Really Hating Hemingway
Jim Menke walked into his classroom for the first time in four months.
The awaiting clutter showed a mutual level of historic motivation by both teacher and student to do nothing but vacate the room four months earlier as piles of unread study guides and half-hearted attempts at final papers were strewn about. He had walked out with the students after a hellish year and vowed not to look back until he absolutely forced to do so. The summer was historically restorative and his energies had benefited from the absence but as the weeks loomed towards the new start of school, Jim noticed a tightening in his shoulders and a dull throb of reluctance as the day which he was legally mandated to begin formal prep work moved closer to reality.
Jim was a high school English teacher; pleasant, generic and not without equal moments of enlightenment and feigned interest. He had a Bachelor's degree in English from a directional college and a state-sponsored teacher's certificate which clearly showed he had achieved tenure. Unless he crossed very distinctive lines of specific behavior, there was absolutely no way he would ever lose his job. He had already moved into the contractually mandated magic protective zone of sixty: a combination of years of service (20) and his age (45) clearly stated he was exempt from all cutbacks, budget constraints and student/teacher ratio threshold metrics. He was completely and totally untouchable and he knew it.
The problem was not his fear of losing his job and being forced to actually earn a living; all anxiety ranging from his shoulder pain to the lack of positivity was caused by the hate he had for Ernest Hemingway. As a high school teacher, the reliance on a standardized curriculum was a two-edged sword of brutal reality. The good side allowed him to spend zero time in class preparation activities; he could pull out the standard lesson plans and read them word for word. His twenty years of experience combined with course packs written for idiots allowed himself to engage at the minimum levels and still meet all teaching obligations. The down side is the love affair between individuals writing high school course packs and Ernest Hemingway; there is no real debate that Hemingway was an important literary figure but the truth, in Jim's eyes, was that Hemingway was a second-level typist who got lucky in a down year for Pulitzers and fooled the sheepish Nobel crowd into giving him a prize for lifetime achievement. He further thought Hemingway's award was a poor man's literary version of the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award because what he had read was Irving Thalberg was truly a visionary but Hemingway took the audience's need for emotional wave and give it to them in a simple, dull manner. While everyone said they loved Hemingway because it was an easy thing to say but literary wool was already pulled firmly over these people's eyes. In reality, most people could recall a few of his works but with the exception of The Sun Also Rises and a few short stories, Hemingway was a big gust of words...signifying nothing.
Speaking his mind amongst his trusted colleagues, his opinions were met with quiet agreement as not many English teachers could stand his work. After several years of slogging through Old Man and the Sea forced them all to realize he was at best a romantic but at worst, a ham-fisted typist in love with his own immature imagery. Anytime the topic of replacing Hemingway with other American authors would be broached, the resulting hue and cry from administrators and education companies would be loud and long for no reason except it represented a change in something and it felt like a big change. The administrators had no interest in changing what had worked and while they couldn't remember much about Hemingway from their own education, they incorrectly felt that he must have been a good writer because they had actually heard of him. The educational companies, long entrenched in a standard curriculum strategy, had no interest in changing something that really didn't need changing. The point was not whether he was a good writer, the point was that he was a writer and that was good enough. Each year, when notifications of edits and supplemented curriculum changes are sent out to the teachers, Jim maintained a fantasy that Hemingway content was either going to be drastically reduced or dropped all together....and each year, no changes of any sort occurred.
As he sat reading at his desk, a few teachers wandered by on their way to their respective classrooms. The level of chaos in Jim's classroom was so significant that teachers felt compelled to slow down by the door and peer inside to see papers and books strewn around with no apparent thought or plan. The custodians had informed the office that they were not going to clean the classroom until all the material was returned to its proper location and the room was ready to receive their attention. A combination of extra work and the fear of ruining some school property kept the janitors at bay; they weren't going to do any teacher's job and putting away the first strata of crap was always the responsibility of the teacher. The custodians had enough of their own challenges: plugged toilets, extinguished paper fires and simple vandalism in the common areas and the general health and welfare of the school hallways. Cleaning up a room because a teacher ran out with the kids four months earlier was no reason to go above and beyond; he wouldn't help them root out a plugged toilet so they had no interest in re-stacking his books.
