[If you have not already done so, you must
read the Introduction
Revenge Should Have No Bounds 014-017
Chapter 6: The Educators
It’s a little after four when I emerge from the hotel. My head is still filled with the world of Velázquez. I am much too preoccupied with my thoughts at the time to register anything but the most fleeting of impressions of the inconsequential little man in the rumpled K-Mart suit who leans against the wall just outside the hotel and scribbles something down in a pocket-sized notebook and then pulls out his cell.
I saunter along slowly, turning over my comments to Hoacman about the painter. His art haunted me. I guess I had never put it in so many words, but his El Aguador did send out the proverbial ripples. About Hoacman and me. And everybody else too. Especially, I told myself, Hooper, who was trying with some measure of desperation to maintain connections to the trust funds that were his past and the future that his troubled daughter represented. With the exception of maybe one or two, I have never quite fallen in love with any client, but, the assholes aside, some have affected me more than others. Both Hoacman and Hooper do that.
My final appointment of the day is at The Parisian at seven. I have time to do a little walking and catch a salad at a decent cafeteria not far from La Ville. The Saturday shopping rush has abated somewhat, but in a few hours the streets will be thronged with elegant bar hoppers and the dinner crowd dressed to the nines.
The entrance to the cafeteria looms just ahead, and as I approach I stop briefly at the door to read the posted menu. I enter. It is not busy at this hour. I have free passage through the food line and get myself a small Caesar salad and seared tuna. A corner table by the window will give me solitude to continue some desultory thoughts provoked by my talk with Hoacman.
Tacitus will stay in my tote bag for now.
I graduated from a fairly rigorous high school in 1988 at the age of sixteen. It had cost my parents a pretty penny, but they could afford it. I’ve always been grateful for that solid start that so many kids lacked in today’s chaotic school environment. I let my thoughts meander along familiar, uncomfortable lines.
Given my considered views about education most people would, I imagine, consider me a Neanderthal or even a dinosaur. For sure is that no electorate in the country would elect me to any local school boards.
There is now a no longer plausibly deniable recognition that too many high school grads really can’t read and really can’t do simple arithmetic. Since taxpayers pour uncountable billions into education each year, it is certainly strange that after putting in twelve years in public education some people have trouble reading a menu at McDonald’s and certainly can’t add up the cost of their meal. They have been flashily educated for a lifetime in the dark.
My own take is that what goes on in schools is no longer education but meta-education – everything possible about and around education but not actual education. I suppose it depends on what you mean by education. And I am not persuaded by the red herring that stinks to high heaven and excuses poor performance on the basis of the foreignness of so many of the students in today’s schools. Unmitigated nonsense – in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the public schools in America taught millions upon millions of children — brought up in a large variety of non-English speaking homes — at the least how to read and write English and how to do addition, subtraction, multiplication, long division. This no doubt involved a certain amount of pain and agony for students who had to learn how to parse a sentence, distinguish a verb from a noun, write coherent sentences, learn principal parts of verbs, memorize multiplication tables, memorize Latin paradigms, memorize English vocabulary, and endure many other similar outrages and cruelties at the hands of oppressive teachers utterly indifferent to – if they had even heard of it – the children’s self-esteem.
The place is starting to fill up now, and I decide to secure myself a cup of coffee before the crowd gets too big in the line.
On my heartless understanding, the current mess is at least a partial consequence of the now triumphant notion that it is the emotional well-being of students and not their intellectual health that is of supreme, indeed the only, importance, that they are to be taught not Latin or calculus or English composition but their own sense of worth and uniqueness, that what they know is an irrelevancy and that how they feel is paramount. The intellectual component of education having gradually dwindled into insignificance in favor of the privileging of these protean and fuzzily articulated forms of ‘social adjustment’, it is surely a mordant irony lost only on the educational establishment that so many of today’s students have such overwhelming numbers of emotional and social problems. The mushrooming proliferation of acronymic alphabet soups of ‘disorders’ and ‘syndromes’ and their pharmacological palliatives abets this vicious trend, effectively putting the lie to the alleged effectiveness of this relentless pseudo-education in the emotions. It just goes to show that one of the most frightening realities about contemporary schooling is that children are taught by people who majored in education.
That grades should be based on actual intellectual achievement is today considered to be another one of those quaint ideas from the benighted past, even in colleges and universities, and if not illegal certainly unfair, and devastating to individual self-esteem. But I simply cannot get my head around the mathematical (but, then again, who bothers with mathematics today) concept that the majority of individuals in a given cohort of abilities can be above average. If a B is above average and an A is far above average, how can something like 80% of a class get As and Bs? It strikes me as self-evidently absurd, a contradiction in fundamental terminology, a screaming paradox – but what do I know? I’m a college graduate and I even have an M.A.
