Okay, this is a set-up I generally try to stay away from. A lot of times it seems like an easy out, and when I write, I feel this mysterious obligation to portray all my characters as evenhandedly as possible. I tend not to like the set-up in published fiction for the same reasons, the big exception being Frank Portman’s King Dork, because I swear Tom Henderson has the male version of my 10th grade English teacher—weird pronunciations, copious busy-work, and all. What I’m saying is, my real life experience was distinctly lacking in evenhandedness.
I don’t know if this is completely normal, but in tenth grade, I had a spate of really questionable teachers. Later, I went on to have wonderful teachers, but they were younger, took themselves less seriously, and mostly taught the college-prep courses. The unpleasant ones taught general requirements, which could definitely account for their somewhat tyrannical attitudes.
Looking back, I’m much more able to understand what drove them to be angry and jaded, but I still don’t condone it, mostly because they were supposed to be the responsible ones. Their jobs were to mentor, to educate us, and I think it doesn’t matter how rude a fifteen-year-old is, you should never try willfully to hurt them.
In this excerpt, I am almost 16. I’ve only been in school for about a month and already the English teacher, M, is shaping up to be my secret nemesis. Lucas sits directly in front of me. He’s popular and kind of a party boy, but generally articulate, generally kind. When the mood strikes him, he has the decency to notice I exist, and the decency to let me be invisible the rest of the time.
We’re reading Anne Frank in English class. Not The Diary of, but the play. We were talking about the Holocaust and Lucas asked how come no one did anything. I wanted to say that people did do things, but most of the time, it had to be small and dangerous and in secret.
Lucas is so idealistic and so good. I couldn’t see his face, but the back of his neck looked angry. He said, “Well, I wouldn’t have just stood around and done nothing!”
M said, “You don’t know what you would have done.”
“Yes,” he said. “I do.”
“You might feel conflicted, but you wouldn’t sacrifice your own safety or your family. You would serve the state.”
Lucas stood up. “I would rather be dead.”
“You don’t mean that,” she said. But the idea that someone else, someone who doesn’t even know you, can tell you what you mean is so absurd.
Lucas was holding his breath, looking down like he was counting to ten. Then he looked up again and said, “I would rather be dead than kill somebody who never did anything to me, just because their hair’s a different color or they go to a different church.”
“You have no basis to say that. How can you presume to know what you’d do in a situation you’ve never experienced?”
“Why do you think that every person anywhere would rather kill a whole bunch of other people than be dead? If I had to kill someone, a stranger, I wouldn’t be able to live with that. So let them shoot me for not following orders. I’d probably kill myself anyway.”
“Lucas, that is a very inappropriate thing to say.”
The change in him happened so fast. His shoulders got hard and his jaw stood out. “Inappropriate? I’ll tell you what’s [$%&*ing] inappropriate—telling people they’d be [$%&*ing] murderers because someone told them to! That’s inappropriate!”
“Go out in the hall and stay there until you can contain yourself.”
Lucas went out in the hall and paced back and forth. I could see him through the little window beside the door. M stuck to the lesson like nothing had happened, but I was pretty sure that something had.
I could tell she was upset. Instead of waiting for volunteers, she started calling on people to read, but only the people who are shy or functionally illiterate. She made TS read Mrs. Frank, because she knows TS has a hard time reading out loud.
Because Lucas wasn’t in his seat, she could see me, so she called on me to read Margot.
We had to stand at the front of the room, so I looked at the floor and tried to hide behind TS. It’s weird to be shy or nervous. I know I shouldn’t be. I’m good at reading aloud. I’m not ridiculous, no one will laugh at me. There isn’t a consequence. And it’s stupid to be self-conscious about reading someone else’s words, when Lucas cares so much about stuff that he’ll stand up in class, say whatever, like no one else’s opinion of him even matters.
It turned out to be a moot point, though. In the scene she’d picked for us to read, Margot doesn’t have any lines.
I don’t have a lot to say about this. Even now, it gives me feel a slightly surreal feeling. It makes me nostalgic for Lucas, because he had conviction and compassion—far more than most of the boys I met that year, and more than some people ever have. And it makes me feel bad for M that she couldn’t see or appreciate that.
I remember things about the day that I didn’t write down, what she looked like and how she seemed. She kept drawing herself up, sticking out her chin, like the most important thing was putting Lucas in his place. It was so lacking in logic, like all that mattered was winning, which is really the worst part, because it was never a contest.
I don’t very often like contemporary novels without some kind of magic, and I dislike memoirs even more. But I’d read yours over and over again.
Here’s another secret: I’m jealous of details you remember and how you write them. Like this, Lucas sits directly in front of me. He’s popular and kind of a party boy, but generally articulate, generally kind. When the mood strikes him, he has the decency to notice I exist, and the decency to let me be invisible the rest of the time.
Oh, man–there is no shortage of observations when it comes to HS. I’ve used the word compulsive, and let me tell you this: I wasn’t kidding. I loved details, prose, words, more than anything–I mean, I would fill up notebooks like nobody’s business. But it took me years, and by years, I mean, like a decade, to figure out how to tell an actual story.
I blame The House on Mango Street. It was the first book I ever read in school that actually resonated with me, and it really has very little narrative structure. For a while, I considered a career as a Vignette Writer. Which I doubt exists.
I can easily imagining you writing a book like The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. It’s kind of a novel of vignettes and stories. Esp with all your MF practice. His lyrical realism reminds me of you… or the other way around….
I really love Tim O’Brien. It’s hard to explain my favorite thing about him, but it’s partly just how he takes these really ugly, hideous things, and gives them a sense of purpose or peace, even when there’s no resolution.
