On Depression & Anxiety and the Hell That Was My First Month of Teaching

Critical Classrooms, Critical Kids

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This photograph is significant to me. My first three years of teaching were spent working with the same group of students, most of whom were Dominican. They all have a special place in my heart as they (unknowingly) helped me get through my first year of teaching, my father’s death and other personal struggles that they were not aware of. I was pregnant for most of our third year together and they delighted in watching my belly grow, guessing the baby’s gender and offering me name suggestions (as well as parenting tips). We were a family. They are now going into 10th grade and I am about to begin my ninth year teaching at the same school. 

This is an essay I wrote exactly two years ago but I’ve not shared it publicly until now. As vulnerable as it makes me feel to post it, I thought it might be helpful to teachers who…

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ENG 2310: Lessons

Lesson #1: All you know is not all there is to know.

“A good critic is trying to tell you what she has learned about herself from the reading of a particular piece of literature. A bad reviewer is often trying to tell you how smart he is by declaring whether or not he liked a particular book. If he liked the book, then this is the kind of book a superior person likes, and vice versa. He might try to explain why he didn’t like it, but the review is really just a tautology. “I didn’t like this book because it is bad,” is equivalent to “This book is bad because I didn’t like it.”

― Kevin Guilfoile

 

I learned not to be a snob.

Yakov Bok exclaims “Who am I to compare myself?” and I would add “Why compare at all?”

This course has taught me not to view literature as a stratified reading experience, meaning lower level courses are just as enriching as the upper graduate ones. That is not to say I was attended class close-minded and sitting on a high horse, but that I had my doubts as to how much is left to teach me. English literature courses had become repetitive, I’d surmised, but most of that boredom was due to my unwillingness to believe I’d only touched the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Lesson #2: Meaning should be diagnosed as D.I.D (Dissociative Identity Disorder)

Like that Lay’s® potato chip, I dared myself to be satisfied with just one. Just one meaning ofa word, a turn of phrase, a motif, a character, an absence. But like that freakin’ Lay’s® advertised, you can’t have just one.

Yes, I realize I’m stretching this a bit, but ‘If the shoe fits…’!

Wrong again?

Whatever. Moving on…

We’ve read a great variety this semester, but the three texts that have stuck with me are (in no particular order):

(1)    Everything is Illuminated by Jonathon Safran Foer

(2)    The Fixer by Bernard Malamud

(3)    Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

They made me think. I felt my insides twist and my concept of “compassion” was threatened and some nights kept me from ‘manufacturing some Zs’. (< —- See what I did there? )

Didn’t feel too ‘premium’ with myself and how I’ve contributed to the desolation of the world, or at least the perceived desolation.

Was I half empty or half full?

I didn’t even want to look.

But both meanings can be construed and both are right. The litmus test applies to literature as well, within reason of course, when backed up with textual evidence.

If you read the same book twice and extract the same meaning, you’re not doing it right.

Lesson #3: Reading is a form of transportation.

I’ve gotten lost, been tricked, picked up pesky hitchhikers called “sentiment”, and made it to the end just to realize I didn’t allow myself enough time and space to appreciate the view and the locals.

This summer, I hope to board that train again.

Lesson #4: Universalism is tempting

I still believe the works chosen as exemplars of “Major American Books” is an arbitrary list. There are countless others that would have been just as cool.

Whether this particular group was compiled because of a deliberate motif in mind or was just a serendipitous result, I would argue that ANY worthwhile books brought in would speak to some length on the human condition, its fallibility, and enduring search for Truth (yes, with a capital T).

Now, what does ‘worthwhile’ mean?

                That’s debatable.

Does the exclusive classical canon encompass the crème de la crème of “Major American Books”?

Pfft. No.

There is a biblio-politics (Rasha-ism) involved. There is money at work, connections, fame, and a plethora of other pre-disposed conditions to notoriety. At times they live up to their scholarly hype, and at other times they’re 50 Shades of Bullshit.

(I think) But there is a single thread at work, yes even in Twilight.

What does it mean to be human?

Do we meet that ideal or are we constantly falling short of our own expectation?

Fun Home: Now You See Me, but You Don’t

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a beautifully executed text that masters a balance between humor and tragedy. As an autobiography portrayed in the medium of a graphic novel, Bechdel articulates with a subtlety that cuts to the bone with melancholy and her juxtaposition of dialogue against image that has you caught between a smile and a wince.

“He used his skilled artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not (160).

                The morbidity exemplifies Bechdel’s perception of her childhood and how the eccentricity of her upbringing and family dynamics shaped the introspective and observant person that she consequently developed into. The graphic texts is charged with sexuality and societies perception of taboo sexual divergence, exemplified not by words or actions, but largely by what is not said, not expressed.

