The Losers Wrote South Carolina History

In the early Sixties, South Carolina state law mandated that children in both the third and eighth grades receive instruction in the state’s history.  As randomness would have it, my first tour of the annals of the Palmetto State coincided with the centennial celebration of The War Between the States.  Lessons about Caw Caw the Indian boy competed with classroom drills in which we swiftly assumed fetal positions beneath our tiny desks.  (Charleston with its Polaris submarine base offered an inviting target for those Cuban Missiles).  Also, on the domestic side, in the background, we could detect a soft growl of discontent rising in the throats of what my family politely called colored people, who, as the ad populum argument went, were being stirred up by “outside agitators.”

Times, you might say, were a-changing.

Not South Carolina history.  Preserved in our textbook, time-honored statements “of fact” explained that the vast majority of slaves were well-treated, that unfair tariffs had sparked the Civil War, that the Ku Klux Klan had provided a public service during the dark days of Reconstruction, that Pitchfork Ben Tillman was a man of courage, and that the textile industry promised a potential economic stimulus that might propel the state back into its former glorious position as the cultural vanguard of the nation . . .

When I first started teaching high school in the Mid-Eighties, I still encountered traces of these old arguments, particularly concerning the paternalism of slavery and  the predominance of tariffs as the cause of the War. To counter the latter argument, I found  copies of Declarations of Causes of Seceding States and highlighted in blue all of the sentences that refer to slavery.  Believe me, the unhighlighted patches are about as prevalent as peanuts in Hershey bars.  However, back in the day, I, too, believed what I had read.  As an eight-year-old, I applauded the Klan of yore, those white-clad knights who had cleansed my native state of nefarious scalawags, carpetbaggers, and, yes, Negroes.

Flash forward a half century.  The descendants of Pitchfork Ben have again taken to the streets eager to “retake their country” from what they fear is a proliferation of darker-skinned usurpers. Their Confederate heroes’ statues  — Lee, Stonewall Jackson. et al — like Lenin’s after the Soviet Union’s fall – are being dismantled. Our president makes moral equivalences between klansmen, neo-Naxis and counter protestors.

Sunday, along the Battery, as I was guiding visitors from Florida around the Battery, we encountered a handful of protesters.  My friend’s children, 11 and 13, looking across the harbor, asked if “the good guys or the bad guys” occupied the fort at the beginning of the war.

As a 13-year-old in 1964, based on my indoctrination, I would have said the “bad guys.”

photo by WLM3

A Brief Model for High School Behavioral Expectations

Not surprisingly, I had no idea what I was doing when I started teaching high school 32 years ago.  I had taught at college, where I began the first day of class asking students to introduce themselves.  When I tried this technique with my first class of high school seniors, their immaturity was a revelation.  Even though I’d had an acquaintance their age killed in Nam, for the most part, these weren’t men and women I was dealing with but children seeking attention.

A couple of years later, I taught my first AP class, and the students were so negative to each other that after a couple of weeks no one commented on anything for fear of receiving a sniper wound.  When my supervisor came to visit the class, I literally started tap-dancing as a pleading ploy to get one of the students to say something, anything, even if it were wrong.

The next year, I prepared a document clearly stating my expectations, and I’ve continued to refine it each and every year.  If you’re a new teacher, I encourage you to come up with one of your own.  To offer an example, here’s the first page of the four page document I will give to each student next Tuesday.

Behavioral Expectations

We should strive to create a community of compassion, respect, openness, and seriousness of purpose in our classroom. Paradoxically, seriousness of purpose will make the class more pleasurable because we’ll learn more, and the more knowledge we acquire, the better we understand the world, and the better we understand the world, the more interesting it becomes. Developing into an excellent writer – one who can vividly and economically express ideas and images – is an enormously valuable skill in an increasingly sub-literate culture, a skill that gives you an advantage in every arena of professional life.

Here are some general guidelines. When you enter the classroom, please be on time and turn off your cell phones and place them in the basket provided. Once class begins, do not open your laptops unless I instruct you to do so. I have provided a seating chart for each class and expect you to sit in your assigned seat. Eating and drinking in the classroom are forbidden, and I, too, will adhere to that stricture.   Although I realize that Gandhi usually wore a loincloth and that Hermann Goebbels never had a hair out of place,[1] I enforce the dress code. I, myself, would rather not wear a tie; however, in the grand scheme of things, it’s certainly not important – especially compared with the privilege to teach at Porter-Gaud. By signing my contract, I have agreed to follow and enforce the rules of Porter-Gaud. If you have signed the handbook, then you have agreed to follow the rules as well. If I considered having my shirttail tucked in a grievous violation of my civil rights, I would go to another school where it is allowed.

