Embracing Ambiguity

by Mark Gorey

September 2nd, 2017:

“Good morning, everyone, welcome this first day of American Literature and Rhetoric: My name is Mr. Ambiguity.”

Smart Alec, a student whom I recognize from hallway encounters as a potential rabble rouser sits in the back and raises his hand: “Yes, Mr. Alec?” I say.

“Mr. Ambiguity, no disrespect meant, but has anyone ever told you that you have a weird last name?”

“Somebody says that each year, Mr. Alec; your question is not original,” I say.

He raises his hand again. “Mr. Alec?”

“How come on the board over there one of your year-long goals says ‘EMBRACE AMBIGUITY’? Isn’t there a school rule against that?” He looks to peers on both sides with a wide grin. Smart’s a smart sixteen year old, and right now he’s using his intelligence to distract and disrupt. He’s probably unidentified Gifted and Talented.

“Perceptive, Mr. Alec. I’m sure you know that metaphorical statements are not literal.”

When he raises his hand again, I try to ignore him.

“Moving on.” I pause. I want what I say now to be concrete, for the students to see a connection between refining their reading and writing skills and the prospects of fulfilling lives. Many of them work summers in the local Postcard, ME tourist industry. “Did you know, everyone, that post-high-school education correlates with earning one million dollars more in your lifetime than someone going directly into the workforce?”

“I also want to share that many college degree programs require that you pass an English composition class, but if your entering test scores are low, you will be placed in a remedial English class which does not count toward graduation but nevertheless costs thousands of dollars.”

Smart Alec mutters to his neighbor loud enough so I can also hear: “This dude needs to grow a pair.”

I confront Alec’s taunt: “Mr. Alec, are you aware that you’ve just used a form of metaphor known as synecdoche?”

“Sin-friggin’-wahhhh?” he mocks.

I’m triggered. Why not send him right now to the office, to snuff his back of the room comedy hour, and establish that I won’t tolerate disrespect.  But if I do, he wins, which is the point he’s trying to establish on this first day. Furthermore, there is no stern disciplinarian whom he fears in the office. Postcard’s Dean of Students Clive Crock simply has the offending student sit outside his office, and does not monitor whether the student is on their cell phone or not. The next day the student is back in class.

“Also everyone, do any of you still listen to FM radio? Do you know that commercial about how we make strong first impressions on others based on our vocabulary? I want you to know that whenever you use the word ‘friggin,’ you are using a variant of the infinitive “to frig,” the denotation of which is to have sexual intercourse.

All save one murmur or giggle; Alec guffaws.

“In the past few weeks, everyone, I’ve been thinking a lot about the American Dream, and I’ve come across some of my former students at their respective workplaces. As adults, they are working really hard every day, but as cashiers, sandwich makers, and fryolator operators–jobs the rest of us depend on– they are moving one step ahead and two backward financially every day they go to work. That bothers me and should concern you.”

Alec doesn’t wait for me to call on him: “Mr. Ambiguity, did you know that I made enough money this summer to buy my own lobster boat?”

“Mr. Alec,” I say, “I didn’t know that. That is truly admirable, and I hope for your sake that lobsters don’t travel too far north of Postcard Harbor due to climate change.”

“Fake news,” Alec trumpets.

“The Death of Truth by Michiko Kakutani: Class, this is the first book we will read this year.”

Alec blurts: “C’mon, Mr. Ambiguity, what would we be reading if a Democrat were president right now? My father says that most teachers in America’s public schools are communists! Can’t we read something normal like The Scarlet Letter? Or Our Town?” He points to a framed poster of Wilder’s play up high on the back wall.

A lone liberal who has been silent until now pipes up, “Putin either hacked those DNC servers or he didn’t. Which is it? Can’t be both and can’t be neither.”

The end-of-class bell rings before I have time to pass out The Death of Truth permission slips.