"Hey Jimmy. Long time, no see."
The voice of his friend and fellow English instructor, Neal Merren, broke the silence. Neal looked in the room and gave out a low whistle.
"The janitors were right, this place is a mess."
"No kidding," said Jimmy. "While I should have taken a few hours last June to clean it up, I just couldn't. I had to get the hell out of here."
"That is part of it...a big part of it but I can't blame that old fraud for everything. But, I also think it was a long, weird year and I had had enough of everything and decided it was time to get out."
Jim smiled and said, "So, how was your summer?"
Neal shrugged and said, "It was okay."
Most teachers feel no responsibility to socialize with their colleagues during the summer because they saw too much of them during the year. They spend most of their waking day in close proximity of their colleagues; teaching class, monitoring study hall, coaching students, attending departmental and school functions and generally having to stay engaged and involved with everyone around them. Like actors working in a multi-venued building, they see each other backstage and in front of complimentary audiences but they rarely spend time talking shop or commiserating over academic spilled milk. They defined themselves as academic professionals and had only minor levels of interest in post-class socializing. A few of the first year teachers stuck together due to the need to socialize with someone who wasn't a parent, a tenured teacher or God forbid, a student but the older hands did their stuff and headed home. When the year was over, that behavior worked nicely throughout the summer until the day the doors opened up again.
Jim wanted to be social but he had to start cleaning up his room. He asked Neal about his summer but didn't really listen to the answer. As Neal began to provide much more detail than he originally hoped, Jim began wandering around the classroom with a wheeled garbage can. As Neal continued to talk about his continuing education units and part-time job, Jim started stacking books and throwing away the miscellaneous piles of paper which randomly had collected off the main traffic patterns of the room. Neal was pleased with his summary and gave Jim a formal wave of completion as he disappeared from the door. Jim continued to clean up the room and after about thirty minutes, it was finally ready for the janitors to come in for a formal buff and shine. Jim dashed off a quick e-mail to the custodians and left for the day; he had done enough and the looming reality of opening up For Whom The Bell Tolls in less than ten days was too much for Jim.
On the way home, Jim began making mental notes on items he needed to bring into the classroom the next day. In the twenty years as a teacher, he had seen the dramatic change from pen and paper and notes in his cubby to digital tools including flash drives, teacher email boxes and an online syllabus complete with documented collaboration between himself and his students. While he liked the convenience of the soft copy solutions, the basic challenges of authenticity of student work and their collective desires to achieve the maximum grade with the minimum effort still remained intact. The good students, concerned with class rank and college choices, would actually read the books and make an effort in class while the marginal students would attempt a variety of methods to cheat ranging from the clumsy and desperate to the fiendishly elegant to get out of actually doing the work. Whether it was reading a well-worn Cliff Notes™ booklet (since they never, ever changed the reading list) the night before or renting the movie, he always was amazed at the students who expended twice as much necessary effort to avoid reading the assigned book instead of just reading the book. The internet provided mountains of content on all works of literature which caused him to avoid requesting book reports; he wanted to have them demonstrate their knowledge in essay form in sit-down exams. No technology, outside of texting questions to the later, luckier students, would help the lazy and disengaged.
He finished the list at home and he found a small comfort that the list rarely deviated from the standard items: extra pens for the habitually unarmed students, abandoned but officially pristine spiral notebooks for the same group, small but adequate flash drives left by classes past but cleansed by Jim for new distribution and a few key reference books including the Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk and White. These books did not see much traffic in the last several years but he felt more comfortable in the classroom when they were present. On this small point, Jim was insistent: no English classroom was a real classroom without these two volumes of legitimate reference. While the start of the list came together by instinct, as he reached into a closed cardboard box to grab the reading material, he paused to stifle a noticeable blanch. The paperbacks were organized with their backs displaying outward and his reach harvested the murderer's row of painful literature: Farewell to Arms, For Whom The Bells Tolls, The Sun Also Rises and the most painful one of them all, Old Man and The Sea. These books and many supplemental Hemingway works, constituted well over sixty percent of the year's reading list. When he saw them again, the anxiety rushed back and in a moment, it was mid-May all over again and his stomach began to hurt all over again.
