Tag Archives: literature

Symphony 95

“Of course, you are right.” Neil gnawed on a knuckle for a moment before continuing, “Still, don’t you ever wonder what might become of the kids you teach?”


“What would it feel like twenty or thirty years from now if one of our kids discovered a cure for a some disease, or won a Nobel Prize — or became a serial killer. Gandhi and Hitler both had parents, and both had teachers. How did they feel, I wonder? Were they proud of what they had done, or were they ashamed? Did they try to hog some of the credit, or shoulder some of the blame?”

Carmen said, “What have you done to bring on this preoccupation with guilt?”

There it was — his opportunity. He would never have a better time to tell her about Alice Hamilton’s false accusations, and get rid of the barrier he had built between them.

She sat, waiting, in faded jeans and a sweater, with her feet tucked up beneath her. Lean and lovely, warm, dark, vibrantly alive, hair a frizzled cloud around her head, and her eyes a brown he could drown in. Waiting.

He asked himself, Do you love her?

He reached out his hand and she took it in hers, running her thumb down his palm. He felt his heart turn over within him at the nearness of her. I have never lain with her, nor even held her naked breasts in my hands, but already I love her more than I loved Lynn, whom I lived with and would have married.

Yet Lynn had betrayed him in his time of need, and he feared to try Carmen’s loyalty for fear that he would lose her too. And so the moment passed.

# # #

Neil drove home and rummaged through his desk until he found Mrs. Herrera’s phone number. She answered on the fifth ring, sounding tired and distracted. He said, “I need to see you tonight.”

“Tonight? You can’t be serious.”

“I have never been more serious. What did Jesse tell you about today?”

“Jesus didn’t tell my anything,” she replied in a sharp, defensive voice.

“He didn’t tell you that I sent him home five minutes after he got there for pretending he was Patrick Purdy and mock-killing half the students on the playground?”

There was silence on the other end for so long that Neil had begun to think Mrs. Herrera had hung up. Finally he heard faint sobs that went on for a long time. Then a very weak voice said, “What can I do?”

“I’m coming over.”

“No! I can’t. I can’t talk to you now.”

“Mrs. Herrera you have only two choices. Talk to me now, and really talk. Don’t give me some run around, but actually tell me what you know about Jesse’s problems. Or start looking for another school tomorrow, because if we can’t get this settled right now, Jesse is not coming back to my room.”

She agreed.

He arrived at her house twenty minutes later. It was larger and in a nicer neighborhood than Neil had expected. Mrs. Herrera would certainly have a hard time paying for such a house on one salary, so it probably dated from before her husband’s death.

She met him at the door and led him into the living room. The furniture was well built and stylish. It had been expensive once, but now it was shabby. It was clean and neat; there were no toys underfoot to give evidence that a child lived there. more Monday


465. Black, White, Aryan, Jew

This is a slightly rewritten republication of a post of the same name from 2016. It is important enough to say again, basically unchanged.

In America, race means black and white. It’s basically a construct. It is a handy visual tool we use so we can tell us from them.

We all partake of the same gene pool, varying only in the amount of various genes we possess. Take the whitest non-albino; put him on one end of the line. Take the blackest black and put him on the other. Assemble the millions of the rest of us and put us in between. There would be no break in the gradation.

Nevertheless, race is still here, so embedded in our national consciousness that the truth of our unity is swamped by the voice in our heads screaming, “I don’t care. Blacks are still blacks, and whites are still whites!”

This kind of confusion about basic reality leads to tragedy, and not only in America. Try this sentence:

In the days of the Third Reich, Germans persecuted Jews.

If this sentence sounds accurate, you are missing a few points. The Jews who were sent to the death camps were largely Germans. I am sure that was no comfort to them, and it isn’t the most salient fact about the situation. But it is important. If we put a wrong label on something, it makes it hard to think clearly about that thing. This process is still going on, as today’s politicians turn complexities into sound bites.

Hitler offered simplified and false solutions to real problems, based on the idea that there was a German race and a Jewish race. Jewish is not a race. It is a religion, and sometimes an ethnic group.

German is not a race. It is a language, and it is shared by several countries other than Germany. Germanism is also an attempt by the late-formed country of Germany to find national unity in a semi-mythical past.

Aryan is not a race. If you say Aryan in today’s world, it will evoke Hitler’s movement to elevate his blonde, blue-eyed “super race” to world supremacy. That super race is a myth made up of equal parts hatred and scientific misunderstanding.