Because much of the class is discussion, it is extremely important that we treat each member of our community with respect, even when we disagree with his ideas. Sarcasm is a particularly pernicious slayer of camaraderie and must be avoided.[2] Ultimately, we should never do or say anything that might hurt someone else’s feelings, whether it be rolling our eyes or making snide comments. This way of taking care not to hurt others I call the Bodhisattva Ideal.

To summarize, the very best classes are collaborative endeavors in which students and faculty work together to teach each other. This ideal is impossible unless each individual respects his brother and sister. Therefore, the most important rule of Room 207 is the Bodhisattva Ideal – that we will strive to be kind to each other, to respect each other, to have empathy for each other.

This classroom is a safe haven in which individuals can express their ideas, no matter how unpopular – except in the case of bigotry, whether it be racial, religious, or sexual. Bigotry is anathema to our Mission Statement and won’t be tolerated. Nor will it be in college. Bigoted statements on social media have ended many a collegiate career. Avoid it like crystal meth.

People make impressions about you according to your actions and demeanor. One day soon you will need to ask someone to write you a recommendation for college, and not only will kindness make you a happier person, but being kind to others is in your own self-interest.


[1] Ed Burrows in conversation.

[2] By the way, irony is not necessarily sarcastic. If I say, “lovely day” during a downpour, I’m being ironic. If Bennington slips entering the room and falls to the floor, and Andrea starting clapping and shouting “I give that a ten on style points,” she’s being sarcastic.

Back to School, Then and Now

I never really liked school, except for kindergarten. I got lost on the second day of first grade by going to the wrong entry, the first sign of a sense of direction so challenged (i.e., damaged/unsound/defective) that a generation later I would spend over an hour looking for my car in the North Charleston Coliseum parking lot after my niece’s high school graduation.

Anyway, in the lower grades, I was mistaken for an academic superstar because of my verbal skills, but by 6th grade math, the jig was up, and when the rest of my alpha-grade-skipping group took Algebra I in the 8th grade, I was in regular classes and continued to struggle there among the not-so-gifted. Disorganized, lazy, rebellious, I always had something to dread — the lost band music, the undone homework, the choice of “suspension or three licks.”[1]

We are wonderful/We are fun/ We’re the class of ’71 (from SHS 1971 yearbook)

In the glorious summers, I was free to roam acres of undeveloped woods surrounding my neighborhood, later to pop wheelies on my banana bike under the glow of moth-crazed streetlights, and finally to sneak kisses waist-deep in Lake Murray on a weeknight with someone who signed her notes “I will love you forever.”[2]

And no matter whether it was in elementary, junior high, or high school, an established pattern developed: mental mourning on seeing back-to-school ads followed by a sense of growing anticipation about returning to check out the tans, the clothes, the new teachers.

I went to kindergarten in the school year 1957-8, the same year that the Little Rock 9 integrated Little Rock Central High. This year, I’m teaching my first history course, a semester elective called “America in the ‘60’s,” so I’ve been scouring the internet for material and ran across this remarkable film.  I invite you to enjoy its artistry and shudder at its content. Seriously, I consider this 3-minute film by Brittany VerHoef, Down Corwin, and Travis Cameron a minor masterpiece.

 

The horrible thing is that those divisions are all too alive and all too well exactly 60 years later. Do the enraged white people in the film remind you of any group today?


[1] I.e., three burning smacks on the ass with paddle or strop (I suffered both in my career as miscreant). Whoever it was delivering these blows, whether in junior or high school, was inevitably a former football coach now serving an administrative role. (If you were a girl the female basketball and golf coached did the whapping. (TMI?)

[2] And it was true! I received a sympathy call from her after my wife Judy’s death after decades of non-contact. My former girlfriend’s voice on the answering machine was choked with emotion over my loss. Maybe if you truly love someone, you continue to love him or her forever. It’s certainly true for me in regards to this caller.

