01. Mr. Dame

“No ma’am, we won’t. I’m sure we won’t. Thank you, you too.”

Mr. Dame hung up the phone and returned his attention to the brass bell on his desk — the last gift he’d gotten from his grandmother, in the shape of an apple — which he had turned into a personal totem. He had been focusing his energy for the day, right until Principal Apple had phoned to reassure and disrupt him. “And how do you like them apples?” he murmured to himself. He glanced up. His first class of the new year was sitting in their desks, a mix of sullen, sleepy, and bewildered students. There was also an extra face that should not have been in there.

Mr. Dame tapped the bell, producing a dull “dhunk.” Round one, he thought, fight! He grinned optimistically at his class, stood up, and wandered over to the projector.

“Good morning class. Welcome to Advanced Placement Literature. If you are not Advanced in Literature,” he said, sweeping his eyes over the class, “you should not be Placemented here, now.”

A boy near the door fidgeted uncomfortably, consulted a scrap of paper, winced, and then skulked out of the classroom.

“You may have noticed that I am not Mrs. Robinson,” Mr. Dame continued with as much unflappable confidence as he could fake for this vital first-impression, “Mrs. Robinson couldn’t be here this year; I am her replacement. I am Mr. Dame. Not dame, not damn, Dah-Mae.”

A girl in back raised the obvious question “So what’s up with Mrs. Robinson then?”

“I wouldn’t know; I’m new here,” Mr. Dame tried to explain, but was distracted by how well the whisper from the girl’s neighbor carried:

“She ditched her husband and left for Europe with Ben.”

“Ben?”

“Yeah, you remember Ben — graduated last year.”

“Ooooooh.”

Knowing nods were exchanged.

Mr. Dame rapped his knuckles on the projector. “As I said,” he reiterated as the students’ eyes meandered back up towards him, “I wouldn’t know; I’m new here. And right about now, I’m rather glad of it.” Once the attention was back on him, he continued: “So the good news is that you’ve got a teacher. Hi.” He paused to wave, on the off-chance that the gesture might reinforce the reality of the situation for any visual learners in the class. “The not-so-good news is that the suddenness of all of this means that I’m technically more of a long-term substitute rather than the kind of teacher you might expect to find running an advanced placement literature class,” he continued trying to empathize with any disappointment the students might be feeling without actually feeling his own fear. Anybody in front of a classroom of adolescent students intuitively knows that they’re still animal enough to smell fear. The aura of sleepy confusion he sensed from them was clearly just a clever ploy. “But,” he continued, forcibly brightening his tone, “I’ve been reassured that because you all are quite advanced my job here really is going to be as a facilitator. I’m going to be introducing you to a slice of literature somewhere between classic and great, facilitating discussion in class to ensure you’ve comprehended what was written, and then having you write something to further demonstrate your comprehension of what you’ve read and discussed. The outcome of all of this will ideally be that you can pass the AP English test for college credit, I can show some of your work to the principal to justify my paycheck, and maybe — just maybe — you’ll actually appreciate some of the literary aspects of the humanities a bit more than you do today.”

“What do you mean by ‘ensure you’ve comprehended’?” asked one of the boys.

“Ah, well, that’s where I have to do a bit more work,” demurred Mr. Dame. “See, the thing is that between what the AP scorers expect that literature means and what Principal Apple expects that literature means and the lesson plans I’m synthesizing to figure out what to have you writing about, there’s going to be limited selection of answers which are considered to be right for purposes of grading.” Mr. Dame suppressed a wince as consternated looks from increasingly confused students filled his view.

“But isn’t a crucial part of literature’s enduring greatness its inability to be pinned down to a single interpretation?” a girl in the back primly asserted. She might as well have been wearing a shirt with “Difficult” emblazoned on it.