                Books and literary figures are introduced throughout Fun Home as a way of showcasing Bechdel’s family, an articulation that can only be accomplished by way of infusing literature. In this regard, the literary, fiction, seems to have a better grasp on the “real” than reality. Bechdel understands her life and the darker events that are expressed so nonchalantly, turning to the following literary exemplars:

(1)    The universe of Fitzgerald: the cold opulence of Gatsby’s empty empire as an attempt to compensate for an unrequited desire/self-fulfillment

(2)    The Addams Family: Humorous in their morbidity, it’s been desensitized to the point of apathy (the only difference between the Bechdel’s and the Addams is the former’s lack of familial sentiment)

(3)    The mythological Icarus: A re-playing of the myth in reverse role-play (Bechdel’s father being the one ill-fated)

(4)    Biblical Reference: Designating the time before her father’s suicide as “prelapsarian,” alluding to the bliss of Eden before The Fall (most fitting). Not to mention the ominous snake metaphor…

Although sexuality does encompass a huge theme in the text, the concept of “homosexuality” is not the driving force of the work. The expression of love, robbed closure, and open-endedness of life and the answers it erects are at the epicenter. With that said Fun Home reads more as a cathartic exercise than a simple regurgitation of past events. The “characters” in the text walk around with their eyes rolled back, preoccupied with the “self” alone, living to satisfy the internal. These aren’t figures I will likely forget anytime in the near future. Maybe it’s the aloofness of her father’s gaze that deeply resonates, or the exhaustion of Bechdel’s mother and her need to create something that is undeniably hers, or it could be Bechdel’s own forlorn drifting between the two, searching for a meaning that emancipates itself from father and mother, but still cannot help wanting an attachment.

“Not only were we inverts. We were inversions of one another (98).”

Foer’s Dirty Potato: You are What you Don’t Eat

“After that there was a famine of words for a long time (156).”

            In Jonathon Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, Alexander “Sasha” Perchov is a complex character that heavily underestimates himself as the true protagonist of the novel a translator in more than the traditional sense of the word. “Alex”, as he prefers to be called, gradually sheds his shallow persona and ambitions and reveals himself to be a character of extraordinary depth, admiration, and compassion. It is ironic that “Jon-fen” is constantly referred to as ‘the hero’, proving himself to be incompetent and devastatingly disconnected with both his new environment and the customs of this travel guides that shape such a significant part of the historical understanding of the journey. In short, it seems “Jon-fen” has no idea what he is looking for, or rather no idea on how to understand what he may or may not find. Jon-fen is only as relevant as Alex enables him to be, the latter serving as the mouthpiece for the former and thus wielding a power unbeknownst to him.

 

            Initially, Alex’s character is comical, a caricature of foreigners that has the reader feel cheapened in their reading experience. I was pleasantly surprised to delve into the depths of Alex and his perspective of the world, his traveler, family, and the unearthing of unspeakable historic trauma that still echoes in the absence of Trachimbrod and the resonating tales of its now-deceased inhabitants, preserved by Jonathon Safran Foer, author and his eponymous character.

            The reliability of Alex’s narration is often called into question; his odd turns of phrase and distinctive viewpoint they allow. Rather than deeming him an “unreliable”, I would argue he challenges the reader to break from the mundane use of language and story-telling from the familiar rhythm they are used to and to invest more faith in Alex and the world through his eyes.

            In this text, there is not a “famine of words” but rather a reinterpretation of them that could only leave one starving if they do not know what they are hungry for. I urge us all to eat that dropped potato, parse it out, laugh, and swallow what has been iterated as fowl, unworthy, or indigestible.

Mein/Unser Kumpf: Yakov Bok & the Trajectory of Jewish Existence

“Excuse me, Your Majesty, but what suffering has taught me is the uselessness of suffering, if you don’t mind me saying so (Malamud 333).”

Bernard Malamud’s Yakov Bok spent over two years in prison awaiting an indictment that was not guaranteed, a trial that may never have been set, and humiliation that was served as repulsively as his daily meals.  However, this does not constitute the entirety of his suffering, merely speaks on the immediate issues. His suffering, instead, is a continuation of a larger suffering. A suffering in flux.  Hermeneutically speaking, his case of suffering exists as a relation to the historical suffering of oppressed and scapegoated, such as the proletariat, but notably the Jewish people. The fixer’s suffering is a part that exists to reify the whole of racial vilification.

