Channeling David Foster Wallace and Senator Larry Grooms

Years ago, I lazily cooked up one last essay assignment for my hopelessly checked-out seniors, an essay that would force them to revisit their time at Porter-Gaud. I say lazily, because it occurred to me that I could have them deliver the essay as a speech. That way, I wouldn’t have to correct it as writing – you can’t hear the difference between a comma and a semicolon; when you’re talking from the heart, you don’t necessarily want to introduce clauses with “as” instead of “like.” Nine months of reading and commenting on inexact writing can get old.

Their last essay would be graded as they delivered it, it might force the unreflective to recollect, and the succession of speeches might reinforce a sense of sharing and camaraderie. But, actually, none of those positive student benefits figured in my thinking. I essentially assigned them a valedictory address as their last assignment for selfish reasons.

Stacks of papers versus mouthfuls of air. first-essays

Not surprisingly, given the quality of our students, I’ve amassed some beautiful speeches over the years, and when I assign the project, I include samples from their predecessors. Two years ago I included in my assignment packet a commencement speech that David Foster Wallace had delivered at Kenyon College. This week, I had to abandon one of my block classes for forty minutes to observe a candidate teach a class of sixth graders, so I prepared a short answer reading quiz on the Wallace speech and had my current seniors read it and take the quiz in class while I was gone. This inadvertence also turned out to be propitious, because when I returned, several of the students praised the speech, one saying it was the best essay that she had ever read. [You can read it here].

Essentially Wallace argues that “learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think,” which essentially means switching your mental radio station from its “default mode,” i.e., from “the constant monologue inside your own head” to a station that “[is] paying attention to what is going on right in front of [you].” He goes on to describe himself in his default mode driving home from the grocery store “disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers.” However, Wallace argues that this negative thinking is essentially unproductive. Switch stations, think about what it might be like to be the driver of the V-12 truck emblazoned with NRA stickers, etc. ZPWM4Fu Which, brings me, finally, to the subject of this posting, my least favorite person of the week, Senator Larry Grooms, (R-Daniel Island), who has topped V. Putin and Cliven Bundy in the lowness of my estimation, which, come to think of it, would not matter a jot or tittle to him if he knew, or perhaps, he might even welcome the animus of a leftist old bald-headed hippie like me.

Senator Grooms has kindled my wrath by cutting off funds for the College of Charleston because he disagreed with the College’s choosing a summer reading Fun Home, a novel with a gay protagonist. The novel has been adapted into a musical nominated for two Pulitzers. The College decided to host the show on campus for two performances last Monday, performances that didn’t expend a penny of state funds. Nevertheless, this “giant middle finger to the Statehouse” has provoked the arse-belching consternation of several legislators. This from the City Paper:

And then there’s state Rep. Bill Whitmire (R-Walhalla). Recently, a joint committee of senators and representative interviewed candidates for the CofC Board of Trustees. In a transcript of one such interview, the topic turned to Fun Home, and during that discussion, Whitmire called the book “highly offensive” and “promoting a specific lifestyle.” He even suggested that an individual could be arrested if he or she invited a 17-year-old to read it and encouraged every person interviewed for reappointment to the CofC Board of Trustees to keep something like this (meaning a book that addresses issues of non-heterosexual identity) from being a College Reads! selection ever again.

Senator Grooms, not to be outdone, offered this threat: “If lessons weren’t learned [at the College], the Senate may speak a little bit louder than the House. There would be a number of members in the Senate that would have a great interest in fixing the deficiencies at the College of Charleston.” Okay, my default mode when I encounter philistinism is Mencken-like mockery, Ezra-Pound-like intemperance of language. Here’s a snippet from the penultimate paragraph from Mencken’s obituary of William Jennings Bryan:

He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.

Here’s Mencken’s last paragraph: “The job before democracy is to get rid of such canaille. If it fails, they will devour it.”

Senator Larry Grooms (R-Daniel Island)

Senator Larry Grooms (R-Daniel Island)

Okay, I find myself in an uncomfortable position. How can I in good conscience after making my students read DFW’s commencement speech revert to my default mode of quoting Pound’s “vice crusaders farting through silk,” splattering the self-righteous senator with vulgarities, and, by the way, am not just as self-righteous as he? Shouldn’t I imagine – as DFW does in his commencement address – what it must be like to be that person whom we hold in contempt?

On the on-line bio site, we discover that Senator Grooms lists his occupation vaguely as businessman, graduated from Clemson University in 1987, and designates his religion as “Christian,” having been “saved by Grace in April of 1987” (which is really good timing: sow those Dionysian grapes, be forgiven, and get righteously on with the business of adulthood). Oh yeah, to slide myself into Senator Grooms’s Bass Weejuns, I would also have to imagine being a proud lifetime member of the NRA.

Okay, here goes. I’m Larry. The Bible is the greatest book ever. Here’s Leviticus 20:13: “If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them.”

Jesus is conspicuously silent on the subject, though it’s hard to imagine his condoning an execution of Cole Porter or Elizabeth Bishop for committing the above-described “abominations.”

But Paul isn’t silent on the subject: 1 Corinthians 6:9: “Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor homosexuals nor sodomites … will inherit the kingdom of God.”

Greg Koulkl: “Homosexual desire is unnatural because it causes a man to abandon the natural sexual compliment God has ordained for him: a woman. That was Paul’s view. If it was Paul’s view recorded in the inspired text, then it is God’s view. And if it is God’s view, it should be ours if we call ourselves Christian.”

So, the Larry Grooms I have become accepts premises and reasoning of Koulkl’s conclusion. The novel and musical Fun Home promote a sinful lifestyle (genetics be literally damned!)

Goddamnit , these Weejuns are killing my feet [author removes them and flings them out the window of his drafty garret].

But, hey, Larry – what about that separation of Church and State thing? And if you’re going to go by the Bible, what about Matthew 6:5-6 – “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.…” In other words, remove that “saved by Grace” from your website. After all, you know what Jesus said about casting stones.

At any rate, I’ll leave you with a sentence from Friday’s Post Courier editorial page, and believe me, when the editorial staff of that newspaper and I agree, the Second Coming might truly be at hand!

Sen. Grooms and his meddlesome colleagues have a misguided idea of what a college education should be. In addition to literature, science and economics, it should challenge students with new issues and different viewpoints. A college’s goal should not be indoctrination. And the “academic freedom” espoused by the school’s Board of Trustees should put curriculum decisions in the hands of administrators.


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