Thomm Quackenbush, author

02.02.05 7:52 p.m.

I am always doing things I can't do; that's how I get to do them.  

-Pablo Picasso

 



Previously in Xenology: Xen was a teaching student, despite his best intentions.

Napoleon Dynamite Hanging

A boy I went to school with during my entire pre-collegiate school career is reportedly dead by his own hand. I say reportedly because this is apparently the product of an overhead conversation told to me by my mother. Nonetheless, we will treat it as truth for the purposes of this entry because it is credible enough.

So this boy, who was in my general proximity as I graduated from three public schools, is dead by some manner of suicide. I spent a few moments dispassionately pondering how he had chosen to end his run and decided that he hanged himself to straighten out this mortal coil. Hanging is the most familiar sort of suicide in my world though I shall never cease to be baffled by its popularity. It lacks the messy catharsis of slitting one's wrists the proper way - though hanging often results in the loosening of one's involuntary muscular system, which creates a wholly different mess - and the serenity of pills. It is just a herky-jerky death with little dignity, a death for horse thieves and people too dark to enter Southern cities past dusk.

From my tone, cold as it may seem, you may correctly conclude that I do not feel much about this death. In a way - and I would like to feel more negatively about myself for even thinking this - it seemed inevitable. He was the kind of kid who was always spouting off pretentiously about topic of which he was clearly ignorant, talking about how cool he was, or telling you about his Canadian girlfriend while showing you the picture that came with his wallet. He always smelled like week old soup and dressed in sweatsuits; every school has a kid like him. I don't know that he was specifically mentally or physically impaired, though he was hardly Adonis Einstein, but his self-imposed emotional impairment and gross negligent of basic social mores was retardation enough that he was silently considered "special" in the most pejorative sense (and bear in mind, a student with pronounced Down Syndrome was universally liked and well-regarded at my high school). Maybe it is cruel to speak so of the dead when his socially wanting soul is but a little above our heads, but it is the truth.

He and I were never close, obviously. However, I went through all of my schooling since kindergarten with Seth somewhere in my vicinity, that odor that just lingers. The few times I was stuck in close contact with him, it was because he had volunteered to do something far beyond his abilities and no one was there to stop him (most notably, when we were in a county wide spelling bee and he misspelled the word "biplane" as "binplane"). I avoided him more than once. Last time I saw him, during a 9/11 memorial service, my main concern was not being engaged in conversation with him. I can't say that I regret avoiding him, that would be disingenuous. At best, I can console myself that I was never outright mean to him. He was too much of a joke to everyone to even be worth picking on, so there was no need to ever tell anyone not to.

Now he is very likely dead by his own hand and I struggle to feel something about this tertiary character in my youth. I struggle and I fail. When Todd killed himself, I was devastated and we had not been close. This boy's death does not stir anything so dramatic within me. My strongest inclination is only to verify that he is indeed no longer on this side of the grass.

It is sad when people kill themselves, of course. Even Hitler was mourned by Eva Braun, or would have been had he not shot her first. Suicide is a patently stupid act, as the afflicted does not really want to die. They just want everyone else to go away in the swiftest way possible. Once this is accomplished, the person who has committed suicide cannot even enjoy it, being a meal for worms now.

Emily asked me if I wanted to go to this boy's funeral. I considered this for a moment, not because I wasn't sure I wanted to but that I so categorically didn't want to that I hadn't considered it an option. I was not his friend in life. In death, to be honest, I feel no closer to him. I know some people have this swelling of emotions when someone dies, but I am not such a person and have not been for some years. I make an effort that people know exactly how I feel about them when they are still able to give a damn. I hold specifically negative emotions for exactly one human being whom I believe to be jacked up beyond the comprehension of all but the most talented psychotherapists. I am perfectly all right with everyone else. Things may have not gone well in our relationships and perhaps we are no longer talking, but I regard them well and occasionally fondly. If I have ever felt some swelling of affection for someone, I hold onto this sliver because I cannot help but hold a belief in the myth of the endurance of affection. If I have ever genuinely cared for someone, I will mourn him or her greatly should they die.