I won’t even go into the challenges of un- and under-educated teachers, schools top-heavy with mindless administrative superstructures, legal sanctions against any kind of discipline enforcement, rights trumping responsibilities, and so forth and so on ad nauseam – that’s Latin, by the way, and means something like “until I could throw up!”
You were forewarned that I was a dinosaur or, at best, a Neanderthal, and now that I have finished being very unfair and very mean, what, you ask, would I do about this pathetic disarray? I can’t tell you that, because I might get in trouble for advocating the psychological endangerment of children. What is true, however, and especially in a democracy, is that we all get what we vote – or in our infinite sophistication don’t vote — for in national and state elections and, here even more to the point, local school board elections.
I’ve gone over this material a thousand times, and it tires me. I get up to leave and walk away from my scant meal before my seven o’clock.
In the beginning college was a great disappointment to me. I had decided to major in English and film. What I encountered in these disciplines was quite dreadful. It seemed that in these neo-cultural outposts anything was valid as long as it did not involve rigor or the study of either film or literature. Somehow things had gotten twisted around in such a way that everything was a question not of the factuality or non-factuality of oppression by white males but of the degree to which these monsters had stuck it to gays, women and all non-whites except Hispanics, who in the bizarrely segmented identity politics of the age were a special group unlike, say, apparently normative Italics, or Iberics, or Nordics, or whateverics.
How did we ever get to this point?
One of my first days on campus some spittle-flecked narcissist in designer sun-glasses, stoked to the gills on God-knows-what, was playing at revolutionary and ranting incoherently on the steps of the campus administration building. Yeah, he promised the millennium, the new freedom, paradise on earth – if only you’d help him get rid of the capitalist oppressors and Western neocolonial hegemony. His older cousin was my introduction to the English professoriate. She was one of those trendy leftist weenie now ensconced on all campuses, the assistant professor in English / Comp Lit / International Film Studies who hasn’t had an original idea since she cribbed the Cliff Notes to Marcuse and Fanon, still thinks the Berlin Wall is standing all worldly evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. She pontificated with endless tedium and ludicrous predictability in front of her captive freshman audiences that Stalin and Mao somehow got marxism and communism — those addictive opiates of the Western intellectual — all wrong (and here she’s not referring to Mao’s closing down of the universities for a decade). “Just put me in charge,” she intimated, and you’d finally have the millennium, the new freedom, paradise on earth. Sure, sweetie, I remember thinking, when would you like to start?
And they call me a whore?
I had taken lots of math and Latin in high school, and I had liked both a great deal. I was good at both. The lateral drift from English and film into classics and computer science was therefore an easy one for me, and I was a lot happier there. Not that that all the geniuses teaching those courses were entirely untainted by the new dogmatisms, but they didn’t jack it up to the obnoxious levels you found elsewhere on campus. I remember in particular two old-timers, Smyth, who taught mostly Latin, and Gildersleeve, a Greek prof, who were dead set against the new fashions: “I’ve been teaching here a long time, and, believe me, the academy is a humanities junkyard littered with the burned-out chassis of the latest truth. This truth too will rust.” And I did learn more about writing English after one semester of reading Cicero with a middle-aged no-bullshit polymath named Melissa Bee than I had while squandering three semesters in so-called English. Since I was doing a double major — and also that minor in accounting — I went to school every summer, took a total of five years, and got my B.A. degrees in 1993. My parents were, as always, totally supportive, morally as well as financially.
After graduation I stayed on for an extra year and did an M.A. in classics, again with my parents’ full backing and encouragement. But that was as far as I wanted to go. It was time to get out into the real world, although I was tempted to stay on at the university; but, in the end, I wasn’t willing to put myself through what it took to get a Ph.D. Most of those professors ran the usual gamut of human foibles and idiosyncracies, were competent and hard working, and though only a few qualify in my mind as superior teachers, a few of them were what I would call incompetent.
There was one in particular who helped me make up my mind on that point. I’m thinking of this real piece of work that crossed my path. Highly neurotic, paranoid, crawling with uninteresting peculiarities, he had little sense of the real world and how he affected people around him. His own colleagues hated him, and students ran for cover when he came shuffling down the hall. The secretary in his department had informed the chairwoman she refused to interact with him on any level and for any purpose – all such encounters would have to be mediated through the chair herself. Yet, both the chair and the dean were essentially powerless to bring this klutz to heel; he had tenure and brought in largish amounts of grant money to the department and college. I was told he had threatened several times to quit and take “my operation” elsewhere – and in truth there were several schools that, given the man’s scholarly status and his valuable grants, would have been quite happy to tolerate his intolerable ways.
