Charles Green teaches writing at Cornell University. His writing has appeared in Inside Higher Ed, New England Review, and The Missouri Review.
Good teaching requires that we erase our biases before we enter the classroom. We’re human, though, so such erasure is impossible. I like to flatter myself that I can achieve the kind of objectivity I don’t really believe in, the kind I explicitly question with my students. Of course, every semester exposes in some way how fully I’ve bought into human neutrality.
Last fall, I taught to my first-year students Kevin Brockmeier’s excellent A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade. (Full disclosure: I know Kevin; he went to high school with my oldest brother, and we’ve hung out once or twice.) They liked it immediately; the first chapters display his writing’s surprise and precision of image and metaphor: “he snatches at a pine sapling and it separates from the ground in a froth of dirt and roots”; “The shades drawn over the windows aerosol the air with a fine orange haze.” The students loved sensing the world as fully as the seventh-grade Kevin does in the memoir. That engagement struck them even more because Brockmeier writes about himself in third person, a move that might sound like a gimmick to skeptical readers but that signals the weird distance young Kevin felt from himself as well as the distance the adult, narrating Kevin feels from that past self. “He feels like a different person,” the memoir begins, establishing an uncertainty that the imagistic language makes paradoxically immediate and real.
Over the first few chapters, Kevin appears ill at ease with his friends; he has spent a summer apart from them, and they’ve developed a language he can’t adopt with any consistency. Then, in one chapter, the sumptuous language disappears, replaced almost exclusively with dialogue that captures merciless teasing from Kevin’s friends; they follow him outside the school, twisting his every phrase into mockery that jars his biggest anxieties. For several pages, we hear their perverse, destructive creativity, and we feel intensely the cruelty of bullying without it being called that by name. His friends have become something radically other.
In the minutes before class, my students would congregate at tables outside the classroom. Two male students were sitting at the table, talking quietly about Brockmeier’s memoir. When I walked up, they locked eyes with me. The bullying of the book had been resonating in my head, and I realized that I’d held a quiet bias about these students: even though I liked them—they were charming, easygoing, smart, willing to work hard—I had decided they’d never been bullied. They never seemed tentative or cowed; they wore T-shirts that framed their muscular biceps. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think they were bullies. But they showed none of the shyness, none of the edge, of the bullied. None of the shyness and edge I’ve long had.
And, I hate to admit, I was jealous. As I sat down at their table—they clearly wanted to chat with me—I felt that twinge of judgment.
Then they told me how intense the bullying chapter had been for them to read. They looked stricken, shaking their heads and fumbling for words. As it turns out, I was right: they had never been bullied, at least by their admission. But, reading the chapter, they felt the bullying Kevin felt. Brockmeier hadn’t used the word bullying or any variation, but they understood what it meant. And, even more to their credit, they wanted to know more about that feeling, that dynamic. Empathy led to further engagement.
The credit goes to Brockmeier as well, obviously. The care of his sentences opened my students, his readers, to new emotions and understandings they hadn’t had. Because I know Kevin Brockmeier and the landscape he writes about, and because I know bullying from the perspective of the bullied, the bullier, and the watcher, I didn’t know if my students would feel the memoir’s power. I worried they wouldn’t relate.
I worried in part because I love the book so much. Brockmeier has published four novels and two story collections; I’ve taught his fiction. But the memoir sticks to my ribs. The sentences echo and glow and ripple, and the structure seems arbitrary—one school year—but has an ingenious parallel between the beginning and end that marks the changes we see in the memoir. Plus, A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip is one of those books I want to hand people, saying, “Life is like this.” I hoped my students would see with me that life is like this. When you’ve been bullied, having someone confirm the terror of that uncertain selfhood provides solace. I worried that seeing my students unable to relate would draw my anxiety toward the surface.
But, just as the students inadvertently exposed my bias, their intense experience of the memoir reminded me how unimportant relatability is. While I think relatability can be one level of engagement with art, I’m more interested in recognition: an artwork can make us re-cognize, make us rethink and re-see some part of the world and ourselves. Our synapses reroute, even if incrementally, and we map the world differently because we know it differently.
In other words, he—my students, me, my friend I bought the book for—feels like a different person.