“Yes, well,” he replied — inhale, nod, exhale — “that’s where I’m hoping you’ll be able to appreciate literary aspects, et cetera. And our classroom discussions may bend that way. But in the end, what you put on paper needs to show the AP scorers for you and Principal Apple for me that you understand the literature in more-or-less the same way they do, which is what I’m going to try to focus the curriculum on. And this is as honest as I can be: I’m not going to ask you to necessarily believe a word of what I’m teaching, only to be able to convincingly repeat it once in writing. That’s how you keep me from damaging your pristine-I’m-sure GPAs, okay?” Mr. Dame could feel the withering spite of the future freethinkers of America. “If it helps, you can think of this as more of a history-of-literature course,” he suggested, accidentally alluding to Foucault in a way none of the students picked up on.

“Not that it’s any consolation to you here,” Mr. Dame continued, “but I chatted with my old mentor when I took this position. He teaches the International Baccalaureate English — really a phenomenal guy — and he says that the IB curriculum is a lot looser and more hospitable to new perspectives on old literature. And, to be fair, good college professors will also be welcoming to interesting new ideas. So, again being perhaps too honest, please don’t let the lingering authoritarianism of this class poison you against the literature we’re going to be exploring.”

“Touring, you mean,” said the difficult girl.

Mr. Dame almost asserted that he had meant what he had said, but realized that arguing with Difficult Girl whose name he did not yet know was probably a poor method of introduction to this social group. “Close enough,” he conceded instead. “But enough about me, how about we go around the room and you tell me who you are and the coolest thing about your summer… or something,” he added, uncertain as to how cool “cool” was or how many of the kids who were best at being students spent their summer being insufferably nerdy instead of cool.

“I’m Jenny,” enthusiastically initiated a blonde girl whose faux-retro floozy outfit made her look rather older than her cheerfully jailbaiting voice sounded. “I’m the president of our thespians,” she bubbled as if her breakfast had been a sampler of energy drinks, “and over the summer I vacationed in France and met some of the nicest guys, Nicolas and Jean.” She turned to the rather more demure girl next to her. “Jean was the sweet one and Nicolas was the hot one,” she explained. Mr. Dame noted Jenny on the seating chart, and then appended a “D” for Drama. As she happily divulged entirely too much information to the class, Mr. Dame added a little circle next to her name; he hadn’t quite decided whether it would mean that she was too open with her contributions or just plain hollow. After another moment of listening, he decided it was both. Still, she had happily volunteered and spared him the awkwardness of calling on somebody to start the ice-breaking.

An amiss motion caught his eye. The difficult girl had pulled out a book and was flipping into it. “Ah, excuse me,” he said, sharply cutting off Jenny’s grand report and re-focusing the attention of the class on the difficult girl, “but, do you mind? We’re trying to have a class activity here.”

The difficult girl looked up at him and smiled with calculated diplomatic menace. She seemed to possess an unusual, almost feline beauty of the sort that cats distill from having a perpetual fountain of confidence in their naturally evolved superiority. “Mr… Dame,” she began, rolling his name through her mouth as if testing its quality before spitting it out, “what you are doing is introducing my classmates to yourself. While I have no doubt that this is a valuable activity for you, please understand that I’ve been going to school with these people for the past two to twelve years. I know them quite well and do not need an introduction, certainly not to my own best friends. So while I can appreciate that you are having an activity, do you mind? I’m trying to educate myself here.” The heads of the class pivoted back to Mr. Dame, wondering how he’d react.

Mr. Dame was mildly furious, but in seeing the truth of her position he lost his grasp on what, other than the meager wounded pride of a substitute English teacher, he ought to be furious about. As his eyes scanned the class, he saw a small contingent of the students giving slight nods of support. The likelihood that Difficult Girl was actually Principal Apple’s Favorite Difficult Valedictorian suddenly loomed large in his mind. The swampy waters of his self-preservation instinct cooled his fury. “So,” he rejoined, “can I at least get your name and summer activities and what you’re reading now?”

