pk’s School Stories: English
It’s the ninth grade. Book reports are now a tad more formal than the previous year. I took the teacher’s hint for the kinds of books she approved of, and chose Lloyd C. Douglas: The Robe and The Silver Chalice, I forget in which order. I scribbled and my mother typed it up for me.
My eyes popped as I saw for the first time what an electric typewriter could do through a fresh ribbon. “Did you have this printed?” the teacher asked with enough warmth in her voice to sound like Easter. “IBM electric typewriter,” I answered. (The machine had been loaned to our home so my mother could double as secretary to the Gold Cup races that year. I include the picture of her that was taken for the Gold Cup brochure.)
It was the most ambitious school report I’d yet done. Nevertheless, given my Sunday School training, it was the kind of material I could preach in my sleep. The teacher gave me a double 100.
What kind of a grade is that? twice as good as perfect? It was merely the first of many that year as book report followed book report. Had I been free of school and that teacher, I might have gotten around to reading Douglas — he was frequently on the best seller lists — but it was far from the mainstream of what I’d been stuffing myself with since later grade school. Tarzan, Bomba, and the Hardy Boys were soon eclipsed by science fiction and more science fiction.
By spring time I’d had it with the pretense. The teacher demanded that she approve the students’ selection of each book. “I want to do Isaac Asimov’s Pebble in the Sky next,” I told her. “Pebble …” she mused. “I don’t know it.” Her voice was uncertain but still warm: I was the best 9th-grade book report writer she’d ever seen. “Pebble in the Sky,” Isaac Asimov,” I repeated. “It’s science fiction.” “No!” Her tone had changed utterly. “Well, I’m doing it anyway.”
“Paul:” she fixed me with her eye. “A report on a science fiction book cannot pass. Your stellar average will come down.”
Inserted 2000 08 21: By now, several modules in my Society (and its Pathologies) Directory discuss the phenomenon of human beings obediently and respectfully absorbing misinformation given in the name of authority. Social Survival vs. Biological was the first of them. (Belief in Santa Claus continues the argument.)
Church, school … are institutions that our modern “belief” in Santa Claus prepares us for: what’s said is false; no one believes it; but unless you keep your integrity bottled and private you won’t get your prettily wrapped “share” of what we stole from god, from nature, from God, from the Jews, from the Indians …
What ever gave my English teacher the impression I gave a damn about grades or my average or my standing in the class? I guess she hadn’t talked to the other teachers. I did the report. I thought about it carefully. It was preambled with a little essay on science fiction. Miracle of miracles, she gave me a 90-something anyway.
(I had the pleasure, as an adult, of telling Isaac Asimov that I’d known his name as an author longer than I’d known Shakespeare’s. I was on my way from Midtown Galleries, where I was Assistant Director, to the hospital to see my son after an accident when I noticed a group of authors standing around the park-side 5th Avenue walkway. They were demonstrating: trying to tell the public that they could sell their books better than their publishers. I ignored Plimpton and made straight for Asimov. “Ohh,” he burbled, “have you?” I was about to tell him about my 9th-grade report and its circumstances when a shapely woman forced a triangle. “May I pay homage too,” she asked. That was the end of the attention this notorious woman-slayer had for me. He kissed her, holding both her hands. In the half-dozen times I’ve talked to him on the phone since, I never brought it up again.)
What’s wrong with our culture that the best is officially despised? Can anyone be seriously aware and not realize that science fiction is the literature of the Twentieth Century? Why are we assigned six novels by Henry James for one by his contemporary rival, HG Wells? I admire James. He took his art as far as it could go (perhaps further than it should have gone). His omnipresent repressed sexuality showed an American leading the Eduardians at their own game. But compare their impact on the culture. Compare the relevance of their themes. Much of James is indulgence in stultification, in neurosis, indulgence in the class manners of the Wasi’chu. In contrast, you’ll ignore Wells’ themes at your peril.
Science is the only human enterprise not routinely rigged
so that certain truths are excluded:
contrast church, state,
family, the press, law …
Then again great good comes from a modern culture not knowing its true tissue. Science fiction, until recently, was left alone to do its thing. So too, at first, was the writing of men like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. So too was the greatest of twentieth-century music. (My school experiences having my love of jazz bludgeoned back at me also belong here. (Not that my friends had any more respect for the best music than the school did.) But for now those I’ve told are in Music and Art.)
