Aim Below the Mark


I’ve failed to Get! A! Job! It must be because I like books too much. I want to be curled up under my blankets with a big fat novel, or, since that doesn’t really offer money for lattés or healthcare benefits, how awesome would it be to be paid to stand in front of a group of readers and talk about Lolita as a parody of 18th-century porn (hello, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure! You are a scintillating read!) and a response to the trial of Joyce’s Ulysses?

If it’s not my love of reading, it must be my reluctance to settle for all those awful jobs out there–you know, the ones where they tell you what to do or make you come in to work every day. Really, better to just stay home and stare out the window, salivating when people stroll by my house carrying their skinny cinnamon dolcé lattés with extra foam (or so I imagine the contents of those Starbucks cups to be).

So there they are: work authorization aside, my two stumbling blocks to gainful employment. And they were borne out of the same pubescent period in my life. Eighth grade.

I was 14 and ready for something, and there he was, a teacher to stir my soul: Mr. Detroit, the passionate, imposing man in a gray (or brown) flannel shirt (adorned, simply, by a silver whistle on a lanyard). He had a sonorous laugh, a deep resounding voice, and a jolly demeanor that barely masked the storms that brewed beneath. If I said someone was bothering me–me, his pet–he wouldn’t scold that pest or send him to the principal’s office. He wouldn’t threaten detention or a dunce hat. He would pick up the pest’s desk, pest still in it, and throw it through the door and into the hallway. Then he would follow. The door would slam behind him. And we would all hold our breaths as the shouts echoed through the halls and under our door into our classroom, where all of us, his students made mute and meek, would have been petrified into a museum exhibit of sorry statues: a now-docile David, and a white-lipped Venus, a hangdog Hermes, a thought-free Thinker, and a once august Caesar Augustus.

Then he would return: eyes sparkling, goofy smile. “Where were we?”

That temper killed him.

He was from Detroit. I imagine that he came to Canada, Mr. Detroit, dodging the draft sometime in the early 70s, and he met a wife, landed a job, had some kids, settled there. Became one of us, without forgetting that motor city whose madness had made him who he was. He told us how his city had burned one day in 1967. He played us Gordon Lightfoot’s “Black Day in July.”

Mr. Detroit was an English teacher, a genre known to me, but not. He was in every way unlike my seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Baltimore, a teacher who favored daily lessons on language mechanics with never a thought to what that language or those mechanics could do, and whose Southern accent intoning the phrase “If all else fails, read the instructions” drove me to distraction (and to a C in English). Mr. Detroit loathed teaching grammar. Once a week, to fulfill curricular duties, he would put a sentence or two on the board and ask us to identify the subject and predicate, or the nouns and verbs. Usually his sentences were very short:

“Dog bit boy.”

“Boy bit dog.”

Then he would quickly move on to the kind of English that inspired him–and us. Every Friday, he would have us perform a scene from a Shakespeare play. I was Cordelia. And Juliet. I was Beatrice, and Portia, and Lady Macbeth. And Viola. And Katherine before she was tamed.

Those were some of the perks of being the teacher’s pet. A role I received, incidentally, purely by virtue of being the sister of Nancy Botwin, who was the kind of student who always sat in the front of the class, always did her homework, and always raised her hand for every question. The kind of student, in other words, who was as much like me as Mrs. Baltimore was like Mr. Detroit.

At the end of the year, we graduated. I handed my yearbook to Mr. Detroit, and I asked him to sign it. He did. I closed the book as I had after each person had signed it, determined to savor their words at some later date when the world of junior high was long behind me. I was a romantic even then.

After graduation, we went on to sleepaway camp, and then to high school. I thought I would go back to visit Mr. Detroit. I had every intention of it. But it was my first year of high school, and I was busy. I had new friends and new hobbies. I didn’t drive. Then I heard a rumor that he had left the school, and I didn’t know where he was. Then he was dead.

