by Doug M. Dawson
Mrs. Hill looked around at her class. “OK, now that everybody’s read the book, what did you think of Gatsby?”
No one spoke up.
“Paul, did you like it?”
“I did and I didn’t.”
“There really wasn’t anybody likeable in it, except maybe the one-man Greek Chorus.”
“You mean Nick Carraway, the narrator?”
“Yes, Nick. I can’t say for sure he was a good guy, but he wasn’t a skunk like the others.”
“Who do you think he’s talking about, Jill?”
“The book’s not about traditional heroes you like, it’s about lost dreams,” said Jill. “It’s about … the American Dream … you know, reinventing yourself.”
“And how about the people not being likeable – who do you think Paul meant?”
“It must be the Buchanans. Daisy’s just a … a rich airhead, I guess.”
“He’s just … rich. He doesn’t seem to stand for anything but himself and living the life, so to speak.”
“He’s not just rich, he’s stupid rich,” interrupted Jimmy Dyson, looking around to see if his vernacular was understood.
Mrs. Hill smiled and said “Stupid rich – that’s an interesting way to put it.”
“Yeah,” continued Jimmy, “so rich he doesn’t even have to think about money – he just spends it.”
Mrs. Hill asked “How do we know the Buchanans are so rich?”
“Their home isn’t some McMansion on a tract of houses – it’s in the Hamptons and it probably cost millions even way back then,” said Al Lazenby. “They own horses, they don’t work … and the way Tom courted Daisy … he chartered a whole train and bought her a diamond ring that cost more than most people’s homes.”
“That’s right,” said Mrs. Hill, looking around the room. “C’mon, guys, this is A. P. English – the rest of you must have opinions about this book – it’s been called ‘The Great American Novel’ – is that an overstatement?”
“Hard to say,” said Billy Greene. “There are so many great books, but I really liked this one.”
“What did you like about it?”
“It’s like an American Masterpiece Theatre … you know, lifestyles of the rich and famous in the 1920’s. It’s a period piece. It’s the novel about the jazz age. Gatsby must’ve been like the Bill Gates of his day – he could afford 20-piece jazz orchestras for his big parties, the ones all the celebs came to.”
“Celebs – I like that word,” said the teacher. “That’s a contraction they probably didn’t even have back in the 1920’s. And how do you feel about Gatsby as a person?”
Jane Treadwell spoke: “I wanted Gatsby to be the hero of the book, but I couldn’t like relate to him.”
“I mean, he’s like this big rich guy and … what’s he do with his money? He has parties … what’s that? Like he’s got no other purpose in life.”
“Du-u-u-h!” said Jill. “The parties were his way of luring Daisy over.”
Jane asked “Why would Daisy want him when she’s already got a husband just as rich?”
“You’re forgetting those two have a history,” said Billy Greene. “You know, Gatsby dated Daisy before he went away to war. And she had to admire the dude after he got rich – he did what we’d all like to do – party and chill!”
“Chill,” noted Mrs. Hill. “That’s another word they didn’t have back then.”
“As if!” said Jill. “They weren’t parties, they were just a trap for Daisy.”
Ted Quail piped up: “As if? You sound like a Valley Girl, Jill. Are you going to make a big ‘W’ with your hands, and say ‘What-Ever?’”
Jill obliged him and made a large figure “W” by sticking her index fingers up and touching her outstretched thumbs together, in the manner of one of the characters in the movie “Clueless,” about spoiled Beverly Hills teens She mouthed the word “whatever” silently but with her mouth wide open so no one could avoid reading her lips. Everyone laughed.
“You’re talking about a movie, aren’t you? asked Mrs. Hill.
Jill said “Yeah, the one where the blonde ditz said ‘Spark up a doobie.'”
“Look who’s calling who a ditz,” said Ted.
Everyone laughed again.
“We were talking about ‘The Great Gatsby,'” said Mrs. Hill. “OK – was he great … and if so, what made him great?”
“I think the title is meant to be sarcastic,” said Tina Rowles.
Grady Stievenders offered “No – he was great because he was just a poor boy, Jay Gatz, striving to reach Daisy’s social level. He wanted to succeed so badly he made himself great.”
“Great in what way?” asked Mrs. Hill.
“He made a fortune,” continued Grady, “made himself so rich he could throw those amazing parties, invite famous people … get Daisy back.”
“So, money made him great?”
“No,” said Mary Reilly. “He was a great dreamer, a great romantic – that made him great.”
“You’ve got to admit, a big part of what made him Gatsby was the money, his social standing,” said Al. “But once he made it, he was a done deal.”
“He was a fake,” said Tina. “He made his money illegally. He was a … bootlegger or something. That’s why the title ‘Great Gatsby’ is sarcastic.”
“Hey, he was keeping it real compared to the Buchanans and all that bling they carried around,” said Michelle Meyers.
Mrs. Hill looked perplexed: “Bling?”
Jill answered “You know, glitzy stuff – jewelry, fancy cars and all that.”
Mrs. Hill said “We’re using an awful lot of vernacular, aren’t we?”
“Gatsby thought he was all that,” said Michelle.
