A Helpful Prescription

John Jeremiah Sullivan has a lovely, generous answer to a query from someone who worries (with good reason!) about his literary ignorance. Some highlights: “Don’t fall for the inferiority/superiority racket. We’re not on a ladder here. We’re on a web…That feeling you’re having is culture.” (!) Also: “It’s not the where-you-start so much as the that-you-don’t-stop.”

Zadie Smith Reading Programme

I learned the other night, again, that I don’t know anything about literature.

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On New Year’s Day, Everyone’s On a Diet

When I met William three years ago, he reminded me of Francis Tarwater, the protagonist of the Flannery O’Connor novel The Violent Bear It Away, which I was reading that fall. Tarwater is raised in the woods by his great-uncle, a superstitious Christian who believes Tarwater will grow up to be a prophet. When the old man dies, Tarwater must re-enter society after being sequestered in the woods for most of his life, and he’s terrified. He trusts no one.

The first day William showed up to my class, he took a seat near the window and slouched down in his seat. From here, he could see the Brevoort Houses, where he lived. He had covered the front of his notebook with the word Brevoort and the name of a well-known Brevoort crime syndicate. His feline face was stony.  In crossing the street to come to school,  he’d entered enemy territory.

We soon learned that William was merry and affable, that when he trusted you, he loved you. We learned, too, that he used his friendliness as a cover for huge academic deficits. On his way into the classroom, he’d light his face up like a game show host and thrust his arm into the air to high-five the teacher, shake her hand, and give her a hug as he shouted her name. It was a performance: it delayed the moment when he’d have to sit down and be a student.

The last time he took my class, he failed it. By the end of the semester, after a long series of interventions and a signed contract, he couldn’t pay attention for 10 minutes without devolving. He seemed to need my personal, undivided attention every single second, but there were 25 other kids in the room. I rarely send students to the office, but I threw William out at least once a week in May and June that year.

William’s highs are high, and his lows are low. When he’s angry, he’s taken over by an alien spirit. Don’t fuckin’ touch me! he’ll scream at the teacher trying to help, his arms flailing, even if it’s someone he loves. When he’s in a rage, his face gives it away. It isn’t malice that drives his anger, it’s betrayal: I trusted you, and look what you did to me.

He isn’t a kid anymore; he’ll be 18 in the spring. He’s behind in his credits. He might not graduate on time. He might not graduate at all.

This year strolled into my class on  the first day saying, Claire! like an old friend.I couldn’t receive his warmth without thinking of its flipside, his pattern of evasion, then fighting, then giving up.

But he was holding it together. He moved to the front so he could see the notes on the board. He completed the assignment carefully, in his exacting handwriting, using complete sentences. He looked up at me.

You gonna help me this year, Claire?

Of course.  But I’m not going to drag you over the finish line myself.

You gonna meet me halfway?  You gotta meet me halfway, Claire.

I’ll meet you halfway.

I clap his shoulder.

I’m glad you’re here.

After class, I pull him aside.

You were great today. You were on the ball. Keep it up.

He nods, beaming.

Claire, you think people change?

I do.

History tells me this will be our high point. I hope I’m wrong.

It’s Everywhere

(Note: This post was written long before #metoo.) I had coffee yesterday with a student of mine who just graduated—she’s off to college upstate. She’s a lovely, poised girl. I planned to give her the “Lady Goes to College” talk: Don’t let anyone hand you a drink, don’t drink to get drunk, always walk home with your girls, if a boy says it’s too cold to walk back to his dorm from yours, don’t buy it, etc. She turned out to be—as I suspected—level-headed and informed about all of it, and she claims to not even like to drink.

Then we started talking about sexual harassment. This, it seemed, wasn’t something she would be able to avoid, like getting falling-down drunk and waking up under a coffee table. It’s already happened; it’s been happening for years. And not just the garden-variety street harassment anyone with two X-chromosomes walking down Fulton Street is familiar with, but sexual harassment at her job, from her boss.

I had been so full of advice up to that point, sharing every grain of wisdom I could dig up about college and adulthood, but when she told me what her boss said to her, I was just like, Damn. Thinking to myself: I know exactly what you mean. I have experienced that so many times. I’ve gotten it from my own colleagues, from her guidance counselor.

Suddenly I didn’t feel so wise.

