Reimagining Wallace

Blogger Here. Perhaps one of my most enjoyable moments at the ISU conference was presenting my “Reimagining Wallace” slideshow. Over the last few months, I created Lego sculptures based on some of my favorite scenes in Wallace’s stories and essays.

Here are the pictures I shared:


Enjoy the pictures. Feel free to share them with others, but please include proper citation / credit-giving; I worked really hard on those suckers.

Interpolation: Teaching “Brief Interview #46”

Almost a year and a half ago, I wrote this post as I struggled to find meaning in “Brief Interview #46” while at the same time I struggled to find meaning in my own suffering as I battled chronic and sometimes debilitating migraine headaches.  I have more or less come to terms with the migraines, but this story has still troubled me all this time.  I downloaded the audio version some time ago and listen to it maybe once a month.[1]  But even after reading it and listening to it probably two dozen times, I was still unable to wrap my brain all the way around it.  Every time I thought I’d answered one question, it seemed that two more popped up.

Then about three months ago, I had a crazy idea:  why not bring this story into my AP Literature classes for discussion.  The group of seniors I have this year is very mature, and I have been able to push them with really challenging readings.  They know of my obsession with Wallace, and we’ve read two of his “tamer” stories already, so I played with the idea of asking my principal’s permission to use the story.[2]  I finally got up the “testicular solidity”[3] to approach my principal about reading the story with my students.[4]

I was very pleasantly surprised by his response after reading the story – twice.  He loved it and thought it would provide an excellent opportunity to let my students wrestle with the very important and very difficult questions that this story raises.  Over the course of several weeks, we hammered out the logistics of sending home parental consent forms and providing students an opt-out if they or their parents weren’t comfortable with the story and getting final approval from the Head of Schools.  But in those meetings we also engaged in some great conversations about our depraved human nature, about our faith, and about finding meaning in even the most horrible of circumstances.

The time came to hand out copies of the story along with the consent forms.  The students were given about a week to read the story, which I recommended doing at least twice.

Then came time for our discussions.  We spent the better part of four days wrestling with the text and the many issues and questions it raises.  We often found ourselves in tangential conversations about loosely related topics; but my gosh, I can’t recall ever having a more engaging discussion with students.  Students grew emotional as they grappled with the difficult and uncomfortable subject matter.  We got to the bottom of some issues raised by the story, but also had to settle for leaving many questions unanswered.

Our discussions taking place in the context of a Christian school, we had to address the elephant in the room that Wallace never brings into the story: where is God in all of this?  In the midst of human suffering and unthinkable violence and degradation, where is God?  Unfortunately, this line of thinking and questioning only aroused more questioning and brought very few answers.

But