In fact, the term Aryan originates in northern India, 3500 years ago. It refers to the “light skinned” conquerors who drove out or enslaved the dark skinned native population. The word Iranian is a modern variant of the word Aryan. As for the “light skinned” conquerors, think Koothrappali from the Big Bang Theory. The Aryans were light skinned only compared to the people they conquered.

Hitler should be rolling over in his grave at the thought, but he got his information third hand.

It started with Max Muller, an honest German born-scholar who spent his career at Oxford. Linguists of his day discovered the link between the languages of Europe and South Asia, and developed the notion of an Indo-European language family. They believed this family of languages originated in the southwestern steppes of Russia, and was introduced into South Asia through the Aryan invaders. Muller was a strong proponent of Aryan culture, considering it one of the greatest developments of mankind. By Aryan, he meant the culture of India. After others had misrepresented his ideas, he clarified that Aryan culture did not imply an Aryan race. No one listened.

As time passed, proponents of European superiority such as Arthur de Gobineau moved the origin place of the Indo-European language family to northern Europe, confused current notions of race (such as Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean) with the linguistic and cultural classification Aryan. They “invented” the Aryan race, which they considered to be light skinned in the European sense, the originators of civilization, and superior to all others.

The caramel skinned invaders of India had been thoroughly whitewashed.

The last member of this trio is Huston Stewart Chamberlain, born in England, raised in France, and ending his life in Germany, converted to German superiority by Wagner’s music. He wrote the Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, in which he saw the history of the world entirely in terms of conflict between the Aryan and Jewish races. It became a bible of Nazism, and Chamberlain became a mentor to Hitler.

Labels like Jew and Aryan matter, just as labels like black and white matter in America. A “Jew” in Nazi Germany might be a Zionist extremist who believed that God chose his people and would smite all his enemies. He might be a modernistic non-believer who had repudiated his Jewish ancestors, read Nietzsche, and listened to Wagner. He might even be some poor schmuck who just got misidentified. It would all be the same in Auschwitz.

The Aryans that Hitler believed in, didn’t exist at all.

Symphony 94

Neil reached down and took Jesse by the back of the shirt and lifted him a foot off the ground. Slowly, the boy unkinked until he could put his feet on the ground again. Neil let go and Jesse stood facing him; fear and hatred were at war in his face, and hatred was winning out. Neil did not care. He said, “Jesse, go home! Don’t come back until I call for you.”

Jesse stood up to him for one more moment, then turned tail and ran, across the campus, across the parking lot, and down the street toward his house.

# # #

You don’t do things that way. You don’t grab a student by the arms. You don’t yell at a student until he cowers at your feet. You don’t pick him up off the ground. You don’t send him off campus on his own. If he must be sent home, you do it through channels, with documentation, and you make the parent come in to get him. The law requires it, and self-preservation requires it. Parents will sue schools and teachers if they are provoked.

Above all, you do not lose your temper.

Neil sat in his room after school, cataloging his failings and feeling low. For a person who had come here to prove himself, he was not doing very well. For a person who had “saved” Jesse from expulsion, he was doing even worse.

Yet he had learned a lot about self-preservation during the last year.  If something like this had happened at his previous school, he would have gone to Dr. Watkins with his problems and asked his advice. This time he kept the incident to himself. He did not even tell Bill Campbell that Jesse had left campus. There was a bare chance that he could salvage the situation; if not, then would be the time to confess.

First, there was one hard question to face. Why did he want to salvage the situation? Because he still believed that Jesse was worth the effort, or just to keep from having to admit his failings? If he was only trying to cover himself, then he had better let the boy go. Maybe in some other school he could make a new start.

In the last analysis, what Neil had to do now hinged on one question: could the boy be saved? And Neil did not know the answer.

# # #

He sought out Carmen at her apartment. “First of all,” Neil said after he had outlined the problem, “did I overreact to what Jesse did? He is only eleven years old. Maybe his was just a natural, stupid reaction to the incident in Stockton.”

Carmen shook her head. “If I had seen him do that, I would have written him up, and that would have been the end of him. I wouldn’t tolerate that from any student.”

“Of course his behavior wasn’t acceptable. I’m not asking that. I’m asking what it means. Is he growing up to be another Patrick Purdy?”

“Oh, Neil, how could we ever know that? Stop trying to play God. You just have to teach them and do the best you can to help them, and then let them become what they become.” more tomorrow

Symphony 93

As it turned out, he didn’t have to say very much. Less than half of them were aware of what had happened, and few of them were very interested. They were talking about it when they came in from the busses; those who had seen the news were telling those who had not. But it had come to them through the plastic reality of the television. It was no more real than a drug bust, famine in Ethiopia, or oil spills. Or Miami Vice. It was just another part of the endless effluvium of human suffering that washed about them every day; with marvelous sanity, most of them remained unmoved.

