The Fall

[This is the third in a series of posts about my first year of teaching. If you would like to read more, please click on “Becoming Ms. Reed” under Categories. Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the people in this story.]

In the mornings, students waited outside for the bell to ring. Feet hanging over a brick wall, loud-talking, and smacking on “breakfast pizza,” yesterday’s left-overs from lunch. It made me nervous to walk through them from the car to the school. So much laughing and fondling. Their breath hung in the air between them, collecting in the chill of morning. Everything about these students–their language, their postures–grated against my raising of restraint, respect, and privilege. The students’ catcalls that followed me into the building left me speechless, any retort or Smart Words that might stop them had been pre-conditioned to stop short in my throat where they stuck like glue dripping down into my gut. Powerless. Defenseless. Victim. These are the words I knew. These are the words I spoke when I came home from work each evening to ears that couldn’t possibly understand.

The days melted together. First block broke my spirit and my teaching and energy waned from that class on, decaying into each day’s end. Favorite excuse for getting out of class? “I need to step out. Gotta break wind. You know.” What was I supposed to say? No? I found myself desperately clinging to lessons about grammar and literature so stale I could hardly suffer them myself. Curriculum. Worksheets. Coverage. Maybe do some art to make the room look pretty. (My colleagues were fond of poking fun at how colorful and bright my room was with all the stuff on the walls. They always walked in with their hands shielding their eyes, feigning blindness.)

I quickly discovered that class was much more bearable if it was held outside. This was true for me and for the students. The fresh air was enough to put off the snickering and gossip of the fight that broke out at the Piggly Wiggly between two of the girls in my fourth block class; enough to make me forget the rumor I had heard that each girl had armed herself with a razor in her mouth; enough to fill my lungs, which were being encroached upon by my breeched baby’s head more and more everyday; enough to remind me that these were people I was teaching. Bringing the class outside felt more humane than anything else I did as a teacher that semester.

Unspoken: Here, see the sun? See the grass? This is what we were made for. This is what the poets are writing about. We can all enjoy this. This is what makes us human. Me. And you. This is what we have in common.

There was a homeless pit bull with ribs sharp and jutting out at weird angles. Hollow. Fur matted. Its face was scary despite its weakness. Slack-jawed, tongue hanging dry, its walk was slow, always careening toward me it seemed. The dog elicited all sorts of jeering and laughing from the kids. My fear of the dog was transparent. Some days the students played to my fear, taunting the dog to come over. Other days, they shooed it away. I never knew the kind of day it would be.

What I knew for sure, everyday, was that the drive would be a kind of relief–a sweet purgatory between two worlds, two institutions, I struggled to fit into: school and marriage. School is the one that remains.

Today, it’s spring outside of my classroom window where I’m writing and the kids are at lunch. When they come back, we’re headed outside to read The Odyssey. I’ve taught this story every year since that first fall. It’s my favorite thing to teach because it’s about being human. Today we’re reading my favorite part: when the Cyclops gets his eye gouged out by Nohbdy. “Now comes the weird upon me,” he roars. I love the Greeks and their deep respect for fate.

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A Day Just Like This One

Today we made our way to Decatur for the largest independent book festival in the nation. We took the MARTA train. Public transportation always seems to smell like pennies and the hospital and hair and old sweatshirts and the palms of hands, and, in a strange way, I kind of like it. The cacophony of city sounds held my brain in a kind of cocoon: conversations in other softer languages, loud young mouths shouting about winning the lottery and clapping their hands stomping their feet, the roar of the train being sucked into its tunnels and back out again.

We heard Thomas Lux and Ellen Bryant Voigt talk about poetry and read some too. They both talked about how poetry is an act of discovery. How it’s important to challenge yourself, put yourself into a circumstance of not-knowing, which is the human condition, really. How the work of working through a poem or any piece of writing is what invites the discovery. How a poem without discovery is wooden. How if there’s no discovery for the writer, there’s no discovery for the reader. How poetry is composed of the most everyday moments of insight and appetite.

We schlepped back through the festival and around the corner for a Bees Knees Royale (read: gin, honey, lavendar, cava, citrus), then struck out again into the pitch-perfect September air that made our walk to the MARTA station feel like a gift. At the bottom of the stairs we descended to catch our train, there was a red balloon on a short string tied to the trashcan. The balloon felt like a poetic moment, even if its insight has escaped me.

We got home around 4:00 and did next-to-nothing until dinner at 10:30 at a funny little place around the corner. And, with Roger Miller pumping through the speakers, it was there that I had the best and lustiest buttermilk biscuit of my life. We had a lovely strange dinner of succotash and gnocci and yum. One Root Beer Float with vanilla rum and an umbrella straw later, and all 28 years of me are ready for bed.

‘Flicted with the Hubris

© 2010 David Parker

We started reading The Odyssey today in my AP class, and it’s got me thinking about quests and tests and challenges and nostos and hubris. Especially hubris, which is really a necessary flaw if you’re going to be an epic hero. I mean, being successful at anything requires a certain amount of ego, so if you’re going to be a fucking hero, I would imagine that you’d need maybe just a bit more hubris than the average guy. But in the end, the hubris is what brings the big boys to their knees. Well, hubris and fate.