What did I do about it when I got harassed at work? At the Post Office, I told my supervisor, and the offending weirdo stopped wandering into my work station. At a fine-dining restaurant where I waitressed in Philly, the kitchen was always buzzing with hostile, disgusting commentary about women and sex, and I did nothing. They were cooks; that’s what they did, and the kitchen had the power. At the midtown steakhouse where I worked before I started teaching, forget it: I got the worst comments from my manager, to say nothing of the harassment from cooks and waiters, which meant that when I got nasty attention from customers—bankers, mostly, puffing their chests and drinking themselves stupid as they gnawed on steak—I ignored it. And the guidance counselor who told me, with a leer in his voice, how good I looked every time I wore a particular dress—well, he happens to be one of my favorite colleagues. He was older than my father.

“My boss is a good guy,” my student insisted. “It was really nice of him to give me the job. And he goes to church every Sunday. And he’s strict about how we conduct ourselves, he doesn’t let us come in with short shorts or sagging pants.” (She works at a daycare staffed by teenagers.) “And he has two teenage daughters,” she added. This is a man with values, she was saying. How could he make her so uncomfortable? She couldn’t reconcile it. She seemed ashamed.

“Girl, just because the man goes to church doesn’t mean he’s incapable of making an inappropriate comment to his female employee,” I told her. “He probably has no idea he did anything wrong. He’s in step with the culture we live in. It doesn’t mean it’s not sexual harassment. It doesn’t mean it’s okay.” Doesn’t mean it won’t happen again, and again, and again, I thought.

Feminism may have come a long way since office games of Scuttle, but… Ladies? How are your daily interactions colored by a little bit (or a lot) of sexism? At work, on the street, in the subway, across the counter at the cash register, in line at the DMV, staring at a billboard? Did you feel like there was anything you could do about it? If so, did you do it?

If you’re asking me, no, I didn’t, not every time. I told my student about the time—a month or two ago—when I stepped off the C train at Utica because the conductor announced it was going express. Sharing what I thought was a moment of collective humanity with a few exasperated passengers, I announced, “I’m gonna walk.” One of them, a man in his forties, said, “I’ll walk with you,” and fell into step beside me. Did I want his company? No. Did I think there was anything I could so or say to stop him? No. Isn’t that ridiculous? Why was I so terrified? Terrified of what? Offending him? Why did I say nothing, gritting my teeth, walking with him the entire way to school? He yammered on about himself and flirted with me, asked for my number, didn’t care that I was married (“Naw, we can just be friends”), and told me to look him up on MySpace.  (Seriously, MySpace.) Not once did I find the guts to leave his company or be anything less than polite. I didn’t give him my number, or look him up on MySpace. (MySpace?) But I did, by virtue of not asserting myself, allow this complete stranger to see where I worked, and to monopolize 15 minutes of my time.


My dear former student, I still think you should write your boss a letter after your last day and tell him he made you uncomfortable. I still think his reaction, ultimately, is unlikely to be of much consequence to you, but you might open his eyes a little. He’s in the business of teaching and stewarding young people, both the children in his care and the teenagers in his employ. He should know how he made you feel.

Also, it’s illegal. Civil rights activists fought long and hard to make sexual harassment in the workplace against the law—let’s honor the legacy. Let’s do better.

Hi again!

Sigh.  Apologies for updating this so rarely.  I wonder if, like Meghan Daum, I am just not a blogger.  I’ve been writing (though not as much as I should, or certainly as I’d like), but it’s all short stories.  And long stories.  I’ve got five or six on burners and more stashed in files, hibernating.

And I’ve been busy.

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Scene at a Museum

I never thought I’d be listening to Karen Finley talk about her lady parts in the context of a museum field trip with 14-year-olds.

In the “Looking at Music 3.0” exhibit at MoMA this afternoon, Corey, all jumpy, says, “Claire! You gotta come listen to something!”

The exhibit, which purports to explore “the influence of music on contemporary art practices, focusing on New York in the 1980s and 1990s,” has listening stations around a small room, and you can don giant pairs of headphones and hear music, some of it accompanied by music videos. A giant screen plays a loop of old music videos, including songs by A Tribe Called Quest and Grace Jones.

In other words, cool and interesting to me and my fellow-teachers, but largely bizarre to our students. We had a small, good-tempered group who approached the stations with a mix of caution and curiosity.

I follow Corey and another student, Tina, to a station where Karen Finely’s song “Tales of Taboo” is playing. Oh, boy.

“I saw her once, about 10 years ago,” I tell them. “She was, uh, well – she was naked and poured honey all over herself.”