I did not hold any emotion for this boy that was stronger than slight unease and embarrassment. I admit that, though it isn't something of which I feel particularly proudly. I prefer to think that I generally have compassion for the other people I meet, trying to put myself in their metaphoric shoes before judging too harshly. I can put myself in the dead boy's ragged, off-brand sneakers and know that he was just trying with all his might to ascend beyond his limited physical and fiscal means to grab a slice of that ephemeral popularity. He had some friends, the generic social pariahs. However, even they seemed to have a sense that he was the weakest of their herd and that their friendship with him could end the moment that someone a rung higher on the ladder of childhood popularity pointed a finger at the boy. He could be sacrificed and they would distance themselves until the tittered attack abated out of boredom. When the boy described the events, he would state how he and his friends vanquished his opponents with a barrage of words and fists. The story would ferment in his mind, feeding into his own lacking sense of self-satisfaction.

Only once did I see him do anything genuine, and that was only after wading through the obvious fabrications in which he clothed himself (obvious fabrications looking a lot like a purple sweatsuit purchased from Salvation Army that was unironically emblazoned with an eighties pop culture icon). I was doing a considerably poor job of directing a play in my high school and this boy was cast as a zombie. Needless to say, I had not done the casting, but did the best with what I had. It wasn't a great part for an actor, but has a galumphing member of the recently revived, he made a lot of sense. The opening night of the show, which may have also been the closing night of the show, strangers in the audience applauded his performance without reservation. They had assumed that this was all a very good act. In retrospect, they may have been onto something, though the acting was a great deal more longitudinal than they could ever know. He took this applause and, after the play, was just silently happy that people appreciated him. No bragging about how he had originated the role of Romeo in Shakespeare. Nothing about being the grandson of Denzel Washington or cousin of Brad Pitt. He just took the praise.

It does not make for the best eulogy, but we work with what we have.

Delay

Student teaching went well, in as much as a two-hour delay on the last day of the semester can. None of the students I met today, with the exception of the one English course my supervising teacher actually teaches, will be there when normal classes begin again. This won't be for a week owing to Regents testing and midterm exams, at which point she expects me to begin teaching her tenth grade English class Steinbeck's novella "The Pearl."

Here we should bear in mind a few very important facts:

  1. I have never taught a day in my life. You would think that this would have come up at some point in my education as a teacher, but the colleges seem to have found that stuffing it all at the end works best. There is wisdom to this, as many more students would drop the major (like I had tried to do) when confronted with the glazed eyes of a class of thirty high school students.
  2. I have a contempt for the novella. I frankly always have and it has tainted my perception of Steinbeck as a writer worth studying. Zack assures me that Steinbeck writes beautifully about the condition of ordinary men against the corruption of the world. I do not live in the Dust Bowl and hope I never shall. While I am willing to concede that Steinbeck may be worthy, the children should not be forced to swallow this particular book, unless as an inoculation against the Grapes of Wrath.
  3. I do not even have the vaguest comprehension on how to speak and suffer a terrible case of stage fright when asked to speak in public. Some find this unlikely, given how utterly enthusiastically I would volunteer to act in public. When acting, those aren't my words. That isn't me, just Dionysus borrowing my shell for a few minutes. Teaching is a lot more like being tossed into shark infested waters with a rock tied to one's shoe, having only had swimming described to you before, and expecting that one to tame the sharks so they can move to the next tank.

I have this week to prep my materials, by which I mean the fifty pounds of handouts and dot matrix printouts my supervising teacher dropped on my desk on the first day. There are no lesson plans contained therein and only a basic and evident ordinal arrangement to them. This is deceptive, I am certain. However, and this shows how easily I can be distracted and caged, I do have my own desk and computer in the prep room with the other English teachers.

