Monday, February 07, 2011


Episodes: 2

"You clearly don't want to work with us today."

"No, I just don't want to work with you."

Big hands, la-la lolling away from the man, being me, being the suit that hangs off me like the dead-alive bureaucrat I always feared becoming, pulling a 35% average if I don't count zeros, and there are plenty of zeros I could record in the gradebook under your name. No. No, I don't know the details of what you have to live with, only the details of the life I bring to this role. & maybe I know the difference better than you, but to fully entertain this reality, I'm asking that you imagine you don't care what I know.

Could be that's not much of a stretch. I keep trying to remember the name of the man who played this role for me, the man who guided & guarded the half-year that was sixth grade for me, & I keep failing. I can tell you what he looked like. He had good hair. Short hair, but a full head, unlike mine, shorn clean so I get the jokes about polishing. Young to my middle-aged. Wore a tie every day, same as me now. Handsome. He got me for the second half of the year, the first half taken up, over a thousand miles away, by an extended truancy brought on by necessity, & although I can claim no knowledge of the specifics he received about his new charge, my guess is he didn't know much more than that he had another student. I'm curious, because I have no way--short time-intensive & ultimately unreliable reflection--of knowing, if I ever gave him cause to clench his lips, as I do now, against a tide of remembrance, knowing that I was not ready for the lesson he felt prepared to give.

I admire, grudgingly, your intelligence, the laser point of your instinctual grasp of what will best bring on those minute tremblings of rage, & the self-castigation that a forty-year-old should feel at being reduced to mute anger by a twelve-year-old. I submit b/c I know my culture well enough to know that this is the barest beginning of a long tragi-comedic journey, half Falstaff, half Prospero, one hundred percent Grandpa Simpson. Should I have the strength to force the moment to its crisis? All unspoken. Also unspoken: among the many things the poets were wrong about, this habit of erecting monuments to self contains nothing of discipline. It is among the most basic of instincts. It occurs far too naturally, & while I may be new to the context particular to our exchange, I have taught long enough to know that the skill of disappearing, of stepping out of the path of learning, of not only claiming no credit, but actively denying that it was the product of anything but diligence on the part of the student, is a skill crucial to success. Really. Where will you aim your laser should your teacher have stealth enough to simply vanish?

You're laughing. I couldn't be more serious. Which is precisely why you are right to laugh. My reaction to your pointed words is proof enough that I've yet to master my own lesson. & I would presume to teach you?

I honestly can't remember his name. It wasn't a priority then. By the time I thought it important, his name was so buried away in events that I couldn't retrieve it. Nor, really, can I remember anything--anything--he taught me in that half year. I can, however, tell you the name of the boy who sat next to me. His name was William. He had black, unkempt hair, usually greasy. No friends. A steady stream of jokes, pop references to shows and music that I, fed a steady Mormon diet of country, gospel, & Elvis, had yet to encounter. Mr. Bill. Cheech and Chong. Came in every Monday with a news spoof, probably much more aligned to Weekend Update than I could possibly have known, having been forbidden from watching SNL. Ever, as my mother had it. "Funny news brought to you by funny cigarettes." Naive first peeks into a world I'd soon be fully immersed in, within two years a ward of the state, shuttled through juvie and the box of Zane Grey's they maintained for just such an event. At Risk. In Transit. There's a potential home in Taylorsville, but we haven't confirmed yet. "What's a funny cigarette?"

I remember both the surname & given name of the student who won the 6th grade spelling bee. Andy Draper, clean cut, crisp, ironed clothes, future elder of the church. Would fly into a blind rage when we teased him by calling him Andy Paper, from Puff the Magic Dragon. Even remember the exact word that made him champion.

Ptarmigan. P-t-a-r-m-i-g-a-n. Ptarmigan. As indelible in my mind as chiseled rock. I will likely utter it breathlessly, cryptically, on my deathbed.

But I cannot, no matter how much I point my mind toward it, remember my teacher's name.

The only thing I remember is this: that nameless man maintained, in his classroom, a store of paper, heavier stock than mere copy paper, cut into neat halves to approximate the right size, upon which we were to write our own books. I wrote three in the course of half a year. Highly derivative, all: an admixture of the sci-fi fare then popular, blending Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars. A trilogy. Premise: a deadly plague has broken out on the planet Earth, endangering not only humans, but all life, & threatening to render Earth uninhabitable. Fortunately, the American government, with unprecedented foresight, had built a giant spaceship, capable of housing half of the world's population. The first book was devoted to The Trauma of Deciding Who Got Left Behind. The second, A Chronicle of the Perils Our Pioneers Encounter in Deep Space. The third, The Discovery & Establishment of a New Home. In short, space dreck. But space dreck that was beloved not only by myself, but by a man who took those penciled pages home, punched careful holes in the left-hand margin, and bound those books together with brass brads.

His name? No clue. Did I follow procedures? Did I raise my hand for permission to speak? Did I ask permission to leave my desk? Did I refrain from eating in the classroom?

I don't know.

I will, in remembrance of him, shoulder this disrespect--is it disrespect? But in light of your deft amendment to my original statement, may I offer, silently, my own amendment to yours?

You just don't want to work with me today.

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