“He was all that,” said Jimmy. “He stepped up to it, for real. If he was around today, they’d say he got game. And he died protecting his lady – he was the real deal.”
Jill turned and looked at Jimmy. “What are you, a street person or something?”
Jimmy looked at Jill, made a “V” sign with his index and middle finger and said “Fo’ shizzle, ma’ nizzle.”
“Who do you think you are, Snoop Dog?” asked Michelle.
Everyone laughed again.
“All right, let’s try to do without the vernacular,” said Mrs. Hill with a frown.
“Gatsby died because he was stupid,” said Eddie Haspell.
“Stupid? He didn’t give Daisy up to the police – he was brave,” said Tim Wu from the back of the room.
“Yeah! Daisy ran that woman over and Gatsby took the hit.” said Eddie. “To me, that’s stupid.”
“You think it’s stupid because you’re not like Gatsby,” said Tim. “You haven’t got the juice!”
Mrs. Hill tried to interject: “Let’s get back to speaking English, shall …”
“Gatsby could’ve saved himself,” said Tommy Munchausen. “He wouldn’t turn Daisy in – that’s why the dead woman’s husband came over and dropped a dime on him.”
“He was a hero, man – do the math,” said Tim.
Ted said “Tom and Daisy are bad news – they never own up to anything they do wrong. But Gatsby, nobody had his back, so he hooked up with Daisy and it got him iced.”
“Like that’s his fault? Maybe he should-a been marinating in his McMansion and he would have been OK, right?” asked Jimmy.
“What’d I say about the vernacular?” asked Mrs. Hill. “And we could do without the clichés, too.”
Jill said “Didn’t we already cover this ground? It wasn’t a McMansion, it was a real mansion … in the Hamptons, get it?”
“Good for him!” said Jimmy.
Mrs. Hill looked perplexed. “So, what exactly was Gatsby, a hero, not a hero, a wimp, just unlucky?”
“I think he was an early metrosexual,” said Ted.
Jimmy laughed and said “Yeah, man.”
“Metro what?” asked Tommy.
Jill looked at Ted and picked up a pencil and a notebook. “Keep talking – I’m going to start compiling a dictionary of slang. I should’ve taped this whole class,” as she began to write.
Several students laughed.
“You know,” said Ted. “Metrosexual – a guy who’s not gay but he’s not macho – he’s liberal and he’s in touch with his feminine side …”
“Feminine side?” asked Jimmy. “Gatsby? You’re trippin.'”
“There goes Snoop Dog again,” said Michelle.
Jill said “Keep talking,” as she continued to write.
“If Gatsby wasn’t a metro then Nick Carraway was – and the Buchanans were plastic people,” said Ted.
“Oh, that’s good,” said Jill, writing.
“I thought the term plastic people went out in the, like 1970’s,” said Jane.
“You don’t wanna call them plastic?” continued Ted. “OK, let’s call them bogus.”
Jane said “I thought bogus like went out in the ’80’s.”
Several students laughed.
“Let’s get back on track,” said Mrs. Hill. “And easy on the clichés, OK?”
“Gatsby let Daisy do it to him,” said Eddie. “He needed to step his game up, get on the ball.”
“I thought I said to cut down on the euphemisms and slang,” said the teacher, looking exasperated.
“Maybe he just needed to bust some moves,” said Jimmy.
“This is getting better by the minute,” said Jill, writing furiously.
“Bust the dope moves,” said Jimmy. “Bust the stupid moves.”
“Dial it back with the street talk, you guys,” said Mrs. Hill, “Put a lid on it,” as her students all at once became quiet.
“That’s the stuff, Mrs. Hill,” said Jill, who had momentarily quit writing. “Now you’re catching on – please continue.” The teacher gave her an angry look.
“Look it’s very simple,” said Jimmy. “Gatsby hears a booty call, he’s doin’ the bayonet drill with Daisy …”
“That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” said Ted, his voice rising in pitch and volume.
Jimmy continued “They’re knockin’ boots, parkin’ the car … hey, he was no Friend of Dorothy!”
“Another one!” said Jill as she began writing again.
“You wish!” interrupted Michelle.
“Hey, hey, hey,” said Mrs. Hill. “Let’s keep it clean.”
“Anyway, Gatsby leaves himself open, he goes down for the count, end of story.”
“You talk like a stoner” said Jill.
Mrs. Hill’ face had turned red. “OK, let’s finish this up, shall we?
“Gatsby didn’t play Daisy right,” said Jane. “He wanted her to deny she ever loved Tom – that’s asking too much. He put on the full court press – he blew it.”
“I think we’ve covered Gatsby and Daisy,” said Mrs. Hill. “How about the man who shot Gatsby – did he have a right to do what he did?”
Ted offered “That poor dude went postal.”
“The guy was clueless,” said Tim.
“He had a zero-tolerance policy on guys killing his wife,” said Tommy.
“Du-u-h,” said Jill.
“Gimme a break!” shouted Mrs. Hill, as all eyes looked up at her. She stiffened up and looked guilty, as if she’d caught herself in the middle of committing a crime. “Now you’ve got me doing it too.”
“Doing what?” asked Ted.
