Dredging Up the Educational Past

I’m a sucker for school-centered tales;* I always have been, and probably always will be, fascinated by the weird balance teachers have to strike between classroom persona and private life, and by the unavoidably charged atmosphere of kids figuring out and being excited and scared by still-new life while trying to emulate adult worlds that must seem so much freer and intriguingly populated than their own. And as a student, even up through grad school, instructors were these near-untouchable shells who I was convinced were hiding something alluringly fascinating beneath the surface. ** Admittedly, my starry eyes got me into a few embarrassing entanglements, but none that have left me with anything but a chuckle at the power of naïveté and maybe, evidence of a bit of divine protection.

Given this bit of context, it’s unsurprising that I’m loving Michel Butor’s Degrees, a teacher’s chronicling, for his nephew (who’s also his student), of the lives of a class at a French lycée. The nephew is also having his say now in the process, and is delighted (by this point, at least) with the secret project he and his uncle share. I’m loving it, as I said– but it’s also bringing back the terrible amounts of pressure I put on myself as a student, especially in high school; the absolute affliction– generally, morally, and even existentially speaking, if that final adverb makes sense– suffered at the thought of being found to exhibit anything less than perfection.

Although Butor’s bringing to the fore some of the fretful anticipation of, say, being called on in class or being hit with a pop quiz, there’s nothing about these fifteen-year-old boys or their lives that has them scholastically harried the way I was at their age. Of course, it’s another time (the 1950s) and place, and even gender, that are being portrayed here, but I’m finding these subjects’ relative nonchalance interesting. It may be that enough time has passed outside that world that I can finally sit back and wonder at the tremendous amount of importance, and hence, anxiety, school held for me, even while I truly enjoyed the things I was learning. Given, that education was significant; I wouldn’t be where I am today were it not for my being dutiful and self-demanding in the classroom. But I was hit last night with both an observation– namely, that it’s hard to believe, now, in the intensity of my feelings back then– and to accompany it, a question that put that very same observation into nervous doubt: were I to return to one of those uncomfortable desks today, would fear suddenly descend upon me, turning me into forty-year-old admiring-fearing mush when faced with the well-meaning demands of an educator? I almost laughed at the hypothetical– but was so unsure of how I might really react, I couldn’t bring that disbelieving chuckle out into the vocalized open, even within the safe confines of my lone room.

Oddly enough, all of this bizarro baggage is just making me want to keep reading– maybe and hopefully a sign that I’ve found some sort of assistance in unearthing still-lingering hang-ups, and even better, in tossing them out the psychological door, with one good, final, loudly out-loud laugh.


* From what I can recall, the romance started with Wayside Stories from Wayside School; in the recent past, Harry Potter‘s an obvious example, and Special Topics in Calamity Physics perhaps the most delicious. As to the latter two, anything taking place in a boarding school is even better. I always felt cheated at not having been tossed into one of those establishments, even though I’m guessing a solid chunk of boarders would much rather have lived a normal, at-home life, with Friday-night football and adolescent battles with the parents.

** Somehow, I didn’t see that mystery get transferred to myself when I took up my own place behind the podium. Rather, I had the absurd sense of channeling Dora the Explorer in front of a lot of bored faces who could very plainly see the impostor standing before them.


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