Tuesday night, I was in Ann Arbor for Community High’s graduation ceremony. While each and every member of the class of 2005 got the chance to say a few words—I was particularly impressed with the girl who quoted Cicero in Latin—I was not invited to speak. As the proprietress of my very own blog, though, I can talk whenever I want, and I would like to take this opportunity to drop a little wisdom on my young friends and former students.
When I was teaching at Community, I tried to fill my classes with delightful information and thought-provoking images, but that was just to get your attention. (Note to teachers: you should be aware that, if you use the phrase “hot girl on girl action” in front of a room full of teens, said teens will not only remember that moment forever, but they will also repeat those words back to you at every opportunity.) I wasn’t really interested in teaching you facts: I was interested in teaching you to question everything—not with cynicism, but with honest wonder and a respect for complexity. I didn’t just want you to learn: I wanted to give you new tools for learning. I wanted to make you think, because I believe in thinking.
With this recent rite de passage behind you, you are about to embark on a unique time in your life—maybe not the best time, but probably the coolest. You are now bona fide adults, but you have not yet acquired any of the major accoutrements of adulthood. Children, a spouse, a career, a mortgage, a debilitating amount of credit-card debt: You should not be in a rush to obtain any of these—especially that last one. You should be enjoying the rights and privileges of your age while avoiding as many unnecessary responsibilities and entanglements as you can.
You are passing from adolescence into the golden realm of post-adolescence. If the former is a period of physical revolution, the latter is the time for intellectual, emotional, and spiritual transformation. You should give yourself some freedom, some room to move around. Feed your brain and your heart and give them space to grow. Experiment with experience, but try to avoid alcohol poisoning and the really hard drugs. Don’t just practice safe sex: Be kind and smart, too. If you’re on your way to college, take all the classes that interest you, even if they aren’t in your major and don’t fulfill any of your requirements. Be aware that your freshman roommate will probably be a nightmare beyond your worst imagining, but the experience will make for good stories later in life. Those of you who aren’t going away to school should move out of your parents’ house as soon as you can realistically manage: This is much more important than saving up for a new car or some other expensive bullshit. And, again, please do not ruin your peace of mind and your credit rating buying crap you can’t really afford—it’s so not worth it.
I seem to be wandering into the realm of practical advice, which, if memory serves, is the kind of thing people your age are quite tired of hearing. It’s only because I care. But I shall stop now, and leave you with this: Have as much fun as you possibly can, because it’s never going to be easier to do than it is right now.
What to Read: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
At this time last year, I was teaching a high-school class called “Dreams and Nightmares: Literature of the Sublime and the Uncanny”. The first book we read was The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Although some of my lesson plans met with more success than others, I think that it was, on the whole, an excellent pedagogical tool. The haunted house is, of course, the ne plus ultra of the uncanny as defined by Freud—the German term used by Freud, unheimlich, basically translates to “un-home-like” or “un-homey”—so Jackson’s story of a house that is “not sane" was a fine place to begin our class. The book also gave us a chance to talk about Freud’s theory of repression, which several of the youngsters found compelling, and every adolescent pays close attention to the teacher when the topic of conversation is lesbians.
The children were not nearly as fascinated by the concept of folie á deux as I was, nor did they care at all about the Misses Moberly and Jourdain and their strange story’s impact on Jackson’s narrative. While I am always disappointed by a lesson plan that goes nowhere, I had been teaching long enough not to be terribly surprised. What did surprise me, though—shocked me, really—was the fact that none of my students seemed to find The Haunting of Hill House at all frightening because, in my opinion, The Haunting of Hill House is really fucking scary.
I am not alone in thinking this. When, after I first read this book, I asked Sarah Hand if she had ever read it, her immediate response was a guttural noise of terror. When I asked my mom, the very question made her shudder. My first reading of the book prompted a physiological reaction that remains, for me, unique: my eyes watered from fear. This was not, I must explain, weeping. It was something else altogether, more like a cold sweat pouring from my eyes than crying. I just finished reading the book for a third time, and it still gives me the shivers.
