Portrait of the Drudge as an Old Man

 

God knows how many hours I’ve spent grading essays over the last 33 years. [1]

Outside of faculty meetings and writing report cards, assessing essays, — i.e., untangling twisted syntax, striking through flaccid phraseology, performing CPR on near-dead verbs (not to mention dealing with grammar and mechanics)[pant, pant] – is for me the least enjoyable aspect of teaching English.

How many essays over the years are we talking about?  Let’s see.  Seventy some odd [2] students writing ten compositions a year comes to – drum roll – 700.  Multiply 700 by 33, and you get 23,100.

[Cue the Godfather, James Brown]: Good Gawd!  That be way more than an ass/shit/truck load!

How high would they reach if stacked one-on-one?  My pal Horatio is cutting me off: ‘Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.”

Let’s just leave it like this: I’ve spent approximately 5,775 hours of my life correcting papers – i.e., 240 days, the equivalent of eight months, i.e., three-quarters of a year, one percent of my life.

But here’s the thing. That percentage is going down.  I’m retiring.  I only have 232 to go!

[Sigh]  An ass load.


[1]God knows precisely, but goddammit, I’m going to try to figure it out.

[2]And some odder than others

How Not to Teach “The Most Dangerous Game”

The first lesson I remember teaching in high school was the Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” one of the most idiotic short stories ever written.  Not only does plot pull the plug on your “suspension of disbelief,”[1] but also the prose is as bad as grammatical prose can be.

For example,

“You’ve good eyes,” said Whitney, with a laugh, “and I’ve seen you pick off a moose moving in the brown fall bush at four hundred yards, but even you can’t see four miles or so through a moonless Caribbean night.”

Girls and boys, this is called exposition, background information, and, of course, no one talks like that.

“Hi, Judy, your balding husband of twelve years has arrived home after teaching high school English to a group of high achieving, mostly upper-income adolescents who live in and about the city where the Civil War began!  How about rustling me up a Heineken, stay-at-home mom, since it’s 1985 and feminism hasn’t kicked in yet down here?”

Actually, the late Lawrence Perrine put the story first in his text Literature, Sound, and Sense to demonstrate why commercial fiction shouldn’t be taken seriously.  Of course, most of the kids liked the story before I began my butchering.  You got clearly defined good and evil, not to mention “Malay Mancatchers” and “Burmese Tiger pits.”  My method was to mock the story in the mode of stand up comedian, to act out some of the scenes.

The plot goes like this. Sanford Rainsford, an American big game hunter, is talking on a yacht in the Caribbean about how he has no sympathy for the prey he pursues.  Happily, in an act of idiocy that could land him a Darwin Award nomination, he falls overboard.

[After hearing gunfire,] Rainsford sprang up and moved quickly to the rail, mystified.  He strained his eyes in the direction from which the report had come, but it was like trying to see though a blanket.  He leapt upon the rail [as if that would help] and balanced himself there, to get greater elevation; his pipe, striking a rope, was knocked from his mouth.  He lunged for it; a short, hoarse cry came from his lips as he realized he had reached too far and had lost his balance. The cry was pinched off short as the blood-warm waters of the Caribbean Sea closed over his head.

As he swims toward Shipwreck Island, he hears more gunplay, and we’re treated to perhaps the most ludicrous dialogue prompt in the history of world literature:

“Pistol shot,” muttered Rainsford, swimming on. [Here I pantomime an Australian crawl, and as my head emerges from the water I mutter “pistol shot” and then continue swimming].

As it turns out, Shipwreck Island is the home of proto Bond villain General Zaroff, a Russian aristocrat so cartoonish he makes Boris Badenov from Bullwinkle look like Fyodor Paviovich Karamazov.

Rainsford makes it to the island, manages to sleep on the beach until “late afternoon” and begins to engage in Cartesian interpretations of physical nature:

“Where there are pistol shots, there are men.  Where there are men, there is food,” he thought.

He discovers some human footprints that lead to General Zaroff’s compound.  Oddly, Rainsford loses confidence in his powers of observation, like maybe he’s flashing back on some windowpane acid he dropped back at Yale after WW1.