Protest the Rising Tide of Intolerance

As Crass Casualty and Dicing Time[1] would have it, in the week of my wife’s memorial service, I have to box up the contents of my classroom for a move to a brand new Upper School building.

This chore is especially taxing because when I moved into a former colleague’s room a quarter a century ago, he asked if he could keep some of his books in the room, which were housed in three enormous bookcases that belonged personally to him. I said, sure. He eventually died without heirs. His collection includes some of his late mother’s books as well. There are inscriptions. “To Catherine S____________ 1925.”

Of course, I also have books, 31 years worth, not to mention file cabinets gorged with quizzes, study guides, lecture notes, honor contracts, resumes, book order receipts, etc.

So I’m in the process of sifting through the contents, recycling, shredding, and yesterday I discovered this anti-bullying speech I gave to the Upper School during the first Clinton Administration. I don’t know the exact date, maybe 1994. At any rate, I haven’t altered the text, so some of the allusions may seem odd or anachronistic.

At any rate, I think the speech holds up fairly well, so why not expose it to a wider audience than the 300 or so who originally heard it?  I doubt if it will alter the behavior of bone fide bullies (like our current president), but it could offer the victims of bullies some solace.

I’ve also included the video clips that accompanied the speech.


 

 

[Note the original movie clip went a bit longer and depicted an older nurse who delivers the food the younger nurse was incapable of providing.]

John Merrick, the Elephant Man, is, of course, an extreme example of someone being shunned because of the way he looks, but we all know that every day all types of people are excluded for all types of reasons — it might be their race, their looks, the way they talk, their sexual orientation, the way they dress.  I took a poll of my classes and discovered that 100% of my students, every single individual, has been made fun of here at Porter-Gaud, and I mean maliciously.  I suspect everybody in this auditorium has been shunned, been put down at one time or another, been made fun of.  We all know what it feels like, and it doesn’t feel good.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw Maya Angelou, perhaps America’s most famous living poet.  She was being interviewed by David Frost on PBS.  Maya Angelou is black and grew up in segregated Arkansas.  So like John Merrick, she knows what it’s like to be excluded.  Growing up as a little girl in Arkansas, she probably wouldn’t have been able to see the movie The Elephant Man because of the color of her skin.

When Maya Angelou was only 10-years-old, she was raped.  After the rape, she refused to talk for over a year.  Her pain was so terrible she couldn’t give voice to it.  She remained silent, mute. I guess sort of like John Merrick, she couldn’t find the words she needed.

Fortunately, she eventually did find her voice and became a poet.  In a poem she read at President Clinton’s inauguration, she linked humankind to extinct species such as dinosaurs and mastodons and voiced her concern that we may follow in their footsteps and become “lost in the gloom of dust and ages.”  She sees a real danger in fragmentation.  She writes

[. . .] the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.

And what is the tree saying?

Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

In the interview, David Frost asks Maya Angelou what the poem means, and she says, “It means we have to stop minimizing other people’s lives.”

We have to stop minimizing other people’s lives.

Look at John Merrick.  The Elephant Man.  An extreme case, as I said, but look how others minimized him.  In the movie, the doctor Treves at first is more interested in John as a specimen than he is as human, but at least he treats him humanely.  The younger nurse is so weak a person she runs like a child when she sees “the elephant man.”  Runs screaming out of the room. [The following references don’t appear in the above clip].  Did you notice the second, older nurse?  She never makes eye contact with Merrick.  That’s what people do when they are uncomfortable; either they avoid eye contact, or they giggle, or both.  This older nurse is beyond the giggling stage so instead she stays busy making the bed and talks about Merrick as if he were an idiot or weren’t there.

She is minimizing his life.

The head of the hospital is eager to get rid of Merrick.  He is minimizing Merrick’s life.  And not only John Merrick’s life, but his very own life.  Because as it turns out, John Merrick possessed an extraordinary soul.  His indomitable spirit has made him famous — the stuff of biographies, plays, movies.  The head of the hospital would have been long forgotten if he had not encountered John Merrick.  And how will the head of the hospital be remembered in these biographies, plays, and movies?  His legacy lies in how he treated John Merrick.  And I suspect that’s how we will be remembered after we leave Porter-Gaud.  Others will remember us in light of how we treated them.

Now, this assembly’s not really about John Merrick.  it’s about us — about you and me — and how we treat people.  Do we minimize other people in the mistaken belief that we “grow” when we “put them down?”