“Certainly,” she said, apparently pleased by his acquiescence. “I’m Sofia. I’m the president of the Honor Society, and the speech portion of the speech and debate team, et cetera,” she said, dragging the syllable to indicate that she was very busy with things that simply weren’t Mr. Dame’s business. “After going to speech nationals last June, I spent much of my summer reading Nietzsche. But now I’m on Chris Hedges Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, which is pretty much about what it sounds like — only I’m not wholly convinced that society was literate enough for literacy to end per se, compared to the possibility that he’s playing on false nostalgia. But I do accept that spectacle has certainly triumphed.” She nodded conclusively at Mr. Dame. Mr. Dame returned the gesture, adding her name to the chart and wishing he’d reserved D for Difficult.

As she returned her attention to her book, Mr. Dame realized that he couldn’t feel his stomach: the second student in his first class of the school year had already made him feel inept. “Thanks,” he said vaguely in Sofia’s direction before calling on some other students who were being pleasantly quiet and sedate. Much of the class was actually comprised of the quiet, bookish sort of students who went unchallenged by the galloping mediocrity of typical curriculum regardless of the subject. Despite having demonstrated a dozen years of greater aptitude for learning than other members of their cohort, they were the students who would round out their senior year with a period of being a teacher’s assistant, followed by a study hall, and then early release, as if the state had further interest in their education. Their reciprocal lack of interest would keep them quiet during the discussions; they just wanted another A before getting on with their lives. No, it was the wordy students — that worked with words, that believed in words, that had words for concepts they didn’t even comprehend — that would be engaging in the discussion days. Mr. Dame had known them all from when he was a student: the dramatists and debaters, the journalists and philosophers. And now he would measure out time for them to fixate on formulated phrases. He shuddered off the déjà vu, nodded reassuringly to the student that he’d just totally ignored, and resolved to pay more attention to the rest of the class.

Jenny’s brunette friend was Diane. Diane appeared more conservatively working-class than Jenny, but their easy affiliation suggested to Mr. Dame that Diane simply had a better sense of boundaries for their similarities than Jenny did. “… and I’m the vice-president of thespians,” she said simply and politely while Mr. Dame added her name to the seating chart, “and over the summer I visited a few colleges and checked a lot of groceries.” She gave a conclusive nod to a boy sitting behind her and Jenny, vaguely shrinking in their shadow, indicating that he should speak next.

His clothes were marked with the degradation of poverty and actual disadvantage, rather than the nouveau-derelict that some suburban kids affected as marks of Outsider-Rebel status. “I’m Joey,” he explained softly, “and, uh, I spent my summer… lots of my summer… working at the community theatre.” The quiet in his voice whispered volumes to Mr. Dame. There was a softness in the I and a resolution in the community theatre — with the ‘re’ quite pronounced. In the contrast, Mr. Dame suspected Joey would likely be comfortable talking about anything more than himself. Mr. Dame allowed himself a glance at Joey’s hair: it was a passe brown, and long and floppy, but much too well-kept for the dinginess it found itself affixed to. Some students would be homosexual, some trans-gender, but Mr. Dame suspected that Joey was one of the occasional still-confused youngsters of meta-gender: always outside any identifiable boundary and stuck being uncomfortable in their own skin. He marked Joey as a drama kid, added a mental note to watch for signs of trouble, and moved on.

Switching to the other side of the room, Mr. Dame was introduced Ken. “Just to be clear, my parents are from Taiwan,” Ken felt compelled to inform him, “and I often end up doing sound and sometimes lights for the drama department here.”

“And what did you do over the summer?” Mr. Dame inquired of him.

“Eh, a lot of what they all did,” Ken replied with a general wave indicating the students who had already been introduced, “and probably a bit more on the chilling out.” Ken’s fidgeting, noticeable even under his loose sweatshirt and cargo pants, suggested that Ken had actually spent an awful lot of time indoors with an XBox and was ashamed to admit it among his overachieving peers.

