like a street-crazy in this way. It's pretty endearing because I always know exactly what he's thinking at these emotional moments. Sometimes I worry that he'll come to me one day and reveal that he's been talking to somebody or perhaps even a pig-demon like in the Amityville Horror. I don't think demonic forces could make it in such an tolerant, ethnic area where we'd probably have to take the demon in or send it to a shelter (do demon's have civil rights?). But I digress.

Jake and I asked about what really happened in class, and he immeditealy fessed up. He said he was scared that he'd get in big trouble for getting sent to the office. He apologized. He knew what a big deal it was that he lied and he promised it would be the last time. And it will be, or at least it will be a long, long time before he tries it again. We tried to play the tough (but understanding) parents; we gave him some consequences (actually, he suggested that he receive consequences and gave us a very appropriate idea). But after the way Gryphon owned his mistake, neither Jake or I cared about punishing him. In fact, he behaved in such a heroic fashion for a kid that I can't help wondering whether he's pulled one over on me. As a kid, I would have hung on to my lie like a piece of rock candy--and if it was clear that I was caught I would have blamed it on anything or anybody within reach ("It was Schwartz!"). I would have cried, pleaded, begged, threatened some sort of fecal explosion or told my parents I hated them...any form of dust blowing to take the heat off. But not Gryphon; he did the thing no rational adult or first term president would do: he said "I blew it and it will never happen again."

Could this all be a clever ruse? Some new-fangled way that kids are dealing with the throes of child-dom? Could my kid have lied to me in this way--a kinder, gentler lie?

If so, I am damn proud.