That we grow when we exclude someone from our group?

Let’s face it.  Everyone has weak points. We may be great at volleyball but lousy in math.  Great in math but hopeless in history.  We all have features we’re self-conscious about. Frankly, I’d just as soon not be bald, but like John Merrick, I didn’t have the luxury of choosing my parents. Nobody does.

Genetics deals us our facial features, our body types, our athletic prowess (or lack thereof), our intellectual potential, and even, according to the latest studies, our sexual orientation.  We have no control over our parents’ wealth.  Whether or not they’re getting divorced.  Where we were born.

Of course, it’s really no mystery why people harass and pick on others.  It’s obviously to compensate for low self esteem.  Inevitably cowardice is also involved.  Bullies rarely pick on the golden boy star quarterback who looks as if he’s stepped off the cover of Seventeen Magazine and sports 1550 SAT scores.  The victims are going to be someone younger, smaller, less popular.

So when we hear somebody cutting someone else down, we ought to tell him or her to quit. We’ll be doing, not only the victim a favor, but also the bully a favor, because frankly, he’s making an ass out of himself.  To those who see through the psychology, it’s embarrassing. Moreover, in doing nothing when we see unkindness occur we are abetting the creation of a climate that allows bullying  to flourish.

We should be the heroes, not the villains, in the movies of our lives.

Of course, cutting people down isn’t the only way we can minimize their lives.  Sometimes we shut others out because they are different.  Ignoring someone is also minimizing his or her life. It’s obviously not as bad as being overtly cruel, but we do actually cheat ourselves when we hide in our little homogenous groups.

Let me give you an example.

I have a friend, Josephine Humphreys, who is a somewhat famous novelist.  She wrote Rich in Love, a novel on the 9th grade reading list.  You older students and faculty members might remember that her son Willy actually played Merrick in a senior play production of The Elephant Man a couple of years ago.  Anyway, Jo grew up South of Broad, grew up in the Episcopal Church, attended Ashley Hall, in other words, lived a fairly typical Porter-Gaud-like life.  However, she and her husband Tom are now in the process of producing records — cds that is — for local gospel groups.  How did this come about?  Through serendipity and the willingness to try new things.

About four years ago, Jo and Tom went to a gospel concert at Spoleto and were knocked out by this local quartet called the Brotherhood.  They decided they wanted to see them again.  The only thing was that back then the Brotherhood only performed in all black churches.

That didn’t stop Jo.

I asked Jo what it was like being a middle aged white woman going as a complete stranger to an all black church.  She said she was nervous and that some of her white friends told her not to go, that blacks wouldn’t want her at their church, that it was intrusive.  But she said to me, “You know, Wes, I’m 50 years old and that type of thing I don’t have time for.”  So she and Tom went, were welcomed warmly, loved it.  Over time, they became very good friends with the Brotherhood and their wives.  Jo says that every time she hears them, they restore her faith in the world.  She firmly believes that getting to know the Brotherhood is one of the very best things that has happened to her.  And it’s been great for them, too.  With Jo and Tom’s help, they’ve gained a wider audience and have toured Europe.  Their European audiences loved them; they loved their European audiences.

The courage to take a chance and reach out has certainly enriched Jo’s life.  The Brotherhood’s lives.  And some Europeans’ lives as well.

But the thing is — integration isn’t only about mixing colors — it literally means “to make whole by bringing all parts together.”  As long as we cut others off, as longs as we limit our peers by only seeing them as computer nerds, jocks, rednecks, math people, preppies, 7th graders — we too are cut off.  We’re a piece of something.  The stranger you see everyday at lunch sitting by himself may have an important gift to share — might possess a missing piece of your puzzle.

For example, in the film after Treves discovers that Merrick can speak, Treves leaves the hospital room and encounters Merrick’s sadistic manager, a man who exploited Merrick by exhibiting him in freak shows and who severely beat him. The manager threatens Treves by saying he will go to the authorities unless Treves does not release Merrick.  The head of the hospital overhears the conversation and orders the manager out, saying he’s sure the authorities would be glad to hear of how he treated Merrick.  The hospital head tells Treves he would like to meet the patient the next afternoon.  Treves knows there is no chance keeping Merrick in the hospital if Merrick does not show himself to be mentally competent.

