Friday, January 11, 2008
WRITTEN WORD 56 - Inconvenient Stories
Although I never expected the job to last, for the moment all was well. This was because the rural community college, which paid me, was fifteen miles away from the high school, where I gave the course - far away enough so they could have little idea of what I was doing. As for the high school authorities – the principal's secretary let me know – with great glee – how easy it would be to ignore her bosses. I knew they wouldn't like it. But I was there only three times a week, and I moved in and out of the school so fast in the early morning that it might be awhile before they caught me. It was a cloak and dagger time, me infiltrating the enemy camp, making contract with the detainees, posing all the while as a professor.
Me and these high school kids – and in the background always my own adolescence. Life and hope here in the beautiful hills of this dying area, which was leading into memories of hopelessness and hope in the landscape of my past.
In old New Hampshire the summer towns had excluded non-whites and non-Christians. Here 40 years later in the far northern Catskills it got more complicated – as I learned from what these kids wrote.
Each village the central high school served centered on a single ethnicity of descent – Italian, or black-haired dumpling-eating German, or blonde potato-eating German, or Polish, or Irish – each tight little crumbling village isolated from the others.
And yet, as in old New Hampshire, there could in this landscape be the chance of so much more. A girl whose parents were from Scotland, a girl whose face showed everything she was feeling, wrote about applause caressing and enveloping her in the school auditorium – feeling strong and beautiful as the lead, Nellie Forbush, in "South Pacific." And she wrote of how she was going to have a truly glamorous life, once she got out of here. Though some days she said she was too angry to write.
One boy, who wrote as a poet about nature and love, also wrote about his family-ordained, planned-out future as an engineer. When he received early acceptance to prestigious Rensselaer Polytechnic, his parents withdrew him from our advanced placement English class. It was a waste of money, they said, since Rensselaer was a serious non-artsy place. But this boy kept on coming to our class anyway – and writing poetry.
Two of the girls, best friends since second grade, wrote of their summer jobs now as Can Can dancers in a roadside Old West attraction called Carson City. That was the little rickety Western amusement place, the sight of which lifted the spirits of Claude the dog and me on our many drives north.
In the class we read – D.H. Lawrence, Robert Frost, Chekhov, Nelson Algren, Wordsworth, Irish short stories. Often I showed movies.
I made some mistakes. I tried Camus and I liked the humanity of The Plague but found that his romantic glorification of despair, aloneness and absurdity, which had once seemed so advanced to me, now seemed kind of silly. Two girls liked the alienation parts, but I was the only one in the room who enjoyed The Plague's story.
I had the kids buy Strunk & White's Elements of Style, thinking the old New Yorker standby E.B. White would be a help when he talked of how to handle the language. But I found him now to be in a league with the more recent Rhetorical Modes people in his insistence on rules of grammar and his horror of anyone using the passive voice. Another mistake was that I showed, without watching it first, a documentary about Sylvia Plath, which turned out to be mostly Plath's awful mother's version of what happened, backed up by interviews with very correct and pompous literary-academic friends who tried to sugar coat all the factors, the mother's role included, on Plath's road to suicide. They were out to again bury Plath, who apparentlly scared them even when she was dead.
Sometimes I read poems aloud, and sometimes kids wrote poetry. I read them Plath's horrendous "Daddy," about her Nazi-like father. That morning a together-seeming, good-girl seeming, short-haired blonde girl, who always sat quiet and composed at the front – that morning that good girl wrote just as horrendously about her own German father.
One lanky boy, always quiet, sitting off to the side – alone – no clique but connected to this room – he wrote first of books. He had discovered books. And he was coming to see a future beyond this region – and not the usual way out of joining the military or at best going to a very local chiropractor school. He was thinking of those bigger worlds that books had brought him.
Quite like how 40 years back in New Hampshire – when books told me more than some people thought was good for me – I too had wanted out, but not by the usual routes in our circles, not as a professor or a lawyer or a Foreign Service officer.
This quiet boy in the Catskills was coming to see himself as maybe, probably, certainly, a writer!
Every bit as much as the Scottish girl could feel at her core that she could be a star.
An every bit as much as, when in boarding school, I came to believe in a previously only dreamt of future.
One morning I did meet with the high school's English department chairman, a tightly wound, balding city-seeming man of studied casualness. He told me his own sad story – and also that I was wasting my time. Long ago he'd been a star at Brooklyn College, he said, and been accepted to medical school, but had decided instead to be an idealistic English teacher. And it had been a horrible mistake – just horrible! A wasted life. There was no respect anymore for learning. Not here. Actually not anywhere.
And, oh yes, had he told me he could have gone to medical school?
One girl brought in a story she had also given to her junior year English teacher. She said she had a reason for wanting me to read it too.
It was in the third person but clearly much of it was about herself. In it she called herself Darlene.Darlene's mother, who was Italian, had fallen in love with a handsome Irishman who got her pregnant. The mother's mother, the yet unborn Darlene's grandmother, had hated the Irishman – knowing him by small-town reputation as a drunk and scoundrel. Then Darlene was born, and there had been no marriage. The grandmother said that as far as she was concerned her daughter was dead. So mother and baby moved to the father's town 20 miles away.
The grandmother, it turned out, had been sort of right. The handsome Irishman ran off to Florida. The only way Darlene's mother could support herself and her child was by cleaning rooms and toilets at the dingy little tourist cabin complex that still dotted this dying resort area. But the worst part was that Darlene and her mother were like stateless people. They could not go home, for the grandmother had banished them. They had no place here.
In each of these towns everyone was connected – many by blood, all as extended family. But Darlene's mother, expelled from her own town, had no close friends here, and no hope of making any. And neither did Darlene. School children stayed away from her. Her father's family refused to recognize her.
But then something changed. The mother and grandmother were suddenly exchanging notes and calls. It was decided they would try a reconciliation.
So one day Darlene found herself over at her grandmother's house for their first-ever meeting – Darlene's first possible close connection.
No longer, she thought, would children shun her as an outsider. She and her mother would probably, she thought, move in with her grandmother – live together in a place where they would be accepted by everyone around them.
Darlene spotted something so fine and fascinating on the grandmother's side porch she thought it heralded this anticipated new life. It was a tufted white bird in a light green wicker cage.
But then as suddenly as these new possibilities had appeared, the dream ended. The reconciliation, it turned out, was only because the grandmother had cancer.The grandmother had seen to it that Darlene and her mother would always be outcastes.
The grandmother died before there were any more trips to her house – though she did make sure that someone took the white bird in the green wicker cage over to Darlene.
The story ended with the words:
"And every time Darlene looked at her bird, she knew for sure how alone she was, and how alone she would always be."
This had clearly frightened Darlene's junior year English teacher, who had written "B+" in red pencil on the last page – and in red pencil she'd crossed out the last sentence and written it the way it should be written:
"And every time Darlene looked at the bird her heart grew warm and she was happy as she thought of her loving family."