A few of them were affected. Tanya Michelson looked as if she had been crying when she came in and stayed unnaturally quiet all day. Lisa Cobb jumped at every sound. Oscar Teixeira had been thinking hard about what it all meant. He went straight to the fact that the children who had died had all been Asian. With a clarity of thought all out of proportion to his age, he made the connection to the celebration of Martin Luther King Day just before the shooting. Of course he did not speak of irony — not at eleven years old — but he did recognize the juxtaposition.

At noon, Bill Campbell called a special teachers’ meeting to discuss campus security. He stressed that any stranger seen on campus was to be approached immediately and asked his business, and referred to the office if there was any question about why he was there. “This isn’t anything new,” Bill said. “It has been school board policy for about ten years, ever since parents kidnapping their own children became a problem. In light of what happened in Stockton, we have to be even more careful.”

Jesse Herrera came on campus for his afternoon class with Neil just before the final noon recess bell rang. He dropped his book bag outside Neil’s door and slid along the wall of the building. When the bell rang he leaped out, shouting out the sound of gunfire, and pantomimed firing across the playground.

Neil saw him, and his temper exploded. He was a hundred feet away when Jesse “fired”. He covered the distance at a run, grabbed the boy by both arms, and jerked him off the ground as he skidded to a stop.

Then he blew his ears back.

He screamed out how stupid he was being, how insensitive to the suffering of the students who had been wounded, and how disrespectful to the memories of those who had died. Later, Neil could not remember the exact words he had used, but they were loud. All the student on the playground froze in their tracks until Neil finished, then rushed on to class looking back over their shoulders.

Jesse folded up like a rag doll. He buried his head beneath his hands to ward off blows that never fell. Neil stood over him, breathing in gasps as he tried to control his anger. He had never felt more like striking a child. The pathetic cowering that would normally have defused his anger, only made it worse. more tomorrow

464. Miscegenation at Work

This post is a rewrite and mashup of 90. N Word, M Word and 89. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

A cousin of mine told me recently that interracial marriage is still a big no-no in Oklahoma. Bear in mind she is my age, so she may not speak for the present generation. Here in California where I live now you see black-white couples everywhere, and that pleases me, but then I never did fit in back home.

Abhorrence of mixed-race marriage has two parts. It is a fear that a (perceived) bad thing has been made legal, and it is a refusal to admit that the (perceived) bad thing has been going on for a very long time.

Did you ever hear of a nigger in the woodpile? (Yes, there’s that damned word again. In looking at race honestly, there are some things that can’t be avoided) The phrase has been a Southern staple forever. You can Google it, but it won’t tell you much. You will find it was used in an anti-Lincoln cartoon during his election bid, and you will find various definitions to the effect that it refers to something not being what it seems.

Fine, but why this particular phrase? Why is that legendary black man hiding in that woodpile near the back door of the big house? What are his intentions?

The answer lies in when the phrase is used. It is rarely used to cover general sneakiness, but it is always used when a child doesn’t look like his father. Hmmm. So that’s why that black guy was sneaking around the back door.

The great fear is that black men will do to white women what white men have been doing to black women for four hundred years.

That black feller in the woodpile helps whites laugh at the hidden realization that white purity is not just endangered; it hasn’t existed for a really long time.

You can see it in the classic movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but you have to look sharp. If you don’t remember the story, in 1967, a very handsome, very black man (Sidney Poitier) wants to marry a very pretty, very blonde white girl (Katherine Houghton). They spring this on her liberal parents and complications ensue.

I like the movie despite its obvious problems. I even forgive that it ends with a fifteen minute monolog by the grumpy, old white guy (Spencer Tracy), as he puts everybody else in their places.

The movie is dated and excessively sweet. It is unrealistic that the black guy in question is such a moral superman and so terminally handsome. Never mind; the movie’s heart was in the right place and it probably did some good. And it was 1967, after all.

However, if you look closely there’s something else to be learned from this movie beyond what the producer intended. The next time you see it, take a look at Dorothy (no last name, played by Barbara Randolph), a minor character, assistant housekeeper and a drop-dead gorgeous black girl.

Or is she black? Stand her up in your imagination half way between Poitier and Houghton. She is half as black as he is, and half as white as she is. How could this happen in America! And why do we accept her as black? Why not white? She’s exactly half-and-half, compared Houghton and Poitier.