“Mirage,” thought Rainsford. But it was no mirage, he found, when he opened the tall spiked gate.

Whew!

At the door he’s greeted by Ivan, Zaroff’s henchman, “ a gigantic creature, solidly made and black-bearded to the waist.”

ZZ Top meets Andre the Giant.

Rainsford is conducted to a room where “Ivan had laid out an evening suit.”  As he puts it on, Rainsford notices “that it came from a London tailor who ordinarily cut and sewed for none below the rank of duke.”

Oh, those were the days.

Zaroff serves Rainsford a vague meal consisting of unspecified “cocktails” and “a particularly well cooked fillet mignon.”  Was it cooked to perfection or cooked well done? Who knows?

As it turns out, the tables are turned on Rainsford.  Zaroff’s hobby is hunting human beings, i.e., “the most dangerous game.”

When Rainsford voices outrage at the concept of hunting humans, Zaroff replies, “I refuse to believe that so modern and civilized young man as you seem to be harbors romantic ideas about the value of human life.”

Boo! Hiss!

The game doesn’t seem all that fair to this non-hunter.  Ivan supplies Rainsford with hunting clothes, food, and a knife whereas Zaroff gets a pack of hounds, Ivan, and an armory of high-powered weaponry.  If Rainsford manages to elude his predator for three days, he’ll be placed “on a the mainland near a town.”  Zaroff adds, “I will give you my word of honor as a gentleman and sportsman.”

So now the fun really begins.  As Zaroff tracks Rainsford through the jungle, Rainsford engages in the very un-Darwinian habit of talking out loud to himself.

“I will not lose my nerve, I will not.”

Cat and mouse. Rainsford fashions a “Maylay man-catcher” and – the highlight of the story for me — a Burmese Tiger Pit.

Rainsford “stepped back from the quicksand a dozen feet or so, and like some huge prehistoric beaver, he began to dig.”

A Beaver!  Why a beaver?  Remember studying about pre-historic beavers the size of mastadons? I don’t.

Of course, good triumphs over evil. Trapped at the end of the story, Rainsford jumps off a cliff, presumably to his death.

Here’s how it ends.

When the general and his pack reached the place by the sea, the Cossack stopped. For some minutes he stood regarding the blue-green expanse of water. He shrugged his shoulders. Then be sat down, took a drink of brandy from a silver flask, lit a cigarette, and hummed a bit from Madame Butterfly.

General Zaroff had an exceedingly good dinner in his great paneled dining hall that evening. With it he had a bottle of Pol Roger and half a bottle of Chambertin. Two slight annoyances kept him from perfect enjoyment. One was the thought that it would be difficult to replace Ivan; the other was that his quarry had escaped him; of course, the American hadn’t played the game–so thought the general as he tasted his after-dinner liqueur. In his library he read, to soothe himself, from the works of Marcus Aurelius. At ten he went up to his bedroom. He was deliciously tired, he said to himself, as he locked himself in. There was a little moonlight, so, before turning on his light, he went to the window and looked down at the courtyard. He could see the great hounds, and he called, “Better luck another time,” to them. Then he switched on the light.

A man, who had been hiding in the curtains of the bed, was standing there.

“Rainsford!” screamed the general. “How in God’s name did you get here?”

“Swam,” said Rainsford. “I found it quicker than walking through the jungle.”

The general sucked in his breath and smiled. “I congratulate you,” he said. “You have won the game.”

Rainsford did not smile. “I am still a beast at bay,” he said, in a low, hoarse voice. “Get ready, General Zaroff.”

The general made one of his deepest bows. “I see,” he said. “Splendid! One of us is to furnish a repast for the hounds. The other will sleep in this very excellent bed. On guard, Rainsford.” . . .

He had never slept in a better bed, Rainsford decided.

So that’s it. Rainsford puts on his pajamas and falls asleep in Zaroff’s bed.

The end, no contemplation of what he’d just experienced.  Let’s hope he loots the joint or at least cops that duke grade tuxedo.


