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.