“Mr. Talley!” I am a high school literature teacher spending a week of my enviably free summer volunteering at a local outdoors camp. A student of mine is shouting at me from across the field where I stand. As I turn toward her, I can see that she clearly has a bone to pick. Her strides are long, her fists are closed, her posture is indignant and her chin is pointed toward the heavens.
So, this should be fun.
“What can I do for you?” I find it best to be jovial in situations like this- convivial and nonsensical, even. Preposterous. Humor neutralizes most anything. (That’s a tip, kids. Take notes.)
“I can’t believe you had us read that book!” She stomps up, facing me directly. Her fists are at her sides and with her elbows locked, she looks something like a petulant toddler whose request for juice has just been denied. She’s smiling and she means to be taken only half-seriously, but if I didn’t know any better, I’d certainly be gearing up for a fight.
“Read what book?”
“You know what book!”
“I teach an awful lot of classes. Between that and the very real fact that I can rarely remember whose child I am and you’ll understand if I’m a little foggy. It is, after all, summertime.”
She laughs. This is good.
“That Blue- something or other book.”
“So, you’re complaining to me about a book whose title you cannot recall? Seems as though I ought to be the one to complain, don’t you think?”
“Oh, Mr. Talley, you know what I mean! It’s the one with the guy whose name is all weird! Ruh-ha-bo Kuh-ra-beek-an? I can’t pronounce it. The uh- you know- the uh-”
“The title is Bluebeard. It’s by Kurt Vonnegut and the character’s name is pronounced “Ray-bo Kare-uh-beek-ee-an”. Now why are you so upset about the book? It’s wonderful!”
“Well, uh- its content is a little suspect, don’t you think?”
This is an immediately sobering sentence and I feel a pang of sorrow. This student- vivacious and lively though she is- has temporarily been rendered a parrot of her parents. I understand it, of course, but it still makes me genuinely sad.
“Why do you say that?” My charade is dropped, I am now concerned.
“Well, my mom read it first and when she handed it to me,” the student mimics her mother handing her the book so exactly that even the mildly disgusted facial expression is there. “She said, ‘Here you go, sweetheart. It’s uh- well, just be careful in a few parts.’”
“Be careful in a few parts? What does that mean?” I’m aware, of course, that this novel has a few scenes regarding sex and rampant violence. Its main character experienced the Second World War and his memories of that time period- as well as life with the Abstract Expressionist (read: very drunken) painters in the years that follow- can be graphic, but never more so than the average episode of CSI, House, Law and Order or any other cable drama.
“Oh, Mr. Talley!” She is inexplicably exasperated- which is a common response to my brand of conviviality. Perhaps she wasn’t anticipating having to explain herself. She speaks with her long arms and feather-like hands. Hands that have unfurled and are fanning the space in front of her with her palms toward the sky. Onlookers might assume that she was trying to explain the mysteries of the universe or perhaps even describing something very heavy, rather than that she was at an entire loss for words in front of her literature teacher. “It’s just so- you know- so-”
“Are you referring to his language?”
“Are you referring to the acts of war and violence that he graphically and frankly discusses?”
“Are you referring to the scene in which a woman admits to debasing herself in order to get ahead in life?”
“YE- Wait, what’s debasing?”
I laughed, as I am wont to do. She, however, did not understand the joke.
“Well then, what do you think of the ending chapters? The last scenes?” I ask.
“Well, I guess, yeah. Bu- that was the only part I liked.”
“And why was that, do you think?”
“Well, I dunno, it just- seemed better than everything else. Like it tied it all up, you know?”
“The word you’re searching for is ‘redemptive’.”
“Okay, yeah. That.”
“And doesn’t that then make the entirety of the book better?”
“The end of the book. Does its redemption of the main character and his life make the entirety of the book better?”
“I don’t understand.”
This, then, is what is so sad to me about this girl, her mother and her reaction to the novel itself. With every sentence she read, with every scene she envisioned, with every character who spoke to her, she- whether subconsciously or actively and readily- was waiting for the other shoe to drop and for the “be careful” to kick in. As such, she never read the novel, nor did she hear what it and its author had to say about the horrors and depravity of war, nor about art, humanity and the effects of isolation and community.