“Talking in clichés. We’re not speaking English anymore, we’re just …”
“Sure, we are,” said Jimmy. “Modern English – the language changes and grows over time, doesn’t it?”
Mrs. Hill looked pensive for a few seconds. “You’re right, Jimmy. We are speaking English … the language does evolve over time. But that doesn’t mean we should …”
“Gatsby shoulda been keepin’ it real … ” said Ted.
Jimmy answered “Fo’ rizzle.”
“Stop it!” said Mrs. Hill, who briefly looked angry then began to loosen up.
“I thought we were kickin’ it with ‘The Great Gatsby,’ “said Jane.
“We were trippin’,” said Ellen Brown.
Everyone broke out laughing.
“I think what we’ve got here is …” started Mrs. Hill.
“A failure to communicate!” barked Tim.
“Who said that?” asked a girl from the back.
“I did – just now,” said Timmy, as everyone laughed.
“I mean in the movies, or wherever it was, asked the same girl.
“It was in that Paul Newman movie – ‘Cool Hand Luke’,” said another student.
“OK, OK,” said Mrs. Hill. “We got caught up in using clichés and quoting movies, didn’t we?”
“I’ll say,” said Michelle.
“I’d like to end this discussion. Can anyone sum up Gatsby for us?”
“Can I use Latin?” asked Al.
“All right,” said Mrs. Hill.
“Right, Gatsby passed into eternity, or something to that effect,” said Mrs. Hill. “Well, that about does it for ‘The Great’ …”
“Sic transit Gloria mundi,” added Tim. “This is fun!”
“Regarding Gatsby’s killer, may I add illegitimi non carborundum?” asked Al.
Another student offered “If you mean to say ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’ in Latin, try Ne terant te spurii.”
Tim shot back “big deal, the guy studies Latin.”
“Orbis factor,” said Jimmy, “I don’t even know what that means, I just heard it somewhere.” Most of the students laughed. “C’est la vie!”
“That’s French,” said Tim, as others chuckled.
“Duh,” quipped Jill.
“This is AP English,” said Tommy, looking at Jimmy. “You’re embarrassing yourself, man.”
“And anyway, who’s LaVie?” asked Jill?
Ted said “Du-u-u-u-h – even the Valley Girl ought to know that one.”
Jill said “Kidding! Can’t you guys even take a joke?”
Mrs. Hill interjected “Does anybody have anything relevant to say before we run out of time?”
Al, who’d just scribbled a few notes, read what he’d written: “Gatsby lived his life ad libitum, thought he’d go on ad infinitum, had parties ad nauseum and ended up a corpus delicti.”
“Isn’t that delictum?” asked Jill.
“It’s what I said,” concluded Al.
“In flagrante dilecto!” said Ted.
Mrs. Hill looked at Al. “I don’t think you used corpus dilicti correctly and now we’re stuck on Latin clichés. I don’t know what to say about this class … we started out with a good discussion on Gatsby and ended up talking like gutter snipes, pseudo-intellectual bums and nabobs of … nonsense”
“Erudite, though,” said Tommy. “Real bums don’t speak Latin, do they?”
The teacher snapped “I don’t think we’re speaking it either.”
“Oh, the time wasn’t wasted Mrs. Hill,” said Jill, “I’ve got a really good start on my slang dictionary.”
“But that wasn’t the purpose of this class,” fired back her teacher.
“You can save yourself a lot of time, Jill,” said Ted, because somebody already did it for you. It’s called ‘Urban Slang’ or ‘Urban Dictionary’ or something. You can probably find it in the library or a local bookstore.”
Mrs. Hill put her left hand on her hip and wagged her right index finger at her pupils. “All right, you guys, I should send you all to the principal for hijacking my class and subverting it for your own purposes, but I won’t. Instead I want you all to write an essay on the subject of slang and what’s wrong with using it excessively. You can write in in longhand, it has to be at least three pages long and it’s due by Friday. You will be graded on it.” Her cool gaze was met by surprised looks from her students. “Anybody have any comments on that?”
“Que sera sera,” said Jill
“All right, make it four pages and it’s due tomorrow,” said Mrs. Hill.
Ted turned to Jill and said “Shut up, before we get a worse penalty.”
The bell rang and no further remarks were forthcoming as the A.P. English students rose and quietly filed out of the room.
On the way out Al Munchausen stopped in front of Mrs. Hill and whispered “Sic semper tyrannus,” sotto voce, so to speak.
“What did you say?” asked his teacher.
Al spoke louder this time: “I just said this paper will be my magnum opus, Mrs. Hill.”
“If your magnum opus consists of a four-page paper, that doesn’t bode well for getting into college,” said Mrs. Hill with a smile, secure in the knowledge she’d made her point about clichés, hackneyed speech, street jargon and quoting Latin phrases to feign erudition. Feeling a little like she’d just won a pitched battle against a bunch of rude barbarians, she stuck her nose proudly in the air, took a deep breath, exhaled, thought of Julius Caesar and his triumphs against the enemies of Rome and muttered “Veni, vidi, vici” to herself as she prepared for her next class and Al Munchausen walked out the door.