By Stephen P. O’Connor
Twenty-one students sat in front of Thomas Quinn, waiting idly for the show, but not much caring what it contained. They were, for the most part, inner-city kids, second or third generation Hispanics and Asians. Kids who could not afford to be distracted, but who were endlessly distracted—who walked into the class with phones in hand and wireless buds tucked in their ears.
He noticed an empty desk which Jenny Botero usually occupied, when she came. He glanced at his attendance roster and added another “A,” making it three for this week. Dynesty was missing, too. He kept calling her Destiny, which naturally annoyed her and caused her to ignore the lesson and stare at her fingernails for quarter hours at a time. “It’s Dynesty!” she would chide him.
“I’m sorry. I’ve had a lot of Destinies, but I’ve never had a Dynesty.”
He wanted to add, “And why the hell did your mother misspell the name? So you could correct people about it all your life?” Sometimes it seemed to him that his teaching career had been one long desire to speak tamped down by the imperative to keep his mouth shut. He recalled the obnoxious girl who’d loudly proclaimed in the middle of class, “You have a big long hair growing out of your neck!” This was followed by donkey-like braying from the back of the classroom. The loud laugh that bespeaks the vacant mind. As he smoldered, he swallowed the burning retort that stirred in his throat, “Thank you, and you know, you’re really fat!”
In his own high school days, the brothers, or the rough, crew-cut Mr. Kowalski were never reluctant to shout, “Hey, knuckle-head! Cut the crap!” He and his classmates had expected rigorous discipline and they never had to run to a counselor about it. Quinn marked Dynesty absent and closed the rank book. “Cell phones away! Ear buds out!” There was a sluggish compliance; a few kids desperately typed out their final texts or tweets or Instagram comments. Someone asked the old familiar question: “What are we doing today?”
“See the vocab packet on your desk? That’s what is known in police circles as a clue. Another clue might be that it’s Monday, and I’ve given you fifteen words every Monday since September. It’s now March. Eriana, put the phone away!”
“It’s my mother—she’s face-timing me and my phone is vibrating in my pocket!”
He strode down the aisle, hand outstretched. “Give me the phone. I’ll explain to her that you’re in class.”
She shoved the phone into her back pocket. “All right, all right.”
“God, you are totally addicted!”
“Well,” she said, “I wouldn’t check my phone so much if people didn’t keep texting me!”
“That’s really your logic? Right. And I wouldn’t be an alcoholic if there were not so many liquor stores.”
He walked, more slowly, back to the front. “Elias, David—lose the hoods. Guys, really, you have to rule the phone. You can’t let the phone rule you. Don’t be a slave.” He felt as if he was at the bottom of a hill that he just didn’t have the strength to climb. Move on. “All right, we’ll do a bit of vocabulary and we’ll continue with Of Mice and Men.”
Julian, a friendly enough kid generally, with a man-bun and earphone cords dangling over his ears, was looking over the packet. “Mister, nobody uses these words. I never heard these words.”
“De-but? What’s that mean?”
“It’s not pronounced ‘de-but’ it’s day-byoo. If an actress is in her first movie, it’s her screen debut.”
“Her movie debut. Her first movie.”
“Why don’t you jus’ say ‘It’s her first movie.’ You don’t need these words.”
Quinn sighed. Was it becoming harder every year to reach them, or was he just getting older? He remembered the article he’d seen in Atlantic. “Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation?” These kids had grown up with smartphones—connected from an early age, not to words, but to videos, to images, to ‘face-time’ and ‘snapchats.’ And because they never turned off their phones, they received texts and alerts throughout the night. Their brains, overstimulated by ‘Fortnite’ or ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ could not wind down in restful sleep. In thirty-two years, he had never seen such tired groups of kids.
Twenty years ago, even ten years ago, Julian’s complaint would have been the catalyst for one of Quinn’s urgent pleas for literacy. He might have told them how a good carpenter had a shed full of tools, some of which he used only rarely, that language was the greatest tool, and that you needed to stock your tool box from the great shed of the English language. Words! Just to say, ‘You know what I mean,’ is not enough! Say what you mean! Say exactly what you mean. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms . . .
Yes, he would have felt an obligation to try to elucidate all of this, or some of it, in language they could understand. There is a reason we’re here. It’s called education. Shaping and sharpening the tools of the mind. But he knew from repeated demoralizing experience that this sermon would be met with vacant stares and tired yawns. Nothing he could say, no fine paragraph of Dickens or Dineson or Thoreau could compete with what was in their pocket—the viral video worth a thousand words. The photos of Kim Kardashian’s ponderous wobbling ass. The endless pouting selfies, the twerking, the big-breasted girls guzzling tequila at a roadhouse bar, the gang fights, the skateboarder slamming into a tree—the uninterrupted stream of attention-stealers—all the titillating and degrading spectacles rising out of the witch’s cauldron of the garbage culture and projected onto impressionable minds. We don’t need these words. This book is boring. I hate reading. Why do we need to write? Who’s Billie Holiday? Who’s Emily Dickenson? Who’s Jack Kerouac? Who cares?
His grandparents, immigrants with an eighth-grade education, could recite large swaths of Thomas Moore from memory. They read and wrote in beautiful cursive script that looked like calligraphy. These kids couldn’t write or even read cursive; educators had given up teaching it in elementary school. “Google and Apple stockholders are rich,” Quinn thought, “and our children are so damned poor.”
The hard truth was that the battle was lost. Did anyone care for finely expressed sentiments? To reach a greater understanding through being forced to express it? Wasn’t it Hemingway who had said, “How do I know what I think about something until I write about it?” Until I’m forced to hold it up in the light of language. These students would never learn to express feelings and thoughts that are difficult to communicate, difficult even to sound within themselves. They would never appreciate words, understand the wisdom of proverbs, the meaning of a sonnet, the truth of a metaphor. They would never be aware of how a gullible public is manipulated by politicians and influenced by marketers. They would not learn this from him. They would not learn it from anyone. They didn’t want to know. You don’t need these words. It wasn’t just the reluctant scholar of the past. There was something different here—a sea change in perspective, world-view, attitude and attention.
He began to go over the weekly vocabulary on the Smartboard: adequate, aspire, bias, blatant, candid, confront, debut, enroll, fluster, impunity, intensify, intimidate, lethal, redundant, status.
“No one uses these words,” Julian muttered again.
“They are common words!” he nearly shouted.
It was time to retire. The gulf between him and them grew wider every year. An old white man. That’s what they saw. With a world view that might as well have been derived on another planet. He thought he should hold on for more year; his daughter would be done with college and he could walk out of this window-less, cinder-block-walled room forever. “Look,” he said, “I’m sorry, Julian. It’s just that I’m too tired to explain once more why this is important. I’ve been over all that in this room with generations of kids before you were born. You’ll just have to take my word…”
“I’m jus’ sayin’ I never heard ‘em,” he mumbled again, sullenly.
When the introduction to the week’s vocabulary was over and they had looked at some of the roots and done a brief reading that used the words in context, Quinn turned their attention to Of Mice and Men.
“Can’t we jus’ watch the movie?” someone asked.
“Reading books and watching movies are not the same thing. We read chapter four yesterday, in which we see the loneliest character in the book, Crooks, the stable-buck.” A thought occurred to him. Someone could argue that Curley’s wife might be the loneliest, but any such assertion was beyond the scope of the very limited interest they took in this or any book. “Crooks is an outcast among the working men because he’s crippled and African-American. He’s bitter, naturally. He’s also quite literate. You know what I mean by ‘literate’?”
The class was silent. A few shook their heads.
“He could read. In fact, he reads a lot. Remember that at that time, the 1930’s, it would not have been easy for an African-American to get a good education. Many couldn’t read.”
“Mister, that’s racist.” Alex Kheav was rarely serious, but he liked to stir the pot when he saw an opportunity.