To me in my former naïveté about what a scholar should be and how a professor should comport himself, he struck me as a prime example of the potentially corrupting influences of too much federal money on higher education. This roboprof was in effect untouchable, and nobody seemed to care that his classes were predictable disasters and students avoided them in droves. Teaching assistants and research helpers developed ulcers, drove the other students crazy with their constant dissecting of the man, and pleaded each spring with the director of graduate studies not to be assigned to this professor – but there were always some unlucky few, usually the new students. This in itself was a terrible thing, since first year of graduate school is no walk in the park and disorienting enough all by itself, and the added complications of having to handle this … this creature certainly didn’t help.
When he walked into a graduate seminar you could almost hear the puckering students sucking vinyl as they came to attention in their chairs, ready to endure a few hours of psychological torture and withering humiliation. He had his favorite scapegoats and would ride them mercilessly. If a student said something he disagreed with or was factually wrong he would land hard, snorting in contempt or curling his bloodless lips in fastidious disgust. And he was inconsistent, so it was hit and miss how he would take your comments. The hardier students started keeping a record of his backtracking and were not above pointing out such lapses to him, to which his usual response was a version of, “I couldn’t possibly have said that.” But he had, and everybody knew it. Their view of him as the term wore on changed from fear and loathing to contempt and loathing. In the end, though actually quite a brilliant man in his narrowly scoped out area of ‘expertise’, he turned all the students off and taught them nothing, obsessed as they became with his “how” rather than his “what.” Even the most charitable ones had faded by mid-term – and there weren’t many of those around after a couple of months of graduate school, an eat-or-be-eaten microcosm of raw Darwinism where you buried what you killed to keep it away from the other hyenas.
I took one class with this schmuck – a complete waste of time intellectually but instructive as a monitory example of behavioral repertoires to avoid within the predatory ecology of the classroom. The smallest thing would trigger in him an almost compulsive need to deviate from the afternoon’s program and run off onto the boring byways of his many personal problems. He was quite fond of complaining of all the injustices he endured at the heartless hands of an uncaring world – which included his wife who didn’t respect him (I wondered why!), his stockbroker who was stealing him blind, the mechanic who didn’t fix his car, the worthless Washington bureaucrats threatening his funding, the waitress who slopped his coffee, jealous colleagues, incompetent university administrators, idiot editors, stupid students, the rain, the sun … well, you get the picture. (Unfortunately he was not the only professor I ever had who transformed his rôle as respected pedagogue into that of neurotic grudge collector, publicly vomiting forth his paranoid theories of conspiracies a third-grader would find laughable.)
The students put on convincing displays of phony sympathy and gave seemingly rapt attention to his meaningless meanderings. These were, I suppose, meant to be some kind of real-world confirmation, as it were, of his human authenticity, of his regular-guy-ness behind all that supposedly formidable intellectualism. In fact, however, they merely turned him into a masturbatory exhibitionist waving his thick johnson of egregious character defects in front of audiences with eyes glazing over and do-not-disturb signs hung out on the doorknobs of their weary minds. Like so many people of his ilk, he mistakenly imagined everyone shared deeply his own boundless fascination with himself and his problems. For such a smart guy he was really pretty dumb.
So far I have never regretted not continuing my studies. I have the wherewithal to do it by myself, and I feel quite strongly the world can get along very well without another dissertation on metaphor in Aeschylus.
I finished my coffee and walked out into the early evening bustle. The sidewalks were more heavily populated now, and I began slowly to wend my way up to my next engagement. As I did so I continued to pursue my private recollections of how I had gotten from an M.A. in classics to a client waiting for me in Room 3453 of The Parisian.
There I was, in May of 1994, after six years of very intense and very expensive education, and about to discover how uncaring and anti-intellectual the world can really be.
Not that I had trouble landing a job. My degree in computer science saw to that. But what had been interesting problems in classes now turned into the soul-crushing tedium of COBOL programming for a financial company run by guys each with big mouths that needed lots of soap and water, and – worse — three roaming hands each. I know I am physically attractive – why push false modesty? But that was no excuse. Still, unlike too many women I’ve run into, I won’t victorianize myself and play that ridiculous oxymoron, the independent feminist who is simultaneously a helpless victim – and wants … money … lots of money for mental anguish, loss of self-esteem, and blah blah blah and blah. So I waited until the shop got extremely busy one week with a ton of looming deadlines, and then walked into the manager’s office about ten in the morning. With as sweet a smile on my face as anyone could ever wish, I just told him I thought the work atmosphere was too much like a junior high locker room for me and quit on the spot. “Here’s my forwarding address for the last pay check,” I said, and handed him a note with my PO Box on it.