Suffering has become synonymous with the Jewish experience. Yes, it has existed and does still existed, but this begs the question: is it necessary? Yakov Bok describes the anguish of his experience as a lesson on the “uselessness” of it, does that then mean only those who have suffered could fully appreciate this conclusion? Yakov ultimately understands the futility of trying to incite sympathy from Tsar Nicholas II during his imaginative conversation with the Russian aristocrat. The monarch is so far removed, not only from the fixer’s socio-economic status, but from the inherited burden of being marked a target of blame and resentment, the phenomenological state of being Jewish.

Perhaps the “uselessness” of suffering is found in the attempt to perceive it as serving out penance for some transgression or another. Suffering is “useless” when it takes on a quality that is incompatible with the circumstances of the sufferer. Suffering should have a utility, a legitimate reason. In Yakov’s case, and those of the Jewish people, suffering has become something of the sacred, a martyred existence that although they have in a way resolved to take on, need not have existence to begin with. Yakov is determined to resist this label, renegotiating the traditionally bestowed concept of “mea culpa” . 

Muslim, queer, feminist: it’s as complicated as it sounds.

days like crazy paving

blog post cover photo me: muslim no matter how I dress.

There are three aspects of my identity that really can’t be untangled from each other:

I am a queer woman.

I am a feminist.

And I believe that there is no god but Allah, and that Muhammad is Allah’s messenger.

Yeah, it’s the third one that usually gets the record-scratch reaction.

I was raised Muslim, but in my teens, I became severely disillusioned with the faith. Having finished reading the Qur’an in English for the first time, I started to fully appreciate just how easy it was for people to twist and re-interpret the book to serve their own needs. I realised my father had been doing that to me for years, with his rules that he swore came “from God” and his restrictions on my behaviour that were all part of me being a good Muslim girl. Cover yourself so men don’t…

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Quote

“As far as desi…

“As far as desires go, there is really not such a great gulf betweenthe one who creates and the one who appreciates. Except, with the former his application may lead him too far into technical adventures, and thus create a momentary breach between himself and the spectator who, too impressed by tour de force, may lose sight of the original subject matter.” — Man Ray

Malamud’s “The Fixer”: Yakov the Worrywart

“I am in history,” he [the fixer] wrote, “yet not in it. In a way of speaking I’m far out, it passes me by. Is this good, or is something lacking in my character? What a question! Of course lacking but what can I do about it? And besides is this really such a great worry? Best to stay where one is, unless he has something to give to history […] (60).”

                The fixer worries.   Throughout the text, his worries shift from the hardships of maintaining a suitable livelihood to the epistemological worries of fatalism and his vein attempt to assert free will, causing the former worry to pale in comparison. The above excerpt captures an introspective moment, one that is encouraged by the philosophical documents he seeks out and reads, namely Spinoza’s works. The fixer is a part of history and his story does have something to give it, albeit perhaps unbeknownst to him. He aspires to a higher calling, something he has characterized as more noble and rewarding than menial labor. The books that he reads afford him that dream, further solidifying them as more than mere “windmills” of his naïve imagination. Recalling his father-in-law’s warning, “Stay away from the wrong books, Yakov, the impure (12)”, perhaps it may be safe to assume, prima facie, that Spinoza’s collection and the like were nothing more than a catalyst toward Yakov’s demise, naively boarding a pyrite gilded train scheduled for an imminent and inevitable wreckage.

However, this supposition is reductive, treating Yakov as merely a body at the disposal of the fates in a nihilistic universe. Simply, Yakov is an idea. “Nobody can burn an idea even if they burn the man (61).” To quote Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010):

“What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed – fully understood – that sticks; right in there somewhere. (Cobb)”

                Revolutions stem from a single idea of rebellion. As stated by Albert Camus in The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” A fixer is not simply a trade, but an idea. Yakov is “in history”, yes, but “far out” as well, enabling him to both be familiar with history, but estranged enough to critique it. The fixer symbolizes a “fix” of more than wagon wheels and carpentry, the fixer exists and dies to “fix” history by perpetuating an idea of resilience and protest to one’s current conditions, no matter how dismal.

                As the story progresses, the reader is increasingly suffocated by the frustration and incredulity of Yakov’s trial of innocence.  The narrator’s tone is blunted as well, a withdrawal of sympathy that has more to do with submission than actual condemnation. “Nowadays people are far less concerned about their fellow humans that in times past,” Nikolai Maximovitch notes to Yakov, “Religious feeling has shrunk in the world and kindness is rare. Very rare indeed (37).”  It is that very contagion of submission that is the culprit, something that has the potential to be fixed if one allows themselves to worry.