“The society was racist, yes. Absolutely.”
“You shouldn’t say they couldn’t read,” he ventured.
“Oh, really? Is it also racist to say that slavery existed in this country until 1865? And that during that time it would have been illegal to teach a slave to read, making the achievement of someone like Frederick Douglas nearly miraculous—nearly a miracle?” He pointed to the poster of Frederick Douglas on the back of his door. Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.
Alex shrugged and gave his disarming smile, as if to say, I’m just busting your balls, Mister. He really had no opinion worth asserting or defending. He had assimilated the idea, the fear, that any statement mentioning African-Americans might be racist, but not why, or in this case, why not.
“Do you know what’s racist?” Quinn asked them now. “Do you know what I think is racist? When society allows Apple and Google and Facebook to conduct large-scale tests on an entire generation of kids, a lot of them minorities like you, kids who may not have anyone at home to tell them to turn off the video games and the phone and take off the earphones and pick up a book or just go to bed. And these kids, some of you, are not developing the skills you need to succeed in this country. Look, before we get back to the book, let me give you two pieces of advice. First, you need self-discipline if you want to be successful. You can’t be entertained all the time. You have to force yourself to do some hard work, to learn things you may not want to learn, to read things that you don’t quite get yet or that you think are boring. Keep doing it—it will get easier, and your tastes will develop. If you swim every day, swimming becomes like walking. If you read every day, it gets easier, and more and more interesting. And you’ll begin to think more clearly and understand the world in a deeper way. As my grandfather used to say, ‘If you don’t read, you don’t know.’
My second piece of advice is to get passionate about something. Find something creative you can do as an outlet. Paint. Write a poem or a song. Pick up a musical instrument. If you cut out one hour a day out of You Tube and social media, and spend it practicing the guitar, within a year or two you’ll have a talent! Learn a new language. Make a study of something! Imagine if you really spent one hour a day learning math on your own? Push yourself! No one forced Frederick Douglas to learn to read and write so brilliantly—they tried to stop him! His body may have been in chains, but he freed his mind, and made himself unfit for slavery! You are responsible for your own growth as a human being! Don’t be satisfied with just what I’m trying to teach you here!” He searched their faces, hopefully, thinking that maybe, somehow, he was reaching them. “Does anyone have something that you do on your own…something that you’re passionate about, something you’re really interested in, that you want to learn about, or some skill you would like to develop and master? Anyone?”
Karina, a slim, quiet student slowly raised her hand.
“Karina! Yes! What is it?”
“Can I go to the bathroom?”
He noticed that the other students did not laugh. They had not been struck by the incongruity of the appeal and the response. All his life he had loved words, he had been moved by words; he had seen into the heart and soul of this world through the words of great literary minds, sometimes finding himself breathless. Keats had once likened his reverent wonder at reading Chapman’s Homer to the awe-struck emotion of Cortez’s crew, gazing out for the first time over the endless waterway of the Pacific: Silent, upon a peak in Darien. A large part of his charge here as a teacher was to enable, or even to prepare these students to experience that feeling. But he saw, once again, that his words carried no weight. “Fill out a pass,” he said. “I’ll sign it.” His own voice sounded distant and hollow to him; the mundane words of school-speak that they understood so well.
He put them in groups and gave them some questions to work on. He overheard a few students discussing a girl fight in the cafeteria “. . . was putting her on blast. Posting mad shit about her.” He could not do this for another year—not for another month. Karina gave him the pass to sign. She had left the time blank, because, he was sure, she could not read the analog clock that hung on the wall, a relic of a former age. Quinn wrote in the time and signed it and handed it to her. Something was pressing on his heart, or something deeper, maybe his soul, which he felt was fully awake to the fact of its horrible enclosure, turning in desperation from wall to cinderblock wall within the windowless room, while the clock that no one could read quietly traced the passing hours. There was only one exit. He sat at the desktop computer and began to type his letter of resignation to the superintendent.