Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Rocco vs. The Moronic Teacher

Behold: me. Look upon my might and despair. I am He-Who-Achieves. I am a reader of books. I am an Internet philosopher. I went to college -- longer than most people do. I have sat at Whitman's grave and at his Crystal Spring composing lines. I have made pilgrimage to Grasmere, for I have learned to see into the life of things -- to read and to respond with insight; to apply both soul and mind to unfurling the sublime work of the great writers. I know them, and they will know me when we meet in the Great Beyond and we shall have tea and biscuits and we will converse about how much smarter I was than everyone around me. Even The Bard will give me that gentle little chin-punch of fatherly approval as I enter through the White Gates and greet him -- and call him "thou" -- for I have known his Truths; felt them in my heart more deeply than anyone ever did. I am an authority in my field. I'm gosh-danged legendary in my own estimation...

...which is why it is nice, sometimes, to be reminded that I am and always will be, a complete moron.

The other day, I was teaching a favorite story by an author, Raymond Carver, who is the single biggest influence on my fiction-writing style. The story was "What We Talk about When We Talk about Love." In it, two couples debate the nature of love over much gin and tonic at a kitchen table. Their plan is to go to dinner, but the more they drink, the less motivated they are to leave. As they discuss love and what makes it true or valid, twisted or pure, the daylight falls; and, as it does, the darkness of their own hearts crawls forth like a nocturnal rodent, until, finally, they sit quietly, feeling only the beating of their hearts.

Through it all, Mel, the central character, has argued for a deep, Romantic kind of love; a love of purity as he once saw in an old couple in the intensive care unit who lamented being  casted and only wanted to see each other's faces.

I talked with my class for a full period about this. I lead them into an understanding of Carver's stylistic techniques. I helped them reveal the symbolism of the central character's references to courtly love and of his rejection of obsessive love as compared to the dedication of the love of old age. I pointed out the dubious motivation of his own too-vocal condemnation of violent love.

Yes, I am a sage. A light in the darkness for my young intellectual explorers. Twenty years of reading and teaching this story has lead me to an exhaustive understanding of Carver's work.

Then, some arrogant little...mere... high school student of mine raises his hand. I am flabbergasted. What is left to be said? Sure -- I will encourage him with whatever meager half-baked notion he chooses to add to the conversation. I will bolster his self-esteem and work hard to shape whatever juvenile thing he is about to babble forth into something relevant so he doesn't go home feeling foolish. I will say something like, "You raise an interesting point, Rocco. Now...for homework..."

"Yes," I say. "What do you have to say, my good man?"

"So," Rocco responds. "The main character...he's a cardiologist, right?"

"Yes," I respond, wearily, rubbing my brow. We need to move on. There is no more to be said about this piece, but I will humor the poor devil. "Why?"

"Well, a cardiologist is a heart doctor, right? Isn't that important? Like -- the heart is the symbol of love..."

All of a sudden, I am the focus of one of those Alfred Hitchcock camera tricks; the dolly zoom:

My God. What just happened? The guy is a cardiologist. Cardiology is the science of the heart. The heart is the symbol of love. The main character knows the science of the heart but he also argues for the purity -- the courtly and Romantic nature -- of love. It is the central symbol in the story...and I have never taught it!

Twenty years and a Master's degree later, it never occurred to me. Too wrapped up in "deeper" things; too arrogant about my own ability to "get it" when reading stories, I missed a symbol that is typically used in cartoons and on Valentine's Day cards.

Ladies and gentlemen: behold humility.

And behold, me. In the end, nothing much to see except a fool hopping around in academic robes and trailing scrolls and books behind himself as he fumbles through his continually comical existence.

Still, I am reminded: none of us are as smart or as stupid as we think we are.

All I know is I play drums better than Rocco does. At least...I think I do...


  1. That's pretty much the feeling I had when one of the Holy Cross kids mentioned to me that "The Wizard of Oz" is a thinly-veiled political allegory about not hanging onto the gold standard.

    I'd read it as a spiritual allegory, having to do with the spiritual journey, a sort of Pilgrim's Progress for the age. I even delivered a paper on exactly that at a PMLA conference once.

    When she explained it to me... "Oz... ounces...yellow brick ROAD.. etc etc.." I had to admit, after making a few half-hearted attempts at referencing interpretative communites and "the reader creates the text" credo we had to learn... I sort of left it at that.

    I hate Stanley Fish. I really do.

    1. It's good to get reminders of one's waeknesses in a profession that can so easily foster arrogance. That said, I bet I can take Stanley Fish in a fight.