 

There’s no telling what wonders may exist in that person we have shut out.  Merrick had already learned the “23rd Psalm” from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.  Where, no doubt, he also ran across these words, the wisest words I know of to be found anywhere:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Thank you for your attention.  Any announcements . . .

 


[1] i.e., fate

The Long View

Stefano Vita

Note: Last week, and a very difficult week it was, our guidance counselor asked me to “offer some words of wisdom” for the upcoming senior milestone dinner, and I agreed, though it’s a difficult task if you don’t like trafficking in clichés.

So what follows is a sort of rough draft, which I’ll more or less memorize, and then deliver it to the seniors, their parents, my colleagues, and whoever else shows up.


Good evening and first I’d like to congratulate the class of 2017, and all of the people who have helped you reach this point: your grandparents, parents, siblings, friends, teachers, the obstetricians/midwives who brought you into the world, everybody — because no one who has ever made a speech like this has failed to mention that you had a lot of help along the way, and you did.

Mrs. Kimberly has asked me if I might convey some “words of wisdom” as you prepare to leave this familiar place, so I’m going to give it a shot, and at the very least end this talk with the best advice about succeeding in college there is. So stay tuned.

Here goes.

One of life’s biggest challenges is staying awake – and I don’t mean that in the literal sense of not dozing off as you’re tooling down the Crosstown but staying awake to the wonders of the world.

Wordsworth has a sonnet that starts

The world is too much with us, late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,

Little we see in nature that is ours,

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon.

What Wordsworth means, I think, is that the day-to-day grind blinds us to the miracles of being. Focused on the upcoming chemistry exam or speeding ticket court date, we don’t notice the wren perched on branch above singing its heart out or the glint of sunlight on the distant river or maybe even the river itself.

We forget [acid head voice] that, like, hey, man, we’re on the third planet from the sun swirling in concert with a spiral galaxy spinning like a Frisbee through interstellar space.

A had a jolt a couple of months that reminded me of my own place in nature. My son Harrison and his wife Taryn gave Judy and me a DNA test kit so we could check out our ancestry. When the results came in and I logged on to discover my makeup, the first thing I noticed was the drawing of a cave man and the message “You have 58% more Neanderthal DNA than the general population.”

illustration source: The New Yorker

“Ah ha. That explains a lot. My deep-set eyes, prominent brow, inability to factor quadratic equations.”

Now, Neanderthals went extinct 40,000 years ago. Let’s for the sake of argument say a generation is 30 years. That means, in my case, it took 1,333 successful matings to come up with me. If my Neanderthal Mema had died in childbirth from an older sibling, I wouldn’t be here. Ditto if my sub-Saharan ancestor had stepped on a snake or my Norse ancestor hadn’t raped and pillaged that Irish village. You get the picture. It’s the same with everyone everywhere. That we exist at all is truly miraculous. We’ve all had miraculous births.

One of the most universal human myths – it extends from Borneo the Hebrides – is the hero’s journey. The hero, like you, has had a miraculous birth, and, like you, is called to leave his home on a quest of discovery. You’re at the part of the journey called “crossing the threshold.” Having mastered crawling, walking, riding a bike, reading, writing, calculating, solving equations, understanding the rise and fall of empires, conjugating another language’s verbs, it’s time to go.

You’re leaving the familiarity of your home to encounter new and strange beings, and, of course, it’s not going to be all smooth sailing. You’re going to be tested in more ways than one.

The good news is that you’ve been equipped with an excellent education, not only academically but also in the realm of ethics. My charge to you is not only to stay awake to the miracles surrounding you but to also strive to be a good person because I sincerely believe that if you don’t live a life of integrity you won’t be truly happy. I say this not only in the context of my own experience but also in what great literature tells us about the human condition.

Each night we go to sleep assured that the sun will rise again in the morning; however, of course, one morning it won’t, at least for us. Keep in mind the immense unlikelihood of your existence, your miraculous birth, the beauty of the world.  Look up more than occasionally at that night sky Hamlet calls a “majestic roof fretted with golden fire.”  Step boldly over that threshold into adulthood with your eyes and ears wide open.  In other words, wide awake.

How great, how exciting to be just now venturing forth.

Oh yeah, that surefire advice about succeeding in college. I promise each and every one of you will be successful if you follow this one instruction:

GO TO CLASS!

It’s harder than you might think.