Compounding the anxiety was the original thought process of whomever had decided all tenth-grade students would be required to tramp through these works in a supposedly ascending order to the again-supposed pinnacle of American Literature: The Old Man and The Sea. The novella was far more than some trudge through one man's literary output; the work was considered a masterpiece when someone had to say something nice.But between Jim and many of his teaching acquaintances, they all found the book tiring. That covert operation would have been viewed as sacrilege by individuals who had to claim some literary gravitas but the inside baseball opinion was the "novella" (Jim always hated that word) was at best, a slow first draft and at worst, a self-indulgent, metaphorically amateurish and very lazy attempt at free association.
Over the years, Jim had ran himself ragged trying to balance the apparent Hemingway love fest with other American writers who had the same level of awareness but it was not successful due to the peculiar hold the works of Hemingway had to the non-awareness. The issues at the core was everyone said they had read Hemingway (but they did not), everyone said they enjoyed Hemingway (but they did not) and everyone said that Hemingway was the greatest American writer (but they had no other options). This transitive thought process did not explain why Hemingway was so revered but it did go a long way to understand how an idea, not challenged or thought through, can stick around from one generation to another purely on the strength of its presence. However, these days had seen a recent thawing of his personal beliefs due to the brutal truth of the sticking power of all things Hemingway. He positioned the works as kindly as he could and remained at best neutral to his own personal opinions. High school English is one of the last bastions of communal education: soon the required class would be quickly lost in the background as the classes began to position to either a vocational school or standard university with no one demanding further insights on a writer. There would be less than ten individuals heading towards an English or Literature-based course of study and they would re-read Hemingway along with the other best-known American writers (he always was careful to refer to Hemingway as a "the best-known American writer," not the "best."
The next day was the first formal meeting of the English teachers. Some of his colleagues kept referring to the meetings as "faculty meetings" but Jim had no delusions of grandeur when it came to himself or his peers. The English staff consisted of mainly B.A.'s from colleges and universities within fifty miles of the high school and the few M.A.'s had come from sub-par graduate schools. He always found the people most closed-minded about education, especially continuing education. He always made an effort to read new authors, pay attention to National Book Award winners and pursue personal interests when it came to the voices of talented and usually unknown writers. But this approach to his chosen profession was the exception, not the rule. The English staff was broken up into three camps: the novices making less than minimum wage hoping to cobble together three consecutive years to receive permanent placement within the school district (he refused to call it tenure"), the lifetime teachers who gave less than a small shit as an everyday practice with one eye on their retirement date and the other failing eye on the current teacher's contract and the transition teachers (he had counted himself within this group) who still made an effort but had lost a majority of their original passion due to a variety of circumstances. He had gotten into the job as a stepping stone to something else but the daily interactions between himself and his classes seemed to keep himself settled.
As he was driving in for the meeting, he smiled to himself how two separate acts combined together to cause a major inconvenience. The first act was the state-mandated teaching curriculum standards which removed any and all discretion from individual teachers. The state issued a standard lesson plan which was expected to be followed (read: complied) without exception or qualification. Initially, Jim saw this windfall as a nice way to save twenty hours a month. He had always labored with creating his own lesson plans and for a young teacher, it provided him a template to be following with no brain drain or accountability. The second act was the lesson plan creator's love of Hemingway; when Jim had finally reviewed the plan, he was surprised to see an excessive percentage of Hemingway's works. He had always read one book, usually The Sun Also Rises, his most consistent and least-annoying but it was clearly evident that the year (and all the years to come) was going to be a full-on, saturated Hemingway love fest. That realization was fifteen years ago and he clearly identified that as the day that teaching and literature became a job, versus a honorable profession.
As he pulled into the teacher's parking lot, he waved at numerous teachers and administrators. All departments used this day for their formal kickoff meeting but he always wondered why they kicked off anything because the plan was the plan was the plan and it had been years since he stopped both questioning the lesson plans and suggesting alternative authors. This year was going to be just like the last ten and as he lifted himself out of his car, the two sounds of his car door slamming and him sighing collided elegantly and without hope or agenda.
He waved at fellow English teachers as he walked into the school. He dropped off his book bag (he refused to carry a briefcase) at his desk and walked across the hall to get a seat for the meeting. The three tribes of teachers were well-represented once he sat down with the newbies on one end of the table and the soon-to-be retirees at the other end. He sat directly in the middle and looked up at the clock and waited for the assigned chairman or chairwoman to call the meeting to order. Each year, according to the contract, the chair position rotated amongst the permanent teaching group and they were responsible for organizing the kickoff meeting and to distribute the minutes. No one ever asked for the minutes but the contract stated that component so meeting minutes, complete with attendance, were dutifully taken and filed away next to last year's minutes. He had been chairman twice in his career and he couldn't remember who was assigned last year so he waited for someone to get the meeting going and he would then make the connection.
"The first order of business is to elect next year's chairman," read Tina Carter. "The list shows the name to be....Jim Menke."
Jim looked up and nodded. He had been there before and knew that discussion of any sort was just a waste of time. "Okay, I will do next year's meeting."
"Any discussion or debate?" asked Tina with one hand on the agenda and the other on the pristine copy of Robert's Rules.
No one said anything. This group had always embraced the "silence equals consent" approach so Tina waited about five seconds and said, "The second order of business is the formal acceptance of this year's curriculum and lesson plans."
The room remained silent as Tina gestured to the piles of booklets by the nearby table; each piles represented all four grades at the high school with approximately ten medium-sized books with printed memorandum inserted in each booklet. They represented all English courses taught at the school and the book had a 160-day lesson plan with specific outcomes and required readings. Jim had recognized his two classes, American Literature and Advanced Composition, from across the room and knew what lie within them both.
Tina kept her head down as she read verbatim from the agenda. "These booklets and detailed program curriculum represent the entire classes objectives and goals to achieve. All teachers, as per our contract, will comply completely with the lesson plans and will not deviate from any lesson plan for any reason. Your students will be tested in the spring and must demonstrate proficiency in all three English components of reading comprehension, critical thought analysis and basic communication."
"So, there is no grammar or basic composition again this year?"
All heads were down reading along with Tina when the woman's voice asked the question so no one knew who spoke. Tina looked up, somewhat surprised, and, "The approved script says nothing about grammar or composition, so I would assume there have been no changes. Once you receive your program books, you can review the specific content deliverables."
"Does that answer your question?" asked Tina. She looked around the room but since no one knew who asked the question, it was difficult to make eye contact with the individual so she bought some time by dragging out the word "question" hoping to determine who asked it. However, no one provided any non-verbal cue so she made one more attempt to find the person by following up with the question of "does that answer your question?"
No one responded and Tina called the meeting to an end. It was time to get the books and get going.
Pete assembled his course books and noticed how familiar they looked and walked out the door. There was a few side conversations still going on but Pete had no value to add to any chat so he walked back to his room and began to peek into the American Literature course book to see if the authors had changed from the year before. As he walked down the hallway, he did not have to look up at all because he knew every creak and sound in the school. As he opened the book, he saw:
Pete literally didn't know what to do; his greatest fear was facing him, complete with bullet points. He wasn't kidding himself about the impact American Literature would ultimately impact someone's life but he was more concerned about the fallacy being perpetuated as these students become adults and basically stop learning. They wouldn't read but if asked about great American writers, these lemonheads would invariably respond "Hemingway" because of the fallout from high school. He had to stop this madness and it was time to strike a literal blow from freedom.
It is fascinating what you see when you are not looking for anything in particular.
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