The Odyssey was the first nail in my literary coffin. I read it my sophomore year of college in a Great Books class. It was the first time I realized that literature was about the human experience. It may have been the first time it was ever brought to my attention that there were certain universal aspects of being human. Except for the fact that Penelope never leaves the home, I love the narrative structure of The Odyssey: We begin with ourselves, our home; we go out into the world for a reason, on a quest; nothing goes the way we’d imagined it might; it takes a hell of a lot longer than we’d planned; we encounter challenges, battles, obstacles, monsters that test who-we-think-we-are; we eventually make it home (under strange sail and in exchange for a story); and nothing is as we remember it—not even ourselves. We thought we knew everything (hubris), we thought we were somebody (hubris), we bragged about how much of a somebody we thought we were (hubris), only to have our spirit sticks broken by the gods (fail). Just one big circle that begins and ends with me. And we arrive alone, without even our trusty hubris.

I think that’s why so many people experience success in their forties: it takes a long time and a lot of failing to get over the hubris. My twenties have been marked by arrogance and entitlement, and that too seems to be a universal piece of the human condition. Everyone is kind of an asshole in their twenties. We’re like Odysseus, messing over our accomplishments with our bragging. And my generation of braggarts is surely the worst yet as we proudly proclaim our cleverness from the tallest peaks of the Interwebs. Our status updates and tweets have a willingly captive audience and people like us. Social networking’s got us ‘flicted with the hubris. *heavy sigh* #kidsthesedays

Push It

© 2010 David Parker

I have this habit of taking a very simple task and turning it into a difficult one. Grocery shopping is one such task that ought to be easy: make a list, get what you need, pay, leave. The break down for me occurs when I have to make a decision about whether to grab a basket or a buggy. Whenever I get a basket, it’s always too big for me to carry because I get more than I need (like, oooh! I forgot I need a case of bottled water!). Whenever I get a buggy (as I did today), I wind up not getting as much and I tend to choose the buggy on days when the grocery store is its fullest. I never really noticed this habit of mine until David and I went to the store today and I grabbed a buggy (fool!).

We stopped in at the new Publix (the biggest thing that’s happened in this town this year). Their carts are really niiiiiiiiiiice (say it in your head with a long Southern drawl)–they glide rather than roll, they have a map of where stuff is in the store on the handle bar, and they don’t stick out too far. Anyways, we were maybe ten feet into the store (David pushing the cart), and he made some quip about how terribly domestic he felt. This occurred at the exact moment that the samples-woman yelled, “Sausage! It’s not just for breakfast anymore!” I’ve never paid much attention to it, but, because I had become so aware of David’s discomforts pushing the cart, I began to notice that there weren’t any men in the store pushing carts (with the exception of one elderly man who pushed for his also-elderly lady). Then, of course, we ended up with only three bags of groceries which could have been much more easily procured with two baskets.

I think the story of what-men-do and what-women-do has gotten rather tired, but it still strikes me as interesting when I see those narratives, predictable as they are, played out in front of me. This happens quite frequently as I reside in Alabama. It is even more interesting when these narratives are played out by me. These narratives are so much a piece of the fabric of our everyday lives that most of them go unnoticed by me (who is someone who notices a lot–especially when it comes to narratives and culture and self). Whenever one pops out at me in broad daylight, it’s startling. This sexed grocery-shopping experience startled me a bit in the moment, but was generally laughable.

Until I came home and learned something about the grocery cart’s story. Apparently, when the grocery cart was first invented, no one wanted to use them. Fashionable girls didn’t want to push them because, well, they were unfashionable. Men didn’t want to push them because it made them feel weak (and probably because, in the 1930’s, how many men were grocery shopping?). So Goldman (the guy who invented them) hired models of all ages and sexes to push them around the store pretending to shop. Once people began to use them, of course, they became indispensable and stores were redesigned to accommodate them, and, eventually, people would become so used to them that the idea that a grocery store could exist without the shopping cart would be absolutely unimaginable. The only thing more unimaginable than the nonexistence of grocery carts is perhaps the fact that people had to be taught how to use them. Because now we learn to grocery shop the way we learn how to be boys and girls, the way we learn to walk, the way we learn to speak: by watching everyone we know around us engaging in those behaviors. We especially watch models (like our parents and the cool kids in school).

Every year, I draw a picture of a goldfish on the board and I tell the class: The one thing that defines the fish is the thing that the fish is most unaware of. The answer is water. We don’t see the narratives, the beliefs, the cultural values that our lives are stitched by and for and with. And because we don’t see them, we don’t question them. The only thing that draws a fish’s attention to the water is the absence of it. Throw a fish out of water and it’s all Put me back in that other stuff! We’re the same way. We’re all swimming around in cultural narratives–we’re learning from and teaching countless cultural narratives as we make our way through the world. What’s crazy is that everybody always thinks they’re so above it all–so above sexism and racism and every kind of ism–especially people from very progressive places (like, not-the-South). And every time I catch my paradigm shifting (as in, Woah–a world without shopping carts has existed) it’s mind-blowing really. Because we’re all subject to one paradigm or another (or, for those of you who are trying to escape the Western preference for binaries, another). Even you.