So far, very few people are acknowledging my presence. The other English teachers, which the exception of the two I had as a student, generally regard me as though I am not present unless they are looking for my supervising teacher. At such a time, I am a messaging station or homing beacon, the latter being amusingly na´ve. I do not believe that my supervising teacher would return to me, expecting that the job of conferring with her is completely in my hands. This is fine for right now, as I do need to complete these plans and would prefer not to show her anything until I am sure I have everything.
Xen  
Only the juice knows my pain

I ate lunch, a squished peanut butter and jelly sandwich, alone in the cafeteria on the first day, not knowing what else to do. I did not know where the other teachers were and if I should even assume that I would be welcome wherever that might be. So I sat against a wall next to a strong-featured woman I assumed to be a lunch monitor. She gave me an appraising glance but did not bother me, perhaps assuming that students do not wear turtleneck sweaters and corduroy jackets (my stock teacher's outfit) and that strange men have better things to be than look awkward in a high school cafeteria.

The lunch situation improved slightly the following day, though only slightly. After proctoring an exam with my teacher, a job for which I was ill-equipped, she told me to go into the library and work on my lesson plans and she would come and get me. I shifted my weight from one foot to the next and peered down the hallway.

"Where is the library?" While I had graduated from this school in 1999, I hadn't graduated from this school. A few years after I left, the community sank millions of dollars into upgrading the facilities from a four level industrial inner-city school to a bi-level, state of the art travesty a few dozen yards from the middle school and a few hundred away from the prison. It is a bit like the evolutionary chart. Owing to all of this, I had absolutely no idea where anything was, a condition that does not seem to occur to most of the staff I have thus far encountered.

My teacher directed me to where I would find it. I found a table as far away from the librarians as I could and not be conspicuous and unfurled my tens of pounds of folders. I tried to eat my lunch (slightly spoiled chicken salad and an apple) in relative silence, though the library staff kept throwing unappreciative glances my way. Eventually they would ask what I was doing in their library and I would explain that I was a student teacher, but it would be hours of tense glances before that occurred.

While I was planning, one of my old acquaintances from the high school came in. I would like to say that he is my friend and perhaps that will be the way. However, the fact remains that I do not think I have had a conversation with him since I graduated. He is a teacher's assistant or permanent sub or something of that bend. To put it more plainly, he is one of those people who graduated many years ago but stayed with the school. I have always found him to be a lovely man and, if nothing else, a snappy dresser. He had not come to the library to find me, though he knew of my indentured status and was happy to see me. I too was thrilled to see a welcoming face and wanted to pour out to him all of my doubts and fears. But... no. I couldn't. The director of student teaching had specifically indoctrinated me that student teachers are to keep their heads down. They are not to mention any troubles they are having, particularly to members of the school at which they are placed. Should it come out that I had said something negative about my teacher (and none of my stress was directed at my supervising teacher), I could be forced to retake the student teaching experience at another school at a considerable cost. This had apparently happened more than once in the recent history of my college. All of my emotional catharsis would have to fall upon Emily the Wonderful.

Despite how closed lipped I was, this gentleman suggested that we go out for coffee soon and fill one another in on our lives then, catching himself, revised that we could go out for drinks since I was no longer a high school student.

"I don't drink," I smiled. After this week, I may start.

"That's okay, I'll drink some wine for you."

I worked on my lesson plan well after the last bell rang. Only then did I go out in search of my teacher, finding her in the prep room. Here is actually the point where I found the prep room, my computer (I had written fifteen pages of lessons by hand), and the refrigerator. No more spoiled chicken for me.

I went home the first night and cried until my face was raw and felt like it was melting about how I was tired of sacrificing so much of my established life for a dream in which I didn't believe. I was in no way ready to be doing what I was doing, everything was in the wrong order, and I was more stressed than I ever remember being. Emily was actually relieved by my outburst as I had been was too calm about the situation up to this point.

Soon in Xenology: Student teaching. Rings.

last watched: Buffy
reading: Adam's Curse
listening: Godspell
wanting: Not to student teach, that's still for damn sure.
moment of zen: Seeing the end to a week.
someday I must: get a job that does not involve lesson plans.

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.



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