I’m the Colonel Kurtz of summer school

I’m teaching through June. There are other things I could be doing, like watching back-to-back episodes of “Hoarders” or giving myself thousands of tiny paper cuts, but the vet bills, my friends. The vet bills. I’ve got a 16-year-old tabby cat who’s been with me since I was 21– the mute and trusting witness to a dozen relocations and as many jobs; 5,000 miles of air/auto travel; oxytocin-splattered months of new love and ensuing heartbreak; and 5 Presidential administrations. Now he has some thyroid thing that’s taken him from 20 pounds to 9.5 and causes mournful, accusatory early-morning yowling. I told the vet (on whom I have a mild, nonsexual crush because of his New York accent, mmmmm) “Listen, I’m familiar with the customary feline life span and I’m not asking for miracles, but I love this goddamn cat. See what you can do.” What he can do involves prescription kibble and a comprehensive blood/urine panel, ergo, summer school. 

I take less shit in summer school than I do during the regular year. I’m a lot less fun, because many of these students rejected the life rafts they were thrown during the academic year. It’s pretty hard to fail my class, because I’ll work with any and all learning styles. You lean towards the experiential/kinesthetic side of things? I’ll let you demonstrate your knowledge via interpretive dance. To fail my class, you have to commit to failure. You have to never show up, or stab me in the chest with a #2 pencil. Even then, I might let you slide with a D if you wow me with an extra-credit project and a well-written Apology and Promise to Do Better. Help me help you!

So my roomful of 35 kids has shown a tenacious commitment to failure (except for the girl who’s trying to graduate early) and some don’t care if they fail again. In order to motivate them to read and write, I’ve assigned a high-interest YA novel I love. I believe in this book. It saves lives. It’s about acquantance rape, but it isn’t heavy-handed. It just tells a story: Here is a girl like you, or like your sister or good friend. Here is what a boy she trusts does to her. Here are the profoundly damaging emotional and physical results.

I could lecture kids all day about healthy relationships —  no means no; consent means enthusiastic consent —  but nothing works better than a well-told story. Plus, the movie version stars Kristen Stewart of “Twilight” fame (irony) so everybody’s been rapt. But I can’t vouch for the boys’ level of understanding. During one scene of the film, when Stewart’s character Melinda leans out the window of a car and whoops with the joy of being young and on her way to a party, I heard one kid giggle and mutter, “Show us your titties.” After the party and the rape, when Melinda stumbles home carrying her shoes, I heard another giggle. I hope to God it’s because the scene is discomfiting and sometimes kids deal with discomfort by giggling — not because the idea of a violated, hurt girl stumbling home strikes any of my students as funny. I really hope to God. When I heard those giggles, I wanted to stop the film and take the kid to task, but thought embarrassing him might be counter-productive. Maybe just be patient; let the whole film sink in first. Or not. I don’t know.

I gave the kids an Anticipation Guide pre-reading quiz which has 10 statements to “agree” or “disagree” with, e.g., “A girl dressed provocatively at a party deserves any negative attention she gets,” “A girl who gets drunk or high is still able to consent to sexual activity,” etc.  I had to stop reading those quizzes after three minutes. It was as bad as you think, boys and girls alike. And I’m afraid that one book and one month with me isn’t enough to override our sick, woman-hating, porn-infected culture even a tiny little bit. I’m afraid that the damage is done — teenage boys see women as existing to please them; to be “hot,” sweet, and accommodating. You know how offended men get when a woman isn’t sufficiently “hot,” sweet, and accommodating? As though her failure to be those things is somehow a personal, punishable affront? That shit starts early. I can’t keep from being personally triggered when I see it, so I called in a guest speaker from the rape crisis center. I’ll teach the book; she’ll do the rest. I’ll let you know how that goes.


*“Nathaniel Hawthorne often uses symbolism in his work. What do you think of Hawthorne’s use of symbolism? Do you think symbolism is necessary for an author to get his/her point across? If you were to chose 2-3 symbols to express the themes of your own life, what would they be? Discuss in your groups, then draw a picture of your symbols.”

15 thoughts on “I’m the Colonel Kurtz of summer school

  1. Holy crap, you’re brave. I hope the kids get a clue, but I know too many adults who should know better who still victim-blame every chance they get. I’m glad you invited the guest speaker.

  2. Phona, I agree w/ Citizen Taqueau – brave! Both wise and bat-shit crazy at the same time. I wish, oh!, how I wish … that I were a student in your class (or perhaps a student-teacher gleaning knowledge and insight whilst glancing at your earnest/studious/concerned beauty-intelligence).

    You make me proud to be a woman, teacher, student.

    LOVE YOU!!!!!

  3. Truly special to have such a long term relationship with your animals friends. Thank you for taking such good care. Just one question. Tis great you have such an awesome male vet providing care, is there not a female vet who could provide the services needed in your area?

  4. Fair question — the cool thing is, the guy vet owns the practice and coordinates the traditional medicinals, but the vet my kitty actually sees is a lady. A GAY lady. A gay lady who does all the Eastern herb stuff. The waiting room is always full of dykes and their golden retrievers. 🙂

  5. I’m so looking forward to having them come speak — the presentation is fairly long and specifically covers victim-blaming as well as why girls and women don’t often report acquaintance rape. The other thing I want to address is this: A few of the boys are honestly puzzled as to why the character is so upset about being raped. I think this is partially due to the treatment and presentation of sex in media, i.e., it’s no big deal.

  6. Good to know.

    As you are aware, any time services are needed, finding a female to offer that service is of utmost importance. In our family, any monies out requires first to find females. If all else fails, we begrudgingly hire males.

    Is a “gay” lady a lesbian then? I really really love that word lesbian.

  7. Exactly, and the template for rape and the template for sex are basically identical in the mainstream.

  8. Hey Phona, I hope your kitty companion is comfortable and feeling OK today. Thank you for posting about it — it clued me into what seems to be wrong with my 10-year-old catten. Eating like a horse and losing weight? Check. Yowling like mad, especially in the morning and before bed, but none of the expected spots get a “That’s sore” reaction when prodded? Check. Did your cat also exhibit irate marking behavior? I’m taking mine to the vet ASAP.

  9. Oh, your poor kitty! Does he seem better on the prescription kibble?

    (We have a cat I love dearly who is thirteen years old. She’s still in really good health — she gets mats in her fur so we have her shaved once or twice a year to prevent that, since she won’t tolerate much handling; she’s had one rotten tooth removed; and she’s just a little bit less daring of a jumper than she used to be, perhaps because the hard landings hurt her now. But I always know in the back of my mind that she’s getting old, and I may lose her soon.)

    I read Speak, maybe when I was in high school. I read it on my own, for fun, though. It was *really* powerful. I think I share your pessimism about even that book getting teenage boys to feel empathy for girls, though.

  10. “A few of the boys are honestly puzzled as to why the character is so upset about being raped.”

    Ah! That was my next thought, after seeing you’d assigned Speak. It’s an intense experience, but only if you can empathize with the protagonist. I could, as I had already *had* a (not serious, not rising to the level of rape, but still unpleasant and damaging) non-consensual sexual experience by the time I read it.

    For so many men, young and old, sex is just what we are for. They can’t really comprehend that being raped, for us, is just as traumatic and painful as it is for them, because we’re women and sexual receptivity to men is, to them, self-evidently something we sign up for by existing as women.

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