The whole movie is based on the shock that everyone feels when Poitier and Houghton decide to marry, but no one even takes notice of the obvious product of four hundred years of interracial sex, married or otherwise, strutting her stuff in the background.

Imagine that, people not noticing what is right under their noses.

Symphony 92

Since the American Navy had accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner the previous summer there had been talk of terrorist reprisals, and American schools were one of the targets being threatened. If that was the case, and the school which had already been struck was so close . . .

Neil found himself searching the playground with his eyes, and at the time it did not seem melodramatic. He said, “What do you want me to do?”

“Don’t say anything to your students, but be on the alert. Join Tom and me out front when the busses come to pick them up. It’s late enough in the afternoon that we probably won’t have any parents coming in to pick up their children because they heard it. If some parent comes in, get their child out of the classroom without a fuss. If we can manage it, I want to get these kids home with their parents before they hear about it.”

Bill went on to pass the word and Neil returned to his classroom. Bill’s words “a bunch of dead and wounded” rang in his head as he sat down and looked at his kids. Little Randi Nguyen with her boundless energy; Rabindranath who was calm and bright and utterly without a sense of humor; Lisa Cobb with her erratic behavior and terrible puns; even Jesse Herrera. Dead or wounded . . .; he had to shake his head to drive the vision away.

The bell for the last break of the day caught him by surprise and he jumped. Somebody laughed, then hid his laughter. The students all rushed for the door. Neil was on his feet in an instant and out the door to pace the playground in paranoid fear. All of the other teachers were out, exchanging worried glances and saying nothing.

When the busses came, a phalanx of teachers was there to protect their students from an enemy who never appeared.

# # #

Neil drove to the mall after school and went to a department store where he had seen racks of televisions on display. He had no TV himself and he did not want to watch this with Carmen. He could either watch it alone, or in the anonymity of a public place, but not with someone he loved. He arrived at the store just in time to see the whole bloody scene on the news. All normal business had stopped in the store as clerks and customers stood riveted by the horror of it.

A second channel picked it up and Neil watched again. His fascination was like a private shame. He hated the newsman for the way he shoved his microphone into a child’s face to ask her how she had felt, but he could not turn away.

The next morning the Modesto Bee devoted five full pages to the tragedy. Neil, who did not subscribe, went out early to buy a copy and read it all. Five dead. Thirty wounded. That would be half of the kids he taught. And all the rest, the other three hundred students, would never feel safe again. Like a rape, it would tear them out of their childhoods and plunge them into a mad, adult world long before their time.

What would he say to his own students today? more tomorrow

463. Shooters

The University of Texas Tower
photo by Larry D. Moore


Today in Serial, a school shooting occurs in the novel Symphony in a Minor Key. Here in A Writing Life I have explained why it was there.

Yesterday in the world we all inhabit, another school shooting took place in Florida. Since the post below was written a week or so ago, this makes an unexpected and jarring contrast.

I could say, “What are the chances of such a coincidence?”, but the chances of a school shooting on any given day have increased dramatically since I was forced to include one in my novel thirty years ago. As always, I feel for the victims and the survivors, and like everyone else, I have no answers.

I am adding this note of explanation about an hour after the original post appeared.


The original post.

Most American’s alive today have grown up in an era of mass shootings. We had not yet reached that point in 1966.

I was working on the home farm that summer. I had graduated from high school and was waiting to enter college in the fall.

On August first, Charles Whitman shot his wife and mother, then took weapons to the observation deck of the main tower at the University of Texas. Over the course of the next hour and a half, he shot and killed thirteen people on the ground below and wounded another thirty-one; two of his victims died later. He was eventually killed by police.

Like the rest of America, I heard about it on the news. It was a shock. It was something that had not happened before.

Whitman’s position on top of the tower made it hard for the police to get to him. That was not an accident; Whitman was a former Marine sharpshooter. He knew his business.

There are several talking points in this incident for people on both sides of the gun control controversy. None of his weapons would be called an assault rifle by modern use of that term. Several civilians joined the police in returning fire. They probably helped, but did not prevent the tragedy.

It was the deadliest mass shooting in American history, at the time. Today it ranks eighth.

Twenty-three years later, the Texas Tower shooting still ranked seventh. I was teaching school and writing Symphony in a Minor Key in the evenings. I had set myself the task of writing events in my imaginary middle school in exact correspondence to what was happening in the real world.

I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

On January 17, 1989, Patrick Purdy shot and killed five students at a school in a nearby town, and wounded thirty others, including a teacher. I was faced with the decision of whether or not to include this tragedy in the novel I was writing.

I chose to write it in. That is why today’s post in Serial appears as it does.