Like the Lemon Tree. Do you remember that?
Oh, God–that was so sad. And all the times people hurt animals because they’re terrified and angry. I have to admit, it’s not a book I read for fun.
…. I totally read it for fun. :/
Can’t believe you wrote that well at 15. Very impressive!
Thanks! I suspect homeschooling had a very beneficial impact on my prose, due to all the times I was supposed to be doing math worksheets and skipped them to write about social phenomena or childhood memories.
Or, maybe what I should say is, when I was 16, I liked to tell myself it didn’t matter that my Algebra skills were crap, because at least I rocked composition.
Ah, so beautiful. The nonfiction writer in me applauds. I love “the back of his neck looked angry.” :)
Thanks! That particular line is evidence that I was still way into Sandra Cisneros–an influence I absolutely refused to relax my hold on until I was about 19.
Hey, I was obsessed with Anne Rice when I was 16, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say you win. LOL.
I love Cisneros’s short stories, esp the “Woman Hollering Creek” collection.
Cheers for Lucas! Sounds like a great guy. I also love this line: In the scene she’d picked for us to read, Margot doesn’t have any lines.
Thank you for sharing these thoughts & excerpts. They are so transportive & eloquent.
He really was a stand-up guy, but at the time, I was terrified of him, because sophomore-me was terrified of *everyone*
Also, that line does not come close to conveying the utter vindication I felt when I realized that I couldn’t be made to read after all :D
Holy crap this is good. Like a novel! That I want to keep reading!
Why, thank you–that’s so nice! The sad thing about real life is that it has no arc, so maybe if I just chop it up into ideas and themes, I can force one on it :)
I actually wonder if this *is* completely normal, because in the tenth grade I had some of my worst teachers of all time too. Maybe it’s some kind of widespread trend. Mine included such hits as the ditzy false-blond 25-year old history teacher who just desperately wanted approval from high school kids and said such aware and well-thought-out things as “the Native Americans felt they’d been gypped by the American goverment” and the Chem teacher who told us on the first day that he’d only gone into teaching as Plan B after getting laid off from a Fortune 100 company and spending a year unemployed, and then proceeded to spend the year telling everyone they were destined to end up working at CVS and failing at life and making kids cry during tests, though I don’t have any such lyrical stories about any of them. I also agree that I’d probably feel strange writing or reading these characters, because they’d probably feel too over-the-top or stereotypical…except for how they’re real.
This is completely unscientific, but I always wondered if more kids would take the upper-level courses if they *started* with the teachers who are really excited about a subject.
Of course, then we get into those real-world concerns like funding and bureaucracy and availability and all the stuff that typically gets in the way of a good idea . . .
because they’d probably feel too over-the-top or stereotypical… except for how they’re real.
And yes, this. Because some many things in life seem . . . almost too real to believe.
Actually, in this excerpt, I can see both sides. Because the fact is, most people do not leave their comfort zones and take the risk of being killed or imprisoned or fired, to work against injustice in the world. They just don’t. As human beings, we have strong self-preservation instincts. And the adult in this situation was more likely to know this, and to know that it’s hard to judge the actions of others until we’ve been tested ourselves.
And it’s also true that some people do take those risks. They often become the martyrs and political prisoners of the world. It’s too bad that the teacher couldn’t acknowledge this, or even say, “I hope so.” Because the world would be a great place if everyone followed his conscience like Lucas–but the sad fact is that most people don’t.
Because the fact is, most people do not leave their comfort zones and take the risk of being killed or imprisoned or fired, to work against injustice in the world.
I’m in absolute agreement. Even when I was originally writing this, I had an inkling of what our teacher was trying to say. At 15, I just hadn’t reached a point where I would willingly allow myself to consider it (partially because I was very idealistic, although I never would have admitted it).
When I started school, a lot of my culture-shock came from the way that most of the discourse was rigidly controlled. I was used to having in-depth conversations about controversial and emotionally charged subjects, so it was hard to see people’s opinions invalidated without discussion. When it first dawned on me that we were expected to sit quietly for an hour and a half without responding critically to any of the material, I was so disappointed.
I don’t actually disagree with what (I think) our teacher was trying to say. Taking a stand against any sort of oppression is generally scary and complicated, and it can get really ugly really fast. The thing that did and does bother me is the complacency and insensitivity with which she responded a perfectly valid question, as though for a fifteen-year-old, the conclusion she’d reached after years of education and experience is not only foregone, but obvious.
I so envied the people who were able to just stand up and be pissed off to a teacher’s face. When we studied the Holocaust (in 10th grade no less) just before the film came on and I heard and clearly understood the Polish-speaking victims yelling at their captors, the guy behind me made a crack about “stupid Polaks.” I can at least say that I turned around to face him with gritted teeth and said, “No, Neil, I don’t think so.” Not very profound, but the panic in his face was priceless when he remembered I was a purebred Polish immigrant. Ah well. High School. He’ll never live that one down. Generally a nice Mormon boy.
In high school, I definitely found that the Holocaust movie was like a social barometer for who was secretly empathetic, and who still had a *lot* to learn about compassion. At least you said something–I still would have been totally paralyzed at that age!
Ok, wow, that was really well-written. I felt like I was there, in that classroom, watching that entire scene unfold before my eyes. If this is how you write, I am totally buying your book when it comes out. Amazing!
I was so captivated by the things that happened in high school–I wanted to save everything so it wouldn’t get lost or forgotten.
Truth in advertising: I think the main character in THE REPLACEMENT sounds waaay different from me, but when it comes to the monsters, the book has my personal aesthetic all over it!