The two other boys closest to Ken heard what hadn’t been said and gave him glances of approving solidarity. They were Jacob and Brett, and apparently they came as a pair: they were partners in whatever format of debate it was that they were doing and had gone to debate camp together over the summer, and did the editing and photography for the school newspaper — which was now just a blog due to budget cutbacks, but they had it on their transcripts anyways. They appeared to be more conservatively attired than Ken, going for the conventional jeans-and-t-shirt motif. Jacob, however, pushed the spectrum further to the right: he looked like he might have ironed the shirt after he put it on.

After the boys introduced themselves, they deferred to the girl closest to them. “I’m Heidi,” she said with smooth serenity. Mr. Dame looked at her, combining freshly curled auburn hair with torn jeans and a t-shirt for a band that had been on tour that he might have missed, only he’d never even heard of it, and wondered why the boys had deferred to her. Then Mr. Dame’s eyes met Heidi’s and he saw the icy depths of her ambition. “I’m the president of the debate part of the speech and debate team,” she was explaining with a happy and almost deferential nod to Sofia, but Mr. Dame was listening to the tone of her voice. And while my friends here may not always disagree with you, Heidi seemed to say, I can assure you that I will. “… and went to nationals in debate, and to camp with those two clowns,” she continued, affectionately poking at Jacob and Brett’s egos while Mr. Dame added her to the seating chart, “not to mention the college visitations, which are a bit more complex since I have to choose an undergrad school that will effectively set me up for law school if I want it, but also not be useless if I change my plans in the meantime.”

Mr. Dame realized a moment later that Heidi had stopped talking. “That’s, uh, very… forward thinking,” he said awkwardly, tacking on “Good job,” as an afterthought.

Christie was a tall, powerfully built black — wait, no, African-American Mr. Dame corrected himself — girl who had spent the summer as a lifeguard at the local pool. “I do a lot of stuff,” she explained, “speech, theater, soccer, track: it all looks good on a transcript when applying for scholarships, right?”

It was the common logic of the public school system: rather than helping kids to excel beyond all expectations at whatever they found they cared about, advise them to spread themselves thinly over everything that other people care about. Mr. Dame might have admitted he found this practice nonsensical to the point of odious, but was glad that nobody directly asked for his opinion yet. “So I’ve heard,” he replied diplomatically while adding Christie to the seating chart.

The seating chart was almost complete. The final girl was in the back of the room being so inconspicuous as to almost not be there. As Mr. Dame called on her, though, he realized that she was the girl who had known what was — allegedly — going on with Mrs. Robinson. “I’m Sandy,” she said with a non-revelatory softness, “and I was doing theater and speech and all that, but I’m just too busy with the class load here — especially with the night classes at the community college.” Mr. Dame carefully added her to the seating chart while trying to figure out what was wrong with what he had seen while looking at her. There was an well-worn pencil case carefully deployed on the desk in front of her bearing some sort of cartoon equine caricature with an ass-tattoo on it that seemed very specifically out-of-place, but it wasn’t just that… “You really should all check it out — cheap, transferable college credits,” she was explaining to her peers as Mr. Dame realized what he had seen: Sandy was so nondescript that it was almost certain she was being not-there. While all of the other students had varying levels of presence with a general preference for trying to increase their presence — as Jenny had unmistakably done — Sandy had taken an ample amount of presence, obfuscated it with blandness and little round eyeglasses, and tucked it behind a cartoon pencil case. Her lack of vocal inflection would likely be unchanged if she were hiding Jimmy Hoffa in the back of her mind. Mr. Dame found himself suspecting that Sandy was getting away with something, but also that he should not pry — prying would be disrespectful to the carefully cultivated self-control that Sandy shrouded herself in.

“Alright, so, I’ve got my seating chart,” he said, hoping his careful incuriousness wouldn’t get him in trouble later. “Thank you,” he said, glancing at Sofia who did not look up, “for your cooperation and participation. I am given to understand that you should have read Hamlet over the summer, so let’s spend our remaining time today reviewing it before our first big class discussion.”

The students amiably rearranged their piles of supplies or went rummaging in their bags to get the little uniformly abused paperbacks available for review, but Sofia continued quietly reading about the latest failures of modern civilization.