Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Abstract Doesn't Work

Hi Readers! This is an extended version of an earlier blog entry for your Sunday reading pleasure.

Describe Your Favorite Food

I can’t remember the first time I carried a gun to class, you know, the particulars, the way the weather was or if I saw a carved-in jack-o-lantern on my way to class, you know, the details I’m always stressing to my students -- the abstract doesn’t work! I do, however, remember the student who inspired me to it, an ex-Marine named Karl who had an aura that said things, things like this man is a rapist/serial killer/torturer of animals. Karl wasn’t in class the first day I taught (by first day I mean, first day ever), and he got the writing prompt from another student and turned it into my box. His handwriting, extremely tiny print, scared me even before I saw him, although the story he wrote was not extraordinary. The second day of class, Karl walked in with his shirt off and a towel around his waist, as if he’d stepped out of the shower. Since it was storming outside, I tried to reconcile the scene, but try as I might, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right. As for me with my backpack and student-like wardrobe, I was the easiest-looking mark ever.

I had never taken an education class, never been in a classroom except as a student, and at the age of twenty-one, was ill-prepared to stare down twenty-five college students at a state university, particularly one who kept mentioning his great skill with deadly weapons, no scratch that, he didn’t need a weapon, he could kill with his bare hands! Not a Pollyanna by nature, I hadn’t expected a bunch of learning-hungry types with eyes and apples only for me, but this exceeded even the 70s classic Scared Straight video. What did the old fair, firm, and friendly advice mean in such a setting? Lucky for me, the rhetoric professor in the department was assigned to watch over me and help me in the lion’s den for my first semester. A kind woman in her thirties, I felt her to be both unintimidating and soothing, if a little uninspired in her classroom exercises. Nonetheless, I used them with great hope. I wasn't a natural teacher, despite all those years of exercising control over a few stuffed animals and my small chalkboard. All the props of teaching suited me -- it was the actual classroom time that wasn't my forte.

One of these exercises -- describe your favorite food without saying what the food is -- seemed, well, ill-advised even by my own dismal standards. I worried about Karl for good reason -- his paper contained a graphic description of what could be interpreted as a) oral sex or b) eating a kiwi. I took this scrap to my mentor. She showed it to the head of freshman English, a lively woman in her eighties who read it with a look of someone smelling something foul and told me that I would not be dealing with this horror much longer. Karl left my class, having to report to an older male teacher with a take no prisoners approach to teaching. But like most stories, the problem wasn’t even close to being over. Karl always seemed to be in the shadows (the term stalking was just coming into fashion), and I’d already dealt with being a victim of sexual violence years earlier. In response I developed a fear I couldn’t quite shake. I’d fixate on his old chair during class, a chair nobody ever sat in, despite the fact that there was no formal seating arrangement.

I kept teaching, fear bleeding into each day, little by little. I spent a lot of time in public bathrooms, trying to get a hold of myself. I didn't have a choice. And the saga wasn't over yet -- Karl ended up in the huge lecture hall where I was assigned to be one of the assistants for the professor. I had to decide whether to give up the class (summer classes being valuable and rare for grad students) or endure. I endured. Through lectures on Homer, I stared at the asshole, wishing him dead. I remember the last day with a surprising clarity -- clad in a white and red horizontally-striped dress (big fashion mistake) with an angel pin that someone had given me for protection, I watched as he took his final and left early. I'd survived, but it had cost me a lot -- my romantic relationship suffered, my weight fluctuated like mad, and my hair had started to fall out. It was a pyrrhic victory by any standards.

Years later in a writing workshop, the professor instructed us to write a story about someone carrying around something unexpected. I thought about the gun. It hadn’t lasted forever, despite the fact that I had a permit for it and the right to carry it in the state of Texas. Its weight eventually became too much to bear. I traded my student backpack in for a satchel. I moved to Detroit, lost my fear. I didn’t, however, use the describe your favorite food exercise ever again and kiwis always remind me of what I tell my students about words being powerful. The exercise didn’t do much for the students, but I never forgot it.

Michelle's Spell of the Day

"Did you ever feel like nothing good was going to happen to you?" "Yeah, and nothing did. So what? I'm alive. I'm surviving." exchange between Christopher and Paulie on The Sopranos

Cocktail Hour

Drinking music suggestion: Love You Live Rolling Stones

Benedictions and Maledictions

36 days until The Sopranos airs!


the walking man said...

it's real hard to intimidate someone 110 lbs, just starting a new portion of their career. I'd be willing to bet that he enjoyed seeing the look on your face when you saw him because it automatically transferred that same fear to a bunch of kids even younger than you were.

Fucking Marines anyway. We learned in Navy boot camp that a marine really wasn't a marine until he had his ass kicked by a sailor. Take a bar full of guys with 3 months owrth of built up testerone from being to sea, a bar full of Marines and to be honest with you I never saw anything other than your usual bar brawl and there were just as many jarheads quitting the fight as there were sailors.

Your boy just needed someone in the room that he couldn't intimidate, and laugh at his prancing gorilla routine.

But *sigh* these are the days of our lives that make for good stories.

Why hello your royal grouchiness!

Charles Gramlich said...

A student I met online one time sent me a satellite picture of my house and college with three main traffic routes marked in red. She asked, "which route do you take to work?" And then added with a "LOL", "I'd make a good stalker wouldn't I?"

Herman Northrup Frye said...

You write of " a lively woman in her eighties." Priceless.

Gene Siskel said...

Just when I was beginning to like Tony Blundetto(Steve Buscemi)Tony Soprano shotguns him. Nobody does crazy like Steve(e.g., "Fargo"). He SO looks the part.

Man Ray said...

Your photos are so comical and inventive, Michelle. I can see why you would be married to a photographer.

Jason said...

Karl sounds like a creepy shit, but as someone like me, who's size intimidates people, it becomes a huge effort to make sure people know I'm not going to hurt them. It gets annoying.

This post makes me fell guilty for things I wrote in your class.

Jason said...

A cleaner link

Steve Malley said...

I remember early on when I started carrying, pushing my trolley around the supermarket feeling like I had a damn toaster strapped to my hip!

Felt like my weapon weighed twenty-odd pounds, but when I finally quit carrying (didn't want to bring the sickness with me to NZ) it felt like part of me had been amputated.

John Ricci said...

Billy Joel anyone? As always, I love you just the way you are and I would never want to change one thing about you. I would provide all the basic needs, of course. You could write and would never have to waitress or work at a dismal 7-11. Another Bravo to another lovely view and post from my favorite Catholic girl!

Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Jason,

You were fine! Don't be silly -- I adored your writing. This was a the start of my teaching and I definitely didn't have a handle on anything, much less a composition class.

Anita said...

Wow, that's pretty impressive that you were able to conquer your fears under the situation ... I would have choked well before getting the courage to bring a gun.