Monday, April 23, 2012

The English Paper from Hell

This post isn't quite about a book.  It's about a paper written for a high school composition class by yours truly.  I include it because its omission would ring false -- like blank pages where the crisis goes down.  I figure Copperfield got thrown to the workhouse, Griffiths got lit up and crashed a car, and I got expelled from high school.

High school, for those of you who don't know or prefer to forget, is the public vat of puberty.  It's that strange place between cuteness and alcoholism, where adolescents are hammered into more usable and less thoughtful shapes.  Three lessons are incidentally conferred in this limbo.  First, cheat with precision, and equate the ability to cheat well with the ability to have abilities.  Second, Hollywood edits out all the funny noises and awkward laughter.  Third, the most efficient way to deal with authority is with a bowed head and a forged apology.  These three in combination light the path toward modest success, which is the desired effect of public education.

Whether I was too smart, too dumb, too high, or too lame to come into this knowledge, my seventeenth year came and found me wanting.  I didn't care enough to cheat, I was still terrified of girls, and it was too much fun to piss people off.  Without the ambition or wherewithal to raise hell, I went passive aggressive and voiced my dissent through the assignments I managed to complete.  In health class I wrote a paper defending cigarettes; in speech class I advocated legalizing it; in philosophy I achieved, with some difficulty, a zero percent on a true or false test; on the biology final I soliloquied the frog, etc.  Probably the most telling stunt I pulled came in homeroom, where every Friday somebody was designated to bring in treats.  Most brought Twizzlers and Pepsi, a few brought homemade cupcakes and juice, I came with a loaf of bread and a jug of water.  A simple gesture, but it accomplished two things that were important to me at the time:  it extended the prison metaphor, and it let my classmates know exactly what I thought of them.

These and other antics often earned a sideways look or a tired shake of the head, but they never landed me anywhere near expulsion.  They were just innocent pranks, really.  My ticket to freedom would require something altogether more ridiculous -- I would have to wax rhapsodic about masturbation and the devil.

Anyway, here's the paper:

Adam Spieman
Hr 7
Comp 11

Life, as I perceive it, is naught but a jumble of apparently meaningless experiences that, when pieced together as a whole upon the termination of any particular example thereof, can be interpreted as an ocean of endless possibilities, or as an endless ocean lacking every possibility.  For some, the waves of single experiences form currents of growing thought and enlightenment, and the currents circle the world of the Self and formulate the equation of life's ideal.  Others become lost behind the wakes of giant, thought-compressing ships, such as organized religion, politics, or mental illness.  Personally, I would like to think that I am one of the former -- that my mind is open and, as I proceed through life, I learn from the scenes before me without bias or indifference -- that I am willing to accept the far-fetched idea and able to question the popular opinion -- that my only goal in life is to understand that which I live.

I am currently seventeen.  I am young and ignorant of many things (the most hindering of which is my own ignorance).  Presently, I am completing the junior year of my high school career in Sauk Rapids, MN; and I would like to take this opportunity to inform the reader that public schooling is a sham.  I have learned nothing within the walls of that school; all that I have learned I have learned in spite of that school.

To turn to the topic originally assigned:

How have I changed over the past year?  How am I different?  It is hard for me, as myself, to observe these things, for I have no constant with which to compare the variable; I have no point of reference.  As a rule, I must change with myself; there is no part of me which is left behind.  When I change, it is impossible for me to recognize it soon afterwards, for I feel like I am still the same person I was, although I may not be.  Therefore, I must complete this assignment as someone who is not me -- someone with an outside perspective and hence a point of reference, the elements necessary for such observations as are herein required.  I must take on an alter-ego, a him who is not I.  I will call him now.

He answers thus:

Hello, my name is Mud.  Adam Spielman has called upon me to share with you the different ways in which he has changed over the course of this past year.  I will begin with him at the beginning:  He was a good boy, a well-groomed boy.  His friends liked him; he had no enemies.  Life was a happy, joyous field of magnolias for Adam Spielman -- an endless field of the purest of joy and unfiltered adoration for the simplest of pleasures.  He lived and he loved and he loved to live.  Breath filled his lungs and opportunity his hands.  And he read -- many books he read -- and he learned from what he read and was commencing his own ocean of thought and wonderment.  Yes, things were looking bright for Adam Spielman.

Enter:  [teacher's name removed]

Hate -- an unadulterated lust for death and destruction, an uncontrollable urge to kill -- rage -- rivers of flame, pools of knives -- fingers lacking flesh, body lacking soul.  That is the best I can portray the thoughts of Adam Spielman as [name removed] entered his life in the form of a composition teacher.  "Satan!" he cried, but no one would listen.  "That is no teacher of English!  Can you not tell demonic entities from high school staff members?  It is Satan, I tell you, Satan!"  Slowly and steadily Adam's outlook on life deteriorated from fields of magnolias to a pestilence of leeches and bullfrogs.  Day after day and vomit-inducing day, Adam was forced to endure the distorted words and foul teachings which poured forth from the leering mouth of Satan - the leering mouth of [name removed].  The ruthlessness of the beast -- of the machine -- battered Adam's happiness and slaughtered his innocence.  Yes, things were looking dark for Adam Spielman.

Enter: the brave new world of masturbation.

Then one day, amidst those terrible days above mentioned, Adam had an idea.  He liked his idea, and when he tried it out, he really like his idea.  Soon this was all he lived for; he forgot about [name removed] and her evil ways; he knew only the exquisite pleasure that resulted from the daily exercise of his new idea -- his brave new idea.  He never told his composition teacher of his idea, for fear that she might steal it from him.  And so he's been, from the birth of his idea to the present, masturbating constantly and neglecting his English homework.  Well, Adam Spielman, you're not back to even, but it's a start.