To all my former students, it’s been an honor teaching you, and certainly an honor addressing all of you tonight. I wish you all the very best.

On Star Wars, Samurais, and a Future So Bleak Everyone Will Wear Mining Helmets

by WLM 3 based on Zdzistaw Beksiński

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never seen any of the Star Wars movies — not the blockbuster first installment of 1977 nor any of the vast array of sequels and prequels that in subsequent decades have rolled off the Lucas assembly line like so many gold-plated Model-Ts.

As a subscriber to the NY Times crossword puzzle, I have been punished for being ignorant of such worthies as Jabba the Hutt and Obi-Wan Kenobi, the same way I have punished for not having read any of the Harry Potter books.[1]

What’s the 5 letter word for first name of the astromech droid that appears in every Star War movie?

Search me.

I did try to read the first Potter novel but got about as far as I did when I attempted The Hobbit as an eighth grader. Blame my lack of interest on a leaden suspension of disbelief. I prefer Robin Hood to the Arthurian legends, the Lone Ranger to Flash Gordon, Sopwith Camels to starships. In other words, I don’t dig fantasy and most science fiction, which is not to say they’re not worthy genres. I don’t dig opera either, but I realize my lack of appreciation stems from ignorance and that I’m ultimately missing out on something truly wonderful.

But as far as Jabba the Hutt and Harry Potter go, personal predilections are no excuse for my ignorance. As a self-anointed anthropologist/social critic/prophet-of-doom, it should be my duty to study these cultural phenomena, these projections of our collective psyches, these myth-equivalents that shed light on “deep down things.” [now removing tongue from cheek]

Nevertheless, it ain’t gonna happen. I still haven’t read Proust or become closely acquainted with the films of the supposedly great Soviet director Tarkovsky so the idea of spending the ever decreasing number of my allotted Sunday afternoons matriculating into Hogwarts is way too much of a cross to bear.

What has brought these considerations to mind is that last week a candidate for a position in our English Department taught a demo class to my 9th graders as a sort of audition. Surprisingly, rather than reprising some proven boffo performance of poetic analysis from his past, something tried and true — as most aspirants do — he decided to go with what I am teaching, Orwell’s 1984.

He started the lesson by discussing Newspeak and the implications of the ruling party’s attempt to strip language of all nuance, a topic we’d already covered at length. Why complicate your life by having hundreds of words like grackle, wren, and bunting when the simple word bird would suffice? Does language play a role in helping us distinguish nuances?

Is the Jesuit Pope a communist from Argentina?

Do heavy, furry, hibernating, clawed mammals defecate in areas thickly covered with trees?

Are rhetorical questions possible in Newspeak?

Things got cracking when he shifted from language to genre. He said that he first read the novel as an undergraduate in a science fiction course. He asked the students to define science fiction and coaxed them into coming up with the idea that science fiction is a realistic depiction of the human condition featuring technology that doesn’t yet exist but is central to the plot.

He then asked if Star Wars were science fiction. One student said that no, it was fantasy, and the teacher agreed pointing out that each planet has a singular topography – desert or swamp or city or forest – so what we’re essentially dealing with is the planet earth. He added that the weapons are essentially swords, and spaceships lie well within the reality of current technology. He argued that we’re talking magic, not science here, and basically Star Wars is a Samurai movie set in outer space. As his name suggests, Obi-Wan Kenobi is in a sense a by-product of Japanese cinema, particularly Kurosawa’s 1958 samurai epic The Hidden Fortress.

The teacher then shifted back to Orwell, and the students identified telescreens[2] as the technology that qualifies 1984 to be considered as science fiction. In 1948, the year it was written, television was in its infancy, and telescreens did not exist (nor did they in the teacher’s undergraduate days).

They do now, however. After all, when I was with my wife in Houston at MD Anderson at the beginning of the school year, I taught this very class via Skype, which is essentially a telescreen but one that allows for two-way communication. So according to this line of thinking, 1984 can no longer be considered “science fiction.”

The teacher pulled his cell phone from his pocket and said, “Unlike the citizens of Oceania, we subscribe to our telescreens, actually pay Big Brother to collect the goods on us. (Of course, these aren’t the exact words he used).

