Monday, 26 February 2018

Guns in the Classroom

I love to see coincidences in perfectly ordinary events, so last night when I came across this passage in a story called Flight, part of John Updike's collection called Pigeon Feathers, I took it as a coincidence, given the talk about arming teachers that is going on just now.

I also took it, like almost everything else I read by Updike, as evidence of Updike's astonishing ability. I admire the way that he can take unexciting things and somehow make them worth attending to, observing so closely, describing so accurately that the scenes in his stories about small incidents in uncelebrated lives shine like bright gems. I admire the tenderness he bestows on his characters - and, indeed, his close attention to ordinary reality is a form of tenderness, when you think about.

The truth is, the more I read of Updike, the more I admire every one of his skills as a writer. He is so unshowy, and yet he takes your breath away. If you read nothing else, try Walter Briggs, the first story in Pigeon Feathers. It is puzzling, apparently a wisp of almost nothing, yet it is resonant and mysterious - in fact, for me at least it is a masterpiece.

Anyway back to the passage that I took to be a coincidence; it concerns the story's protagonist's parents and how, because of the Depression, they had to find jobs that didn't suit them particularly well:

My mother went to work in an Alton department store, selling inferior fabric for $14 a week. During the daytime of my first year of life it was my father who took care of me. He has said since, flattering me as he always does, that it was having me on his hands that kept him from going insane. It may have been this that has made my affection for him so inarticulate, as if I were still a wordless infant looking up into the mothering blur of his man's face. And that same shared year helps account, perhaps, for his gentleness with me, for his willingness to praise, as if everything I do has something sad and crippled in it. He feels sorry for me; my birth coincided with the birth of a great misery, a national misery - only recently has he stopped calling me by the nickname "Young America". Around my first birthday he acquired a position teaching arithmetic and algebra in the Olinger high school, and though he was so kind and humorous he couldn't enter a classroom without creating uproarious problems of discipline, he endured it day by day and year by year, and eventually came to occupy a place in this alien town, so that I believe there are now one or two dozen ex-students, men and women nearing middle age, who carry around with them some piece of encouragement my father gave them, or remember some sentence of his that helped shape them. Certainly there are many who remember the antics with which he burlesqued his discomfort in the classroom. He kept a confiscated cap pistol in his desk, and upon getting an especially stupid answer, he would take it out and, wearing a preoccupied, regretful expression, shoot himself in the head.

Whether or not it is a good thing, I doubt such behaviour would be tolerated nowadays - "inappropriate" would probably be the term used by the prosecution.

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