At the time I wrote it and handed it in, I was oblivious to the quirks that might raise more than an eyebrow.  It was a lark.  The progression from the ocean metaphor to the split personality to the devil to masturbation was simply absurd and beneath consideration.  Inappropriate as always, but certainly not worthy of revulsion.  But looking at it now, for the first time in a good chunk of years, there are a few things that strike me and I can't help empathizing with the decision to boot me.  For one thing, to say that "currents" of water "formulate life's ideal" is very poorly done.  You've taken a strange turn when your ocean is calculating formulae.  And, though it may not be outright impossible to simultaneously know and not know a thing, saying that you are aware of the ignorance that hinders your awareness is a little strange.  Perhaps most importantly, a second personality is not a unique perspective and can solve neither the Identity Paradox nor the Uncertainty Principle.  That is just plain bad reasoning.  And since it's the pivot of the paper, it really is an egregious lapse of judgment.

So the house phone rang one morning and a voice told my parents there had been a disturbance.  That afternoon found us all in the principal's office, where we talked about pipe bombs and sexual harassment.  Later that week I received a letter that said if I ever came within so many feet of school grounds they'd arrest me forthwith and bring me to the nearest magistrate, from whom wouldst erupt  a mighty castigation in accordance with Statute 517 of the Code.  Then, about a month later, another letter came saying I'd missed too many days of school, and if I didn't come soon they'd declare me a dropout.  Finally, say a few weeks later, I received my last high school report card.  Fs and Is were scratched into every box save one.

I got a B in Composition.  

If you like the blog you might like the book. Link's over there somewhere. -------->


Sunday, April 8, 2012

An American Tragedy and All the King's Men

These two books are American Classics, they were written in the same century, they both put a microscope to the greasy spots on America's face, but their similarities end there.  They coexist here because of a high school teacher who told me that they were the first and fourth best American novels ever written.  He never said which was which, and I neglected to ask about the second or the third. He had a writer's heart, so I guess that Warren sat first, that Mark Twain and Kerouac shared second, while Dreiser crept into fourth.  However it went, I read 1 and 4 over freshman year.

Which was also the year I was introduced to weed and skateboarding and Grand Theft Auto, ditching school, parking lot hacky-sack, my middle finger, and the whole sad world of suburban counter-culture in general.  It was a strange confluence.    One particular afternoon, again on the deck with a cherry cola, I was following Clyde Griffiths through his uncle's factory and sharing his wonder at the guts of industry and progress, when around the corner of the house loped three shady dogs with half-open eyes and boards on their shoulders.  They asked me what I was doing, I said "I'm reading An American Tragedy," they said "Fuck off," and we went down to the middle school to film ourselves as we jumped from things, broke other things, and smoked stuff.  The school had a special dumster for grease and fat waste and we held our heads inside until we gagged or vomited.  The loading dock was a four foot drop and we broke ourselves on the gravelly tar until a bleeding scrodum forced us to relent.  After pooling our resources for two cans of soda from a vending machine the day was out, and I staggered back home and rejoined Clyde in the factory, no longer remembering why he was there or who the other guy was. 

This sort of thing happened frequently, and I remember entertaining the odd conceit of a double life.  Adam Spielman, smoke-head by day and great-reader-of-books by night.  The conviction that my awesomeness was unprecedented seems natural enough, but I do wonder at the gravity I gave my ability to read books.

At any rate, it might be noted that this is an imperfect method of absorbing literature.  I object to that note.  Whether by accident or because a certain Mr. F was savvier than he looked, these two books at that time provided a context for the angst and the futility and the hopelessness I felt everywhere around me but couldn't give a face.  Watching Clyde struggle through the echelons of society, working so hard and wanting so badly to grasp that top rung, pulling against the inertias of class and human nature, letting all that ambition warp him to the point of murder -- and drifting along with Jack Burden, from hotel to hotel, tethered to this big charismatic corrupt bastard, just falling through and falling through until finally a bullet stopped the train -- they were the face.  I was a counter-culture anti-whatever with Anarchy tattoed on my cotton T-shirt; there was nothing to be against and I was against it anyway and Dreiser and Warren put a form to my half-baked discontent.  School was no longer bullshit for the sake of saying bullshit: it was bullshit because the heirarchy was entrenched and the middle class was the new peasantry and the public educational system was set up to manufacture a workforce.    Capitalism was just another way to keep you down, democracy was a carnival, the American Dream was a slave with a house. 

It's the system, man.

There was a whole body of work dedicated to the unrest I felt, to the apathy that seemed like the only sane response.  The Grapes of Wrath and The Catcher in the Rye, which I read around the same time, added more fuel to a growing conviction that the text book narrative was propaganda at best, that working hard was for suckers.  The system pushed Clyde over the edge, the system corrupted Willie Stark, the system starved the oakies.  The only way to avoid the system was to emulate Holden's misanthropy.  At the time that meant long greasy hair, smoking weed between classes, listening to anything with explicit lyrics, burning history text books, banging out power chords on an electric guitar.  Anything to get through unsullied.  The system can't kill what the system can't find.

At least, that was my thinking as far as I remember it.  The descent to that place was inevitable, and the first and fourth best American novels were a steady patch of ground in a vague and shifting landscape.  The broader context they provided, and the scope of American Tragedy in particular, is part of the reason I didn't get completely lost.  I think I pulled myself out of that funk sooner and with more alacrity having witnessed Clyde's destruction, than I would have without it.  Which doesn't have to make sense if it's true.