A Northwest Based Literary Journal

Cowardice and Joy, by Heather Altfeld

At forty-four, I have become old. That’s me up there, in front of the class, in the Evan-Picone stockings, with the silky stewardess scarf around my neck, belting out Fern Hill with the evangelical verve of a gospel singer. Listen to this line! Time let me hail and climb/Golden in the heydays of his eyes. Isn’t that fucking amazing?  I imagine Dylan Thomas sitting in the back, flask in hand, blushing at the compliment, embarrassed on my behalf as he notes their expressions; some interested, some bored, two taking an endless loop of studious notes.

I was schooled by a long line of intimidating female teachers. Mrs. Carol Schowalter was my eighth-grade English teacher, a fearsome and seemingly humorless woman with the work ethic of a military kingpin. One of the more infamous requirements of her class was to build what she referred to as a “Student Dictionary.” Five hundred words, each written carefully on one piece of notebook paper, with the etymology, the phonemic breakdown, the OED definition, a sentence from us, and three—yes, three—uses of the word in literature or poetry. The pages were bound together in two-inch binders and handed in at the end of the school year. Had Facebook existed, we would have shouted out to every friend and relative: Yo, give a sister a hand! Gauche!! Can anyone find me a book that uses the word ‘gauche?’ Mrs. Schowalter had some sweetness in her; our holiday gifts from her were our own mimeographed copy of Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, which I read in class and had to rush off to the bathroom before the bell rang so that I could cry openly in a stall without anyone noticing.

In twelfth grade, I took World Literature with Mrs. Marilyn Penn. Mrs. Penn was a scholar, not a teacher; we referred to her as Dr. Penn partially out of intimidation. Impeccably dressed in Evan-Picone stockings and delicate airline-stewardess scarves, she rarely raised her voice; instead, she relied upon the powers of her ungaugable age and intellect to guide us through Joyce, Ibsen, Solzhenitsyn, Tolstoy, Achebe, Conrad. Sarte, Camus, Nabokov, Faulkner, and Kafka. We read selections from the Hebrew Bible and annotated them in depth with grueling trips to the Claremont Theological Seminary.

I loved most of the books we read, but by the time spring rolled around and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was on the docket, I could not bring myself to read it; the siren song of smoking cigarettes in the park with boys was far stronger than Conrad’s colonial forays. I decided that I had earned a vacation from the gravity of the canon. We spent a week on each book, so I figured that since I wasn’t inclined to do the reading, I might as well enjoy myself. Flanked by Camel Lights and a few bad seeds, I luxuriated during third period in the sunny park just north of the high school, chased back to campus on occasion by a fleet of coldhearted yard duties with the disposition of correctional officers.

I thought I’d be in the clear to begin The Metamorphosis the following week upon my return, but when I arrived to class, it turned out the Friday exam for Heart of Darkness had been postponed, and I was just in time to take it. I took my seat, and Mrs. Penn handed me a separate exam, handwritten in her lovely cursive. At the top of the page was one sentence that went something like this. “Describe the experiences that you had while were here reading and discussing Heart of Darkness.”

I wanted to run out of class to head for the bathroom. I felt terrible. I tried to catch her attention—I wanted to apologize, ask for an extra day, to offer help after school. Instead, she placed her finger to her lips—quiet, please—and indicated that my only option was to write.

I don’t remember the specifics of my essay. Something about listening to Cat Stevens singing “Ruins” on my Walkman one moment in late February while walking in a green field beneath a sky was full of dark clouds where the lupine just beginning to bloom, and how I had felt just like Stephen in his epiphany toward the end of Portrait of the Artist. I remember thinking that maybe if I wrote something beautiful, I could be forgiven.

F, she wrote, in red, at the top of my exam, one week later. She had not commented even once, or highlighted one line, one image, no small delicate note about my amazing use of Joyce to illustrate my point. Just, “F.”

I worked terrifically hard for the remainder of the semester. I did not miss class—not her class, anyway. I completed a twenty-page pericope of a section of Song of Songs, which took weeks of research with liturgical texts in the college library. I read Kafka with undying allegiance and vowed to study his works for life. I read many of Joyce’s short stories in order to complement my final essay and to prove to both Mrs. Penn and myself that I was committed to the art of literature even more than the art of boys. I was given a B in the course, which felt like a well-deserved slap in the face.

The last ten years has found me working as a lecturer at both a university and a community college. Mostly I have had to bide my time teaching Academic Writing and remediation courses, with an occasional glimmer of hope teaching Rhetoric. This year marks the first that I have been able to move outside of that particular trajectory. I taught Creative Writing, Mythology, Native American Literature, Literature of the Child, and a seminar course in Beauty for our Honors Program. Instead of teaching texts I have grown to love—selections from Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, for example—I have been able to teach texts I have always loved. Dylan Thomas. Theodora Kroeber. N. Scott Momaday. Calvino. Marquez. And of course, the book that set me on the quest to be a writer at the age of five, Charlotte’s Web, the impetus for my poem in the most recent issue of the Tahoma Literary Review. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was to be the last book in our Literature of the Child class this spring, my favorite new course. It illuminates the confusing transitions between childhood and adulthood, and I imagined it would make a wonderful grand fin to the semester’s readings, which no doubt would amaze and excite my students, who would note the sheer genius of my syllabus as they came into their own epiphanies during their summer break at the sea (i.e., read “Cancun.”)