I’ve tried to figure out why it is that the children didn’t find this book scary. It’s possible that they have been desensitized by the unsubtle gore and cartoonish morbidity of popular horror. But I wonder, too, if Jackson’s narrative of dissolution—of a woman losing her identity—might not be be properly appreciated only by people of some maturity. Adolescents are in flux anyway, just figuring themselves out; perhaps the idea of loss of self is not all that terrifying to people who are only just developing a self. And, reading the novel for a third time, I am struck anew by the calm elegance of Jackson’s prose. Without ever raising her voice or resorting to extravagant language, she is able to communicate situations that are absolutely existentially wrong—states of being that simply should not be. It’s impossible to describe how chilling some of her passages are, because to describe them—to paraphrase—would rob them of their considerable power. To appreciate these moments, though, requires patience and careful reading—not necessarily the kind of reading employed by students who have to get to page 163 before the next class.
So, anyway, I still can’t say why the teens weren’t scared by The Haunting of Hill House but I continue to find it terrifying after multiple readings. It’s a mystery. I can say however, that I stand by original assessment: this book is really fucking scary.
In class today we read some fairy tales, including a bizarre iteration of Little Red Riding Hood in which a cat calls the heroine a "slut" for eating the flesh and drinking the blood of her grandmother. Everyone was wondering how cannibalism turns a girl skanky when I suggested that this might be an antiquated use of the word slut, one which means "slattern" or "slob" more than "hoochie." Then one of my students said, "Like in Wuthering Heights" and my heart sang. This student was in my class last semester, a class in which I did, indeed, explain the evolution of the word slut and how Emily Brontë's understanding of the term differed from our own. I'm always a little bit thrilled by any evidence that my students have actually learned something from me.
Kids Say the Darndest Things
So, I was in class, trying to talk about human productsmarrow, fat, powdered brainused in medieval pharmacology, when I noticed that two of my students were looking at me and giggling. "What's so funny?" I asked.
At first, of course, they tried to demur with, "Nothing," but I persisted and finally one of them said, "Your wristband." I should point out at this time that my wristband was black leather, with spikes on it. It is an integral component in my "punk-preppy" look, which, in this case, consisted of a Ralph Lauren golf shirt, a v-neck Shetland sweater, and the aforementioned hardware.
Anyway, I asked what was so comical about my choice of accessory. Rather than answer my question, the student countered with one of his own: "Did you get it at Hot Topic?" A room full of teens burst into laughter.
Lacking the presence of mind to come up with a cool and cutting reply, I simply squealed "No!" and felt my face flush with mortification, and that was that. I looked at my lesson plan, took a deep breath, and got back to teaching.
Kids can be so cruel.
One of the common features of Gothic texts is an overabundance of meanings. When I was teaching Wuthering Heights, I tried to explain to my students how this can be exhilarating or it can be terrifying. It can point the way to infinite abundance, or the void.
Most of the time, I am excited about teaching. I have always been a relentless reader, and I feel lucky to be able to share my experience with students. Most of the time, I find research thrillingthat's really not too strong a word for it. I am, more often than not, struggling to decide what to leave out, rather than hunting down materials to fill up my lesson plans. Sometimes, though, my enthusiasm turns into doubt and despair. If a text is about demon lovers and the disappearance of God and the industrial revolution and the rise of the proletariat and a corrective to Paradise Lost, is it really about anything? Or is it just fodder for graduate students who need an original dissertation topic? I find myself wondering why I care.
I would like to say that I have an answer for that question, that I have a incontrovertible response that never falls to restore my faith in books and the teaching of them, but I don't. I could say that this existential crisis is just one manifestation of my general melancholia, and not a problem with books themselves, but that doesn't solve the problem. Rather, it opens it up. It's true: My problem isn't with books; it's with meaning and the absence of meaning, and here, perhaps, we discover why I teach the books I teach in the first place.
I don't believe in books with answers. I believe that these answers arenecessarily, inherentlylies. I believe that they are the product of limited imagination or cynicism, possibly both. I am skeptical of solace. Gothic stories don't offer the ease of solutions. They offer endings, but these endings are seldom consoling and often raise more questions than they answer. There's no comfort in this, but the constant terror and elusive joy of giving shape to nothingness.