Anyway, he went off on a rift on technology and dystopia and an era in the near future (about the time they’d be graduating from college) when automation might be eliminating quaint old human orchestrated procedures like cancer surgery. He mentioned nanobots replacing surgeons, and I imagined hordes of ravenous Pac-Men seeking out and devouring malignant cells.

A rather sobering and a subtle suggestion that future competition might be, shall we say, cut-throat, and that studying might be a good strategy, especially when it’s not only coal miners and sales clerks who will be out of work but also CPAs and surgeons.

At any rate, class ended, and the actors marched off leaving me alone in my room (101, by the way) contemplating a smog-smothered future where it’s always twilight or pitch black night, a future where hordes of the unemployed have devolved into urban tribal communities, in other words, the world of Blade Runner.

But, hey, fa-la-la-la live for today, in this case Sunday, 9 a.m EST. With Kim-Jong un, Putin, and the Donald rattling their lightsabers, we might not have to worry about the future at all.

So I think I’ll have a bloody mary and look out over the real life Darwin-themed drama my back deck provides.

Or maybe scrounge up a copy of À la recherche du temps perdu.

photo from our back deck of a wood stork


[1] As far as Star Wars goes, I do know that Darth Vader is evil, Princess Leia wears white, and that Luke Skywalker is the coming of age hero.

[2] Telescreens are ubiquitous two-way-mirror-like devices that allow the party to spy on citizens and to broadcast propaganda.

 

That Time I Got Called into the Principal’s Office for Teaching Filth

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Okay, the Prince of Lies wings his way upward and on a cliff encounters a woman naked and beautiful from the genitals up, but horror-show-hideous below, where “[v]oluminous and vast,” a hydra-like reptilian whiplash “of scaly folds” slithers.

Satan can hear the muffled howling of dogs, the frenzied yelps coming from . . . from within her . . . “about her middle round.” These dogs “kennel” in her womb, exit and reenter periodically, and with “their wide Cerberian mouths full loud,” let out “a hideous peal.”

[Gross!]

Next to her sits a blob-like creature not “distinguishable in member, joint, or limb.” On what might be considered his head, he wears a “kingly crown.”

[What the Hell?]

Well, boys and girls, sin is ugly. Check out Hieronymus Bosch or Breughel the Elder.

farting-painting

This unholy trinity described above consists of Satan, Sin, and Death. You see, one day when he was strolling the gold-paved streets of Heaven, Lucifer had this chick split open his head and emerge, Athena-like, fully armed.  A rebellious thought had roiled his erstwhile Seraphic mind and presto Trouble!

So Beautiful was this feminine doppelganger of a daughter, he had sex with her, impregnated her, right up there in Heaven.

Her name is Sin.

[Tsk Tsk]

After the war and the expulsion of the rebel angels and their general Satan, Sin gives birth to a blob-like boy who rips open her womb and transforms her limbs into snakes. This offspring, son of Satan, immediately rapes her and impregnates her with the above-mentioned hellhounds.

His name is Death.

Satan + Sin = Death.. . .

* * *

One cloudy day in the early 90’s, I receive an email from our new principal. He’d like to see me in his office, which, because of some construction, is a trailer. I don’t put this encounter off. I stroll over as soon as I can.

Once inside, I sit down on the proffered sofa.

“Well, Wesley. I’ve had a mother call and complain about one of your sophomore English classes.”

“Really? What’s the beef?”

“She says you’re teaching obscenity. By the way, what are you teaching?”

“’The justification of the ways of God to men.’”

“Huh?”

Paradise Lost.”

He smiles, nods. “Okay, thanks.  I’ll explain it to her”

* * *

Believe it or not, sophomores dig Paradise Lost if you set it up right and read a fluidly truncated version. You teach it like it’s sci-fi. After all, Hell in Paradise Lost is a far distant planet; Satan flies through outer space to find Earth.

You got monsters, battles, video-game like scenery.

Add to that full frontal nudity and the gorgeous music of the poetry.

 

 

Eve separate he spies,

Veiled in a Cloud of Fragrance, where she stood

Half spied, so thick the Roses bushing round

About her glowed, oft stooping to support

Each Flower of slender stalk, whose head though gay

Carnation, Purple, Azure, or specked with Gold,

Hung drooping unsustained, them she upstands

Gently with Myrtle band, mindless the while,

Her self, though fairest unsupported Flower,

From her best prop so far and storm so nigh.

 

[I’ve modernized the spelling].

 

serpent