[1]This is Coleridge’s term for our willingness to allow magic carpets to defy Newtonian physics for the sake of the story. However, we readers (or movie watchers) will tolerate only so much.  Cf. Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Matthew Arnold vs. Thomas Friedman

Whenever I participate in interviews for prospective administrators or humanities teacher candidates at my school, my first question goes something like this:

Matthew Arnold once wrote that education’s primary purpose was “getting to know [. . .] the best that has been thought and said in the world.” I’ve recently attended a couple of conferences devoted to the brave new world of “21st Century education.” The lecturers at these conferences argue we should be preparing students for global capitalism, making sure they can command computers, work together in groups, plan and implement projects, etc.[1]  A survey of British literature, for example, comes off as impractical in this context.  After all, understanding how WWI’s shattering of Western Civilization’s stained glass window relates to the fragmentary nature of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” isn’t going to have much practical value in negotiating an international real estate transaction.

What’s your take on this dichotomy?  Should we jettison the great books and literature survey courses in exchange for a more practical, hands-on approach to dealing with data?  Does understanding the sequence of the history of thought have any practical value?

Of course, it’s not an easy question, but that’s the point.  And, of course, an astute listener will detect my bias in framing the question.

The truth of the matter is that British literature surveys in high schools are hobbling towards extinction.  Only my school’s sophomore honors classes encounter the historical sequence that features, among other riches,  Romanticism’s rejection of Augustan rationality (cf. the 60’s vis-à-visthe 50’s); the non-honor classes explore the British canon thematically, e.g., Beowulf and Frankenstein headlining a unit on “monsters.”

Instead of a tapestry, they get a quilt.

The counterargument, which I concede has merit, is that students need to understand non-Western cultures in our rapidly shrinking world.  On the other hand, reading a Chinese poem in translation means forsaking sound, which is what poetry is all about.  I would argue that understanding how Keats employs caesura to slow down the lines of “An Ode to a Nightingale” to convey exhaustion might have more analytical merit that engaging with naked poetic ideas from afar stripped of the original interconnections of sound and sense that enhanced their meanings.

* * *

What has sparked this post is a happy coincidence that has occurred in the 9th grade genre course I teach.  This year in the 9th grade we replaced 1984 with The Picture of Dorian Gray as our second semester novel.  As my fortitudinous non-plan planning has had it, I find myself simultaneously teaching The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) to freshmen and Heart of Darkness (1899), to sophomores.

Although I concede you could teach both in the monster unit — Gray versus Kurtz – students would be ignorant of the Victorian background that makes the contrasts of these two works and their characters so meaningful.  They would miss out the connection between this:

[Dorian] was seated at the piano, with his back to them, turning over the pages of Schumann’s “Forest Scenes.”

And this, Marlow in “Heart of Darkness” talking about his European colleagues in the Belgium Congo:

“The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it.”

“21st Century” educational question:  “Are Dorian/Lord Henry/Kurtz’s ‘Intended’ complicit in the slaughter of African elephants?”

 

Dig this; here’s our first peek at Lord Henry, the villain of TPoDG:

From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum . . .  [my italics]

Here’s our first peek at Conrad’s alter ego:

Marlow sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol.  [my italics]

Indulge me on last contrast, a contrast in how one feels about lying, which is of particular political import right now in the USA.

“Let’s go to the theater tonight,” said Lord Henry.  “There is sure to be something on, somewhere. I have promised to dine at White’s, but it is only with an old friend, so I can send him a wire to say I am ill, or that I’m prevented from coming in consequence of a subsequent engagement.”

Marlow, on the other hand:

You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies – which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world – what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do.

I’ve been highlighting snippets from the other novel to both ninth and tenth grade classes.  I pretend that the two events, Marlow’s telling his horrific story of what he saw in Africa on the Nellie in the Thames and Lord Henry lounging on the divan in Mayfield, are taking place simultaneously.

And, of course, they were.

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[1]Not surprisingly, this information is provided via lecture, rather than having the attendees discover it in group work,

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