Sometimes, when I teach, I feel myself lose my students. It's an almost physical sensation, like all the oxygen has been sucked from the room. It's awful.
I need my students. Even when they're not talking, I need their support, the sustenance of their attention and understanding. If I'm connecting with just one or two of them, I have the energy that I need to teach.
Today, I lost them. I was trying to explain the connection between the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement, and I got off on a not entirely fruitful tangent about the Declaration of Independence. As I turned from my chalkboard list of Enlightenment ideals to look at my students, it was like running into a brick wall. It almost made me dizzy.
This moment used to make me panic. My brain would empty, and I would babble and stumble, fumbling with my notes until I pulled myself together again. I'm much more smooth nowtoday I recovered with barely a stutterbut it's still awful.
Except for my unfortunate detour into the genius of the Founding Fathers, my introduction to Frankenstein was pretty good. I had photocopied a brief biography of Mary Shelley written for young people, but I took it upon myself to correct some of the elisions in this potted life-of-the-artist. As I suspected, the kids were impressed by the more dramatic details of Shelley's unconventional life. The teens love a rebel, which, I suspect, is part of the reason they love Frankenstein. I also grabbed their attention with a nineteenth-century depiction of a "galvanised corpse." You just can't go wrong with gore.
One of the things that I adore about my students is that I can count on them to say what's on their minds, so even when I have to lecture, I will probably be interrupted, and, in the happiest instances, the students end up doing a little of the lecturing for me. A discussion about Frankenstein's epigraph from Paradise Lost"Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?"turned into a lively debate about the ethics of cloning, of stem-cell research, of abortion, and the philosophical and theological questions posed by modern science. This debate was begun by one of my students, which was marvelous. While the young people are happy to argue with each other, if I had asked, "What kind of issues does cloning raise?", I would have been met with blank stares.
Teaching a Monster
I read Frankenstein for the first time a few years ago. I could not believe how boring it was, how lumbering and prolix. I found the very shape of the novel exhausting: The conceit of Frankenstein and then his creature talking, endlessly, for page upon page, left me weary and raw, like a long train ride with a seatmate who will not shut up. Of course, the fact that the creature spoke at all, let alone in the high-flown language of a classical rhetorician, was a bit of a shock, as it must be for many contemporary readers.
My first exposure to Frankenstein's monster was (unless you count many sweet, pink bowls of Frankenberry) watching James Whale's 1931 picture on a long-ago Saturday afternoon. Boris Karloff's dumb, halting creature elicited a confused sympathy in my childish heart, like an ugly baby or a puppy who pees on the floor. His inarticulate roars and mewlingshis desperate and doomed attempts to connectmade him pitiful instead of grotesque. Mary Shelley's monster was, by comparison, exasperating: precocious, malevolent, and too longwinded to be charming. I don't remember why I even finished Frankenstein, but I do remember being relieved when I finally did.
When I decided to teach a class called "Monsters in Literature", it was obvious that I would not be able to avoid Frankenstein. I was trying to figure out if I could conceptualize skipping it as a bold break from the monstrous canon, rather than a selfish and irresponsible omission, when I looked at the customer reviews at Amazon. There were a lot of them, most of them raves, and most of them obviously written by youngsters. It occurred to me that there must be something to this strange, difficult, awkward book that I was missing. In deciding to teach Frankenstein, I hoped that my students could help me understand it.
Teaching Frankenstein did change my relationship to the novel. Not only did my students provide me with alternate approaches to the text, but my research enriched my reading immeasurably. Frankenstein remains a frequently infuriating and generally unmanageable text, but I have to appreciate those characteristics as aspects of its genius. As I embark upon the perilous adventure of teaching it to a new group of students, I hope to discover new wonders in its unruly and inexhaustible wilderness.
So, one of my students made fun of my metaphors. No one has ever made fun of my metaphors before. It was a bit of a shock.