To my great surprise—deluded as I was, o veteran teachers of literature!—I began to hear rumors that students were not always reading the books. Not only that, but even worse somehow was the fact that they had been able to deceive my bullshit detector, which I thought was finely honed, sharpened on years of freshmen. Two students complained they read everything for the class but were receiving lower grades than students who were not reading. I began to ask around. I chose a student who I was pretty sure wasn’t reading, but who I liked quite a lot. A sorority darling, a chronic texter. She sits in the back, half amused, a ringleader of the others like her. She easily confessed to me that she had only skimmed a couple of the books. “I mean, really, like, with Charlotte’s Web, it’s like, the pig and the spider are friends, and they live in a barn, and then, like, the spider dies. It’s sad! I mean, that’s most of what I need to know, right? That’s the point of it, right? That everything dies? And, you know, almost every book we read for this class is sad. Why is that? When I do the reading for your class, it just makes me really depressed.”

I thought on this a long time. I thought on it as we read, some of us, anyway, The Odd Sea by Fredrick Reiken and The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. I thought on it while we read Portrait of the Artist which repeatedly brought forth a bald and unpleasant interrogation from the students. “What is the point of this book?” they asked. They wanted the nutshell edition, the Soylent nugget they could swallow to prepare for the test. I began to feel like a used car salesman in a broiling parking lot, dangling the keys to a Chevy repo bitten by rust, pitching the bottom line price to each customer with attentiveness and glee. Come on, try it out! It might be depressing, but you’ll love the ride!

I contemplated revenge fantasies—final exams full of detailed, specific quotes, minute analyses of minor characters’ roles, a final paper that included an exhaustive handwritten vocabulary list in the style of my eighth-grade student dictionary. I even contemplated individualized exams: a pleasant, mild one for the student who ratted out the non-readers, a mad-dog version for the chronic texters, a version for the girl who finds the selections depressing, asking her to chronicle her sadness in relation to the sadness of the writers we read. Some of these fantasies were mean and rather delicious.

In the end, though, I tried talking to them. From the front of the room, I felt myself aging as I told them the story of Mrs. Penn’s Literature course. I told them that I do know how busy they are. I joked with them about parties and sex and their helicopter parents and their parents who were not at all available. You have an image of the house you want, the clothes you want to buy, the firm you want to work for, I said. I told them, too, that I know how much some of them are hurting. I know because they come to my office and show me their cuts. They tell me crazy stories about being locked out by lunatic roommates. The guys they like ignore them, or send indecipherable texts that get analyzed with an intensity which, applied to Joyce, would win merit scholarships for the rest of their days here. I reminded them of a conversation we had earlier in the semester about how many of them watch Disney movies to soothe themselves at night when they miss the comforts of home. Some of you, I said, have absolutely no reason to believe that something you read can literally change you, or that a character, on paper, untouchable, untexable, can be anything but a point, a means to an end, I told them. I can’t convince you otherwise. But maybe one day when you go home, you’ll hear that the slightly crazy aunt you’ve always loved has become ill and was whisked away to a Senior Facility while you were at school. That she will grow frail and weak, and that you’ll find yourself thinking on her in the night. Maybe then you will be able to remember the image of Capote’s kites ‘rather like hearts, hurrying toward heaven’ and I don’t know, you’ll feel something, and it won’t just be depressing. It will make you feel like there is someone out there listening, even if it is a character in a book.

I felt relief and rage and a kind of bottomless loneliness when I finished talking. The relief was from noticing that they were still listening, that nobody was texting, or appeared overly bored, although they weren’t standing on their desks giving a Dead Poets ovation either. “That was heartfelt, Ms. Altfeld,” one said to fill the quiet, and the comment stung somehow, even though I believe it was entirely sincere. The rage was the particular rage of impotence, mostly directed at myself. I felt like I could never quite be Mrs. Schowalter, or Mrs. Penn; I lacked the power, the integrity, the dictatorial authority of these women to convince them I was right. I’m a coward, afraid of being the teachers they were, one whose buck up or fuck up attitude drove me to show up. The loneliness was the same loneliness I felt since childhood about the particular joy and sadness reading has always held for me. When I close the door to my classroom and am away from the world where books matter, where there are others like me, my convictions feel so very solitary. When I put up the quiz—the beautifully written, thoughtful, conceived-at-midnight-in-an-epiphany quiz—I had to hurry off to the restroom, to let the unmistakable ache of the words I have swallowed for so many years swell and spill into my lap.


Read Heather Altfeld’s poem in our current issue

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