Only a handful in the main culture revered Louis Armstrong during his most creative period. Everyone knows that the great Bessie Smith was left to die in the street, rejected by the standard racist hospital. Even a mere decade ago, Miles Davis, who’d been knighted in France, was rejected by a condo (which nevertheless wanted to keep his $100,000 deposit) for having “uncertain” employment.
In high school we were forced to listen to Verdi’s Aida. OK. Lot’s of people like it. Few mind the members of a “democracy” being subjected to the music of a social and economic system we had supposedly rejected. But I wasn’t allowed to play Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall masterpiece. The following year I got permission to play a recording by Lionel Hampton for the class. The teacher proved unworthy of her word by the sixth bar. (Did she buy me a new record after violently dragging the needle over the grooves to get it off? No.)
Think of it: would Harry James’ trumpet have darted into the ensemble like he was diving down an elevator shaft after skating on a banana peel if the music had been respectable? Listen to the classic Ellington Band. Now listen to what Duke wrote for chorus and orchestra once he’d been even partly accepted. Need I say more?
(I too. Though my work has been hobbled by society’s blocking me from the resources necessary actually to have succeeded with any of it, my mental work has been greatly abetted by your shunning me: I’ve already paid the price: why not be honest? Free of the academies, no one’s academic freedom exceeds mine.)
1999 09 19 I promise to say more on the subject of my beloved science fiction. Meantime, here’s a quote from Isaac Asimov.
Sometimes I think about that with a kind of disbelief. Science fiction was escape literature. We were escaping. We were turning from such practical problems as stickball and homework and fist fights in order to enter a never-never land of population explosions, rocket ships, lunar exploration, atomic bombs, radiation sickness and polluted atmosphere.
Wasn’t that great? Isn’t it delightful the way we young escapers received our just reward? All the great, mind-cracking, hopeless problems of today, we worried about twenty full years before anyone else did. … But now you can colonize the Moon inside the good, gray pages of the NYT …
The above book report story I’ve told all my life and told online, as part of K.’s deschooling mission, as long as pk, the person, has been online, c. 1995. Now I’ll string other brief English stories here below.
I liked certain teachers even while I believed that they had no right to incarcerate me in a school. I liked no high school teacher more than Miss Sherman, my tenth grade English teacher. She would assign us themes: some to be written in class, a timed exercise. I’d think, Ah, here’s my chance to blow some jazz, to improvise, to break all the rules, to swing: and I’d go into a creative trance, invariably producing something that Miss Sherman invariably loved. It was during a theme for Miss Sherman that an aspect of pk style first showed up: incomplete grammar, formally incomplete sentences: poetry; not prose!
I didn’t care about grades for Miss Sherman any more than I’d cared for them with my ninth grade book reports. But I knew that what my style was demanding of me was verbotten. I went up to Miss Sherman, confessed that some of my sentences in the theme were refusing to be completed. She warned me, as sternly as she could manage, it being me, her favorite theme writer, that improper grammar could not pass! I shrugged: “I can’t help it,” I told her. And of course when the themes were passed back, graded, my grade was as good as ever.
Again: the ninth grade gal whose name I can’t remember gave me double 100s (again, twice as good as perfect?); Miss Sherman always gave me 98, 97, 99 …
One day hanging around with her, after class, she asked me where I planned to go to college: first time I recall ever being asked that. I’d never thought about it. I had memories of college, my cousin’s graduation, Princeton ’49; games at my father’s Columbia, ’26, trips to the Columbia library with my father; but no college plans. I was a jazz nut, who also planned to be a Christian: a real Christian; not like the waste of time fooling around I’d been so far. But that’s not what I said. I answered in my persona which bought the school’s dismissive attitude toward wayward pk. I told Miss Sherman, as honestly as I could under the circumstances, “I’m not planning to go to college.” “Why not,” she asked, concerned. “I’m not sure I’m college material.”
(There was at least a fragment of honesty there.)
“Well, if you’re not college material,” she answered me,
In the year following graduation I stopped by Miss Serman’s room as I saw the room empty and Miss Sherman talking to another Paul, a senior that year and the guy who’d taken over the mile for me on the track team. Miss Sherman smiled and announced to this other Paul’s grin that Paul wrote the best themes that year, by far. “But,” she added, looking dreamy, “they weren’t as good as Paul’s themes.” Meaning me.
Paul shrugged an aside to me: apparently his first place had been put in second place to him before.
I don’t doubt it: that’s one area, my writing, I have never had any modesty.
@K. c. 1995