I only wish I’d been able to snap a picture of that schmoo’s astonished, incredulous face!
But as everybody was desperate for programmers who knew a little more about coding than secretaries rushed off into ten week programming classes in local junior colleges, I got another job the next day, this time at a branch of a national retailing outlet. It took me about a week to figure out the management was doing a soft tap-dance around the inventories and massaging the local sales figures. I mean, it wasn’t exactly Enron or Worldcom stuff, but I made it clear I wasn’t about to become a ‘team-player’. They put me to work on maintenance of mailing labels for the catalog department, and that old COBOL job started to take on a retrospective glow of supreme challenge. Before I gave immediate notice I put on gloves and executed my own version of team-play by hacking into that data-lode and copying some damaging files to disks, packing them in cardboard, and depositing them in a brown clasped envelope that I sealed with a Q-tip dipped in a little 1988 Chateau Pétrus my father had given me for graduation a year ago. Then, my gloves still on, I slapped a laser-printed mailing label on the front. I drove down to Virginia Beach for a relaxing few days of sand and surf and – just incidentally – from that fun city’s central post office purchased the required postage, had the clerk frank my envelope, and mailed the incriminating data to the comptroller at the home office.
Don’t tread on me, baby!
Next I thought I’d put my M.A. in classics to work. That proved to be a lot harder, since people who knew Latin and ancient Greek weren’t in real high demand that hot summer of 1994. But finally I did end up with a job that was even more frustrating: copy editor for a slick magazine called simply The City. You know the type, like Chicago, New York, New Orleans, AnycityUSA. Lots of fluff and froth, pretty photos, colorful ads, best lawyers, best doctors, best dentists, best whatevers, self-congratulatory pieces, cutesy write-ups on restaurants, trendy bars, museums, and theaters. All the usual suspects.
The pay was atrocious. But I could have handled that if the hotshots with degrees in Communications Studies and English who were writing English had, 1), known how to write English, and, 2), not become hysterical when I turned with my ruthless red pencil on their immortal schlock. These were college graduates, many of them with an M.A., who didn’t know the difference between ‘lie’ and ‘lay’ (resulting in some – to say the least – infelicitous expressions), regularly confused comparative constructions with correlative ones, were wholly persuaded that ‘who’ and ‘whom’ were syntactic allomorphs, felt that ‘between you and I’ sounded much more elevated than my clumsy suggestion of ‘between you and me’ but also felt that ‘you and me went to movies’ was just fine, were surprised to learn that modern English verbs still had principal parts and an operational subjunctive, thought a gerund might be a new flavor of ice cream, were thoroughly confused about the difficulties inherent in distinguishing between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’, wouldn’t recognize a periodic sentence if it went swimming naked in their Starbucks latte, and so on and on and on untill I truely thoht I wuld lay on the flour as long than a purson whom one sieze iss tire and screem too hie heven. And when, hurt and abused, they drove off to their bosses whining and complaining about my snobbish insensitivity to their ‘stylistic integrity’, well, as you know, out there the shit still runs downhill, which is exactly where I was parked in this garage of absurdity.
By December I was starting to think seriously about quitting the magazine and looking for work at MacDonald’s.
But, finally, believing that where there are lemons, no matter how sour, there is always an opportunity for good lemonade, I took a happy step that was beyond morality, a decision based purely on a rational economic calculus. For in the course of my increasingly futile efforts at trying to tone down if not correct the turgid fustian of the morons who were the magazine’s “writers” I had taken interested note of the many pages of advertising that filled the back pages of each issue. Among the genres was one that addressed the perennial question of female companionship of various sorts. I was intrigued.
I started calling, from pay phones, the numbers listed. I wanted to find out more. I began applying all my research acumen honed at such great financial and emotional cost in the academic trenches of the last six years and got busy at the Schwann and on the Internet, just starting to come into its own. Here, I discovered, lay vast continents of untapped opportunity for an educated, mentally nimble and physically beautiful person such as myself.
One day early in the new year I decided to make a new beginning. I got up the chutzpa to visit one of these locales in a pretty good part of town. The lady in charge, a late fortyish woman named Yvonne who still had some Jamaica in her pronunciation, was pretty nice to me. And very straight. I mean, who was I, and what did I know? After looking me up and down and finding out a little more about my educational background, she said, “I’d love to book you here, mama, but to be honest, you could do a lot better elsewhere. You’re class, and class should never sell itself short.” She tore off a piece of paper from a perforated business ledger she had in front of her on the desk. She wrote down a number and handed it to me. “Call Michelle at this number and tell her I sent you.”
That was over eight years ago.
And now I’m on my way to The Parisian for my last date of the day.
TO BE CONTINUED