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And I resumed the struggle. -Vladimir

Friday, March 11, 2005

My Few Sense

…And so I struggle in the dark with the enormity of my soul, trying desperately to be a great rememberer redeeming life from darkness.
Jack Kerouac

Teachers are being reminisced in the blogosphere these days, and I’m gonna add my two cents. (You could make some kind of play on two cents, like: oh, I’ll spare you.)
I offer for your consideration Mr. Joel Shapiro, who taught me literature in, like, tenth grade. (He’d become furious when I wrote "like", somewhat hypocritically, as we shall see, but rest assured, I use it here only for literary effect.) We read The Stranger by Albert Camus and Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Patton and, um, I’m sure a few other things, too. Oh, The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad. That’s right.
Joel was something of a leftover from the Sixties: "Hey, man. These cats, like, these cats believed in Aparteid, okay. They weren’t hip, you know." That’s how class would start. Then he’d lead us through the latest chapter, as if any of us had read it. He’d lead us through with a passion for the subject matter that I hadn’t encountered in school before. Before Joel’s class, literature for me had been a round little lady with a moustache correcting spelling errors on my report of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery or something like that. I’d be quizzed on how many days Jim and Huck spent in Cairo, Missouri and what the weather was like when they got there. Joel spoke of the characters as if they were alive, and talked about the authors as if they were real people. He’d ask us how they might react to current events; he never made us memorize the year in which they were born.
"This isn’t why Camus wrote, can ya dig it? Camus didn’t write for a world that would have to face Reaganomics, man. Camus was hip to the human spirit –" and he’d talk about the characters in The Stranger and what they represented about life.
There weren’t right or wrong answers in Joel’s class. He just wanted to know if you’d tried to understand the book. We read the books we read because Joel thought they’d make us into better people. Not so we could go around saying we’d read them. There was no disconnect between real life and Literature. There was us in the classroom and some ideas that someone had set down on paper and Joel leading us toward relevance. I didn’t know that’s what books were until I listened to Joel talking about them.

Lee Phillips was my creative writing teacher back then. Lee and I became good friends. He’d let me write whatever I wanted to and didn’t care if my margins were straight. I could always write a lot better that I could talk, finding some kind of lucidity and clarity when setting things onto paper that elude me when trying to address real human beings. Lee let me go where-ever I wanted to and when I was finished he’d demonstrate different literary techniques. "Twain would do this," he’d say. "Dreiser would do this. See if you can." I’d bring back to him some pages I’d ripped out of a notebook and he’d tell me what was clear and what wasn’t. Where I’d tried too hard, not hard enough, or had managed to really hit it. Mostly, I remember that he cared. About me and the written word. And he made me care.

Two other things about Joel. He’d tell a story from what he called "way back in the whacked out ‘Sixties." He’d tell about how he had once talked a friend out of committing suicide, explaining to the friend that he felt that such an act "would just be in very bad taste."
And one day in class he started talking about someone named Jack Kerouac. "That’s what we’d all read when we were your age," he’d say. "That was the hip thing. Experience. Goin’ through life for the experience of it." I didn’t know what he was talking about or who Jack Kerouac was.
I learned. It seems almost corny to appreciate Kerouac now. It’s almost embarrassing to remember myself sitting next to campfires in railroad yards with a copy of Kerouac in my backpack. It feels trite to think I’d have never read Kerouas without Joel and Lee’s influence, and if I’d never read Kerouac I’d be a lesser soul today. But it’s true, dammit.
"I don’t think it is possible to proceed further in America without first understanding Kerouac’s tender brooding compassion for bygone scene and pastoral individuality oddity’d therein. Bypassing Kerouac one bypasses the mortal heart, sung in prose vowels." Yeah. Ginsburg said that.


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