I ripped through the pages of my yearbook to find what he written, not even a year before his death, to discover his words of wisdom, or a mark of his favoritism. But all he had left me was a cliché: “Aim above the mark.”


You wouldn’t think a line like that would do much for me, but you’re wrong. It dogs me now, when I think of applying to be a barista (all those free skinny cinnamon dolcé lattés with extra foam) or a librarian’s assistant. Shouldn’t I stop applying to those tenure-track jobs and Society of Fellows fellowships, stop aiming above the mark? Maybe if I aimed below, I’d actually succeed.

But no, I’m stuck with that cliché–which has a literary origin, by the way. It was derived from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature“: “Aim above the mark, to hit the mark.” The section goes on: “Every act hath some falsehood of exaggeration.” Brilliant, isn’t it?

That wasn’t a lesson on Lolita, but it’ll have to do for today.


4 responses »

  1. well done. i loved that man. he made us laugh till we were all in tears. when i read the description to the dentist, he knew immediately who was being described.

  2. Hi Princess,

    Let me say first that I have really enjoyed reading this blog. You’re such a talented writer and this blog reminds me of the many stimulating conversations we had when you and the Scientist visited me in DC when you were pregnant with your first darling child. Monica and I really want to see you guys, BTW, now that you are so nearby.

    Pleasantries aside, I found this post so thought provoking I felt obliged to share this reply. I was always one of those kids of whom great things were expected (despite my best efforts to lower peoples expectations) and I have often found myself thinking about my choices in life in terms of how a teacher or mentor from my past or present would view my decisions or accomplishments. So I think I understand your point. Your post made me remember an experience I had in 2001 when the bottom fell out of the IT market and I was suddenly unemployed. I ended up taking (actually begging for) a job at a Mailboxes Etc. as a “Shipping Specialist”. I went from making 80k a year to making $7 an hour. I felt very conflicted about taking a job like this, but my Credit Card companies felt strongly that I should. I worked there for about 3 months before I found a real job again. In that time I learned how the overnight shipping industry works (which is fascinating and has come in handy on numerous occasions since). I learned how to properly package breakables so they will arrive safely. I learned how to program one of those really fancy copy machines, a skill that has garnered me praise and thanks from senior political officials in my current job. I also learned as much about business from the owner of that store, Mr. Woo, as from anyone else in my life.

    Reading your post made me think about that job and how much it has influenced the person I am today. Looking back, I can say with certainty that my experience as a Shipping Specialist is as valuable to me in both y professional and personal life as any other job I have ever had. I would say the same things about the sandwich shop I worked at when I was 15 where I learned from a very wise manager how to treat customers with respect. Or about the Movie Theater I worked at in high school. My manager there taught me lessons about how to deal with employees that serve me well ever day of my life.

    I suppose my point in this very long comment is that experiences are what you make of them. There is a lot to be learned about life and about the world from behind a Starbucks counter and I don’t think Mr. Detroit would disappointed in you at all if you took such a job, unless you failed to learn from the experience.

    • I so loved your thoughtful, sensitive post that I immediately picked up the phone to call you–but you were out with Boy 1. And so, I guess I’ll just have to come visit you!

      Thanks so much, Chandler!!!

  3. The teacher whose recommendation got me into Harvard (which I know because when I asked to review my file during my 10th college reunion, they inadvertently left in both my recommendations and the notes that admissions officers had written about my application) wrote “never settle for 2nd when you could be in the forefront.” As much as I love Mr. Kalfus, I have consciously fought against that advice much of my life. Don’t get me wrong–I am both ambitious and also proud of what I’ve achieved. But I actively meditate on enjoying intrinsics and on feeling part of the group, vs. always measuring and competing.

    And for the record, as much as I crush on Nancy Botwin, I promise you that you earned your own petness. I have a just older sister and a just younger brother, and I can assure you that our teachers gave us all our own spaces to be!

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