Corey nods vigorously and instructs me to put the headphones on. I can hear Finley, in her nasal, over-enunciated voice, shouting, “You don’t own me, bastard! You fuckin’, asshole! You wanna suck my, pussy, well let me suck your dick!”

For those of you unfamiliar with this particular contribution to American culture, Finley goes on to angrily describe things like sticking Belgian waffles up her grandmother’s ass, closing with instructions to “suck me off.” She says, “Take that clit, put it on your face, bastard, put it on your mind.”

Corey and Tina stare at me, eyes wide. I remove my headphones.

“What do you guys think?”

“Um,” Tina begins, straining to sound respectful, “She’s weird? She’s, like, outspoken?”

“She’s crazy,” Corey interrupts.

“She…expresses her feelings, kind of, sort of…”

“Through sex.”

“And music,” Tina clarifies.

“She probably a nudist,” Corey says. “I’m just sayin’…I really think she’s a nudist.  ‘Cause the whole song is about sex, and how she gonna do the do, and, uh…” He devolves into a gutteral implication of what it means to “do the do.”

“So you didn’t like the song?” I ask.

“It was uncomfortable,” says Tina. “It’s not something I would listen to and buy at a store.”

“If kids hear that, like on the radio…then they gonna feel some type a way,” says Corey.  “She’s crazy. She’s retarded. I’mma be straight up: she’s just special ed.”

“Why do you think she made that song?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” Corey says. “To express her feelings. Express like a…different side.”

“Do you wish she hadn’t made it?” I ask.

“I wish I hadn’t listened to it!” Tina says.

“If my mom heard that,” Corey says, shaking his head, “if I ever played that on my computer, she gonna break it, instant, she just gonna throw a pot, and bam! But some people…” Corey looks philosophical. “If you’re a nudist, you probably like it.”

Say What

Well, fuck me.  Somebody went and found some rabbits up in here.

This morning, I’m surveying a room of 26 teenagers in the half-light, bent over their paperbacks, sustaining their silent reading.  Some of them have chosen well – a juicy YA romance here, Twilight there – and a few struggle nobly, having erred and plucked the random Kafka or Camus from the pile.  No one talks, no one sleeps.  This is what it’s like the first day: no fast moves.

And Kellye Washington walks in.  Kellye Washington!  The most defiant, flinty student I have ever taught! (See previous entry.)  My blood turns to ice.  I play it cool.

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No Rabbits Up in Here

I was in a semi-fancy luggage store the other day in the hopes that something nice had gone on sale.  The nice Korean man who owns the store was chatting with me, and I mentioned that I was a teacher.  What grade? High school, I told him.  Oh, he nodded, eyes wide.  Wow.  I smiled.  Where do you teach? In Brooklyn, I said.  Bed Stuy.  Do you know Bed Stuy?  His eyes widened again.  Wow, he repeated.  Very rough area, no? I never know what to say to this question.  Sure, I said.  But they’re kids, like anywhere else.  They’re tough there, no? he asked, imagining the movies.  No, I said.  Not really.  They’re all soft on the inside.  They just want to succeed, like anyone else.

In my five years of teaching, this has always been true.  Even the scariest, nuttiest, hardest cases – I could always see the bunny rabbit inside, looking for love.  It was just a matter of finding a way in – I was sure everyone could be whispered to.  I was sure everyone had a rabbit inside that responded to ordinary love and safety.

That is, until today. Continue reading

New Air (part four: the end)

The last day of the semester is always a let-down.  I usually imagine some satisfying coda to the semester, and it always ends up being anticlimactic.  Some kids are absent; some kids STILL don’t turn in the missing essay(s), and you realize you might have to give them an F.  Everyone is antsy, anticipating the brief vacation.

Final speeches were due on the last day.  Continue reading

I’m Gonna Write a Different Speech (part three)

It wasn’t the first time a conflict had erupted with boys from the projects across the street, but it doesn’t happen often.  Usually, the threat is worse than the event.  Usually, some combination of peace-keeping peers and school staff snuff it out.  But this, three floors below, looked like chaos.  R.D., a willowy, charismatic boy, is notorious for doing things like flashing signs and shouting, “Crips for life!” to the Bloods across the street when they stroll back and forth making threats.  He thinks in terms of armies: us against them.  For years, we’ve been fighting to keep his head in school while the street beckons; it looked like we were about to lose the battle. Continue reading