Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Tears for dead kids

Today I had one of my more significant failures as a teacher. I don't pretend to have talent in this's just something I do because I can. I sold a few books in the late 70's, and I've been milking it like a bastard ever since. Some of the more serious instructors take offense, but mostly my colleagues give me latitude on the basis of three strong reviews in the New York Times literary supplement twenty-five years ago.

One might think me callus or opportunistic for taking this job, which is basically stealing money. And it's true I've at least attempted to get laid at every single writers conference at which I've appeared, and I meet with success more times than not. Not bad for a fat, obnoxious pontificator. The fact that I can both cook and dance, combined with my status as "published writer," makes me somehow irresistible to the mid-fortyish wife looking to recapture her literary aspirations. Their stories often suck, but I never share this little secret with them. Occasionally I'm surprised by the quality of their work, which makes the sex that much better. Some men fantasize about waifish models when they're in bed with a woman. I've never done this, though I've slept with several dumb beauties I pretended were intelligent.

This being said, my failure as a teacher today still stings and causes me great regret. It started when I awoke this morning at eleven. I fixed the usual triple espresso, downed three aspirin, then logged onto the computer. My first stop is the Economist. I know where I stand with these newswriters, and even these free market Nazis see Lesser Bush for the dangerously clownish nincompoop that he is. Their world coverage is grand. My next stop, more often than not, is the Post's Faces of the Fallen. It's a spiritual exercise for me, though I really can't explain why I do it. Three weeks ago I saw the face of a ninteen-year-old woman who was the spitting image of the vixen who stole my virginity. She was blown to bits by a rocket-propelled grenade. I wept inconsolably. This morning I lingered over the face of a scrawny, geekish Latino kid, and the tears flowed again. I see the war as a personal as well as national failure. I suppose the difference between myself and the average right-winger is that I feel responsible while they pretend to bear no complicity. "Freedom ain't free," they say, as if this makes it all okay. I saw a woman counter-protesting a memorial for the 2000th U.S. death, and her sign said, "Our soldiers are doing just fine!" Well gee, in that case we'll just let them stay a little longer. It's as if the bitch things it's all a big summer camp. Supporting the troops indeed. The average conservative might get misty when they see the flag rippling in the wind, when bomber jets streak overhead in formation, or maybe when they hear Taps played. But those of us clinging to the tattered shreds of our soul cry when we look into the eyes of dead children. Yep, at my age, even Sgt. John Doe (40, 3rd Infantry, makeshift bomb) is a child. The jolly visage of Specialist Bob Smith (22, 504th Parachute, small arms fire) in his jaunty red beret struck me as so adolescent that I dropped to the floor and wretched.

In any case, my MFA students are used to my prefacing each class with one tirade or another, and today's eager writers were greeted with a rant similar to that which I just shared above. The whole point was to encourage them to join the Peace Corps, go to med school, seek law degrees or some useful skill such as plant science. Unless, that is, they are truly willing to write something that matters. I told them that, in most cases, it was pointless to write fiction in light of the fact that three kids die every day in Iraq. And those are just the ones that speak English. Writing is a revolutionary act, and the domestic nonsense that seems to preoccupy the garden variety novel being offered by today's corporatized publishing houses, or the middle-class pap flowing out of the Iowa Writers Workshop and its ilk, already flood the market with garbage, so unless these students were willing to play for real stakes they should pack up their shit and go take the LSATs. It was a variation on my George Orwell-Zora Neal Hurston lecture, and I thought that it was a rather inspired. Then to prove my point, I started to read the story by Billy Clayhouse, about the mill worker who goes to the hospital to visit his daughter, who suffered a disfiguring wound in Iraq. This is clearly the best student work I've read in my tenure at this program. I spend most of our classes reading student work aloud, which is the only worthwhile literary exercise, so Billy shouldn't have been surprised that I'd read his story in front of everyone. I never give names of who has written what piece, though they tend to learn each other's voices by the end of the semester. That ridiculous "workshop" format where a story is read and then students offer "criticism" while the author cowers over his bond paper is one of the greatest snake-oil schemes ever concocted. When I read student work, I'll take the first page, flip it over to hide the name, and then pass it around the room. The students learn more by hearing their own work read and reading that of others aloud than they do cooking up nonsensical "feedback." The "workshop" format merely produces what Hemingway would call "the camp-following eunuchs of literature."

In any case, I started to read Billy's story, which is terse and dramatic without being silly. Since I always get emotional about the whole Iraq disaster, the tears were flowing before I finished the first page. It was then that I looked up to see Mr. Clayhouse striding out of the class on his long cowboy legs. His face bore no expression, but it was clear that I had ruined his story with my ostentatious preamble. I'd gone too far, and I'd sapped all the power from his work.

We ended up reading the entire story. I don't think any other students recognized it as Billy's work because it was so different from the cryptic animal fables he's produced in the past. When we finished reading the piece, a hush fell over the room. The silence was more telling than a dozen lectures by blubbering academics ever could be, and Billy missed this valuable lesson because he was chased off by my longwinded tirade.

In any case, I hope that he returns to class so that I can take him aside and apologize. I have no problem admitting when I fuck up...another trait that separates me from Republicans...and it happens all too often. I can even try to pull some strings and get the story in The Atlantic, though it needs a bit of polish first. On the way home I bought a loaf of French bread from the only good baker in town, then fixed a (frozen) lobster bisque, albeit with fresh organic cream and an astounding Pouilly Fuisse I rediscovered in the bottom of my wine fridge. I steamed some carrots on the side. This is a meal designed specifically for the riddance of guilt, and it was a resounding success. I am nonetheless going to try to make amends for Mr. Clayhouse.

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