She did not read it. She judged it.
This is, of course, too bad. Vonnegut is a treasure of American literature and humanity whose humor, wit and candor about the difficulties of life have helped countless people cope with and come through those difficulties a little less scathed than they might have been otherwise.
Ah, but I’m not through yet.
“Cyle,” a parent of another student has approached me later that same evening. She too, is helping at the camp. She’s a wonderful woman, one whom I’ve come to appreciate more and more the longer I’ve been at the school. “I wonder about the summer reading.”
Seriously? I think to myself. This again?
“What are you wondering about?”
“Well, what it’s about, of course.”
“How do you mean?”
“It’s content. You know, like the plot line. The Shadow of the Wind sounds a little dark.”
She isn’t being overtly aggressive, though she has been in the past. She once told me, “What you have them read is between you and God. You’ll be held accountable.”
I realize that I work for a Christian school, but this struck me as over the top. Still, I cannot begin to fathom what it must be like to have a child and to be responsible not only for their well-being, but for the formation of their character and judgment and so I was polite in my response.
“Well, it’s about a little boy who finds a rare book. As it turns out, the book is the last of its kind because every other copy has been destroyed by mysterious shadowy figure. Before long, the shadowy figure shows up and the boy sails headlong into the mystery and indeed, history of the book, its author and the author’s life story. It’s a wonderful book- one of my favorites.”
She considers what I’ve just said. It’s a very pregnant pause. I find myself waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“OH!” Her face lights up. “I’ve read that book! It IS great! Oh, I don’t know why I always get so concerned with you, Cyle! You have them read great stuff!”
The day’s interactions have left me a bit perturbed.
I do not know when books became things to be distrusted by parents who are actively involved in their children’s lives. I am not certain when Netflix became a better filter of content than a teacher. I only know that these sorts of conversations have become (and, I imagine, will continue to be) weekly affairs for me since I became a teacher. I suspect the same can be said for English/Literature teachers everywhere. In my logical, rational brain, I know that parents are simply trying to do the right, responsible thing and that these conversations ought to be uplifting rather than degrading, horrifying and indeed, debasing. Ah, but alas, how much more true the latter qualifiers are!
Is it not quality novels that will help people discern right from wrong? Morality from amorality? Is it not fiction of the highest orders that will create eloquent and thoughtful citizens and, indeed, human beings? Is it not literacy that helps us to define our culture, our humanity and indeed, ourselves? If not for Atticus Finch, how would we know the need to fight for justice even when we are beaten before we begin? If not for George Milton, how do we know that care and concern for those close to us trumps our own personal needs? Who better than Elizabeth Bennet to show us all- men and women alike- that marriage and children are fine and well and good, but that personal worth, dignity and character reign supreme (and indeed, that one ought not to rely solely on initial judgements!)?
The examples are endless.
Perhaps then what I am so concerned about has already been said- and infinitely better- by Vonnegut and Rabo Karabekian. In Bluebeard, Karabekian, the “erstwhile American painter” and long-time hermit widow has had his mansion and quiet life in the Hamptons raided and turned upside down by a fellow widow (and famous author), Circe Berman. “The Widow Berman” tells Karabekian that “the inclusion of once taboo words into ordinary conversations is a good thing”.
Karabekian’s reply, then, says what I’d like to say myself.
“I said [to the Widow Berman] ‘Maybe so. But don’t you think all this frankness has also caused a collapse of eloquence?’ I reminded her of the cook’s daughter’s habit of referring to anybody she didn’t like for whatever reason as “an asshole.” I said, ‘Never did I hear Celeste give a thoughtful explanation of what it was that such a person might have done to earn that protological sobriquet.’”
Now, if you’ll kindly reread the paragraph preceding this one, replacing the word “Celeste” with “a student” and “person” with “book”, I’ll leave you to your day.