This story would be better if I could remember what my metaphor was (perhaps in future tellings I'll make something up), but, anyway, I said something and all the kids looked at me like I was crazy, so I said, "I was speaking metaphorically." One student, Steven, continued to look at me bemusedly. So I asked, "What?"
STEVEN: [Laughing.] Nothing.
ME: That was a perfectly good metaphor.
STEVEN: [More laughing.]
ME: Seriously: What?
STEVEN: You've got to admit, some of your metaphors are kind of out there.
ME: [Aghast.] Out there? My god, no one has ever dissed my metaphors before. I'm mortified.
STEVEN: I'm sure you'll come up with some better ones.
ME: Accckkkk! Is that supposed to make me feel better?
STEVEN: [Opening mouth to speak.]
ME: Oh my god, stop talking!
At this point, all the students were cracking up, as my voice had reached a comically shrill pitch. I was, in fact, aiming for comedy, so as to regain control of the situation and salvage whatever remained of my authority, but, in reality, I was still reeling.
As I can't go on living if I believe that there is, indeed, something amiss with my metaphors, I have decided that this experience is further evidence of my belief that the young people do not like metaphors. Sure, they can handle a nice, blunt analogy, and they know teachers will ask them about blindingly obvious symbolism, but I can feel their resistance as an almost physical thing if I try to take a text somewhere they don't want to go. I can't quite figure out what, exactly, they're resisting, thoughwhether they think i'm trying to put one over on them, or if they just don't like the idea of arcane or even multiple meanings.
I think that my students trust me for the most partthat they don't perceive me as a peddlar of intellectual snake oilso I'm inclined to believe that ambiguity and uncertainty make them uncomfortable. Ambiguity and uncertainty make everyone uncomfortable to some degree, but perhaps these states hold special horror for the teens, as they dwell in a pretty much continuous continuous state of confusion and flux. Maybe they want words to simply mean what they say. Maybe they want literature to give them rock-solid answers instead of compelling them to ask questions.
If this is the case, it's too bad for my students. I don't care if they remember the name of Cathy's big brother in Wuthering Heights five years from now, but I hope I've taught them the wonder of ambiguity and necessity of asking questions.
Are You Hot?
I teach a class called "The History of Gender" to high school students. Right now, we're slogging through ancient Greece. I find it all terribly interesting, but one of my students recently informed me that the class is "not as sexy" as he thought it would be, and I think he was speaking for his colleagues. So, this we week took a pop culture break to watch an episode of Joe Millionaire. We've devoted a lot of time to discussing the physical appearance of participants in the show. Is Zora fat or isn't she? Concensus is that she is not, but that she is fat for TV. Is Sarah a natural blonde? My students all agree that she is not. No one, it seems, finds Evan at all hot. I've tried to explain that, regardless of our individual opinions, Evan is supposed to be hotin the universe of the show, he is hot. Clearly, I have not had a lot of success making this conceptual point, as the response tends to be, "But he is so not hot?"
I should point out that only the girls in the class are willing to voice an opinion on Evan's level of attractiveness, while the boys keep their viewsif they have themto themselves. I should also point out that the girls all think Evan is a doofus, and I believe this colors their feelings about his attractiveness. Their opinions about the attractiveness of the women on the show is similarly biased: They don't care if Zora dyes her hair, because she is nice; with Sarah, on the other hand, dark roots are the outward sign of her dark, greedy, duplicitous soul.
All of this, I believe, goes some way towards explaining why a show like Are You Hot cannot work. Somehow, I was unaware of this program's existence, but Heather Havrilesky offers a scary synopsis and analysis at Salon. While it's undeniably pleasant to look at hot people, it's even more pleasant when there's some sort of emotional connection. And, that connection has to be there in order for public humiliation to be entertaining. Would watching Mojo get the boot have been as much fun without the love poetry, without the sad, bizarre jigsaw puzzle? I think we can all agree that the answer is "no."
On a tangential note, while looking at gender roles on Joe Millionaire, my students and I discovered that Paul the butler is neither man nor woman. While he is certainly male, he has low status, no money, he has access to both Evan's quarters and the women's wing, he's a foreigner, and he's bitchy, all of which makes him suspiciously unmasculine.