Michiana Chronicles: Napoleon Orwell
Once a month I meet with my retired teacher colleagues from New Prairie High School for breakfast and it’s like heaven for me. We’ve crossed over into the other side and our friends are there, the lucky ones who made it into the land of milk and honey, French toast and bacon for five bucks, that is the senior menu at Manny’s Café.
At our get together last week, Clara relayed a message that the administrators from the old life asked her to give us. They are in desperate need of substitute teachers and would any of us, please oh please, consider….. and before she could finish the 12 of us spontaneously erupted in a sort of laughter that I can only describe as, a shared heavenly revelation.
No, but thanks for asking.
We have our wings.
I had a student who walked into my room on the first day of class one year looking like Napoleon Dynamite transform later before my eyes into George Orwell. Even though it’s great to be retired, moments like that were hard to beat.
Teaching students to write for 27 years, I learned that people write better when they care about what they are writing about. At the root of a lot of bad writing is pretense and pretense is a person saying what they suppose they are supposed to say.
Provocation was my tool. Engagement and clarity and honesty were my goals.
Napoleon sat in the back of the room of my second hour “regular,” meaning not advanced, junior English class, but not all the way in the back, in the row next to the middle row, but not in the middle, and Napoleon rarely spoke.
“Take out a piece of paper and something to write with,” I said. aware that my colloquial substitution for “with which to write,” would convey inclusion. I’m talkin’ their language, you know.
I want you to tell me in at least one half page, I said, how you feel about capital punishment.
“Capital punishment. The death penalty. Do you think someone who murders somebody ought to be executed? Some countries have that and some don’t. Some states have it and some don’t. Indiana has it. Some people think it’s a good idea and some people don’t. What do you think? Should a person who murders somebody be put to death? Yes or no and tell me why.
Surely, this would provoke them, yelling fire in a crowded theatre. “Half a page minimum for a writing credit. Write more if you have the urge.”
I walked around the room to make sure everyone was engaged and to encourage them if they were not.
"Capital punishment?” said Napoleon, as I moved by.
“Yes,” I said, “capital punishment.”
Later, alone at my desk with my lunch, I drifted through my students’ writing folders. Ordinary stuff.
I laughed aloud when I discovered that on the topic of “Capital Punishment” Napoleon had shunned the use of capital letters in favor of the lower case kind. He had, in fact written an initial draft of an allegory for the proletariat revolt against the ruling class in which he eschewed the use of capital letters in favor of the lower case kind. He called it simply, “Capital Punishment.”
All in lower case.
“’No more capital letters,’ the lower case letters said,” he said, using only lower case letters. “’They’ve ruled us long enough. Off with their heads.’”
I could be wrong but I don’t believe that the artist formerly known as Napoleon Dynamite, knew, then, that there’s a word, “allegory,” or a school of thought called Marxist theory, but he seemed to know that the capital letters had it coming.
“What are you doing with your life?” I said to the newly christened George Orwell, later.
“Army,” he said.
‘Spain?’ I wondered.
“You should be writing,” I said. “Is there more where this came from?”
Now, I could tell, I had made him uncomfortable, as though he were in trouble, but I said, “No, Orwell, this is really good. I’ve been teaching for 20 years and this is the best thing any student has ever handed me.”
“Okay,” he said, as in ‘You’re scaring me, you’re mocking me, I was making a joke and now this teacher guy has lost his mind right here in front of me.’
“You should be in my dual credit class next year,” I said, “And you should keep writing and you should show me everything you ever write for the rest of your life and you should go to college.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’m joining the army.”
Orwell did not take my Dual Credit Senior English class the next year and while I’m sure we said hello if I saw him in the hall, that was the end of our relationship, if you can call it that. He seemed to be doing fine.
I’m not going to sub. I’ll just leave it at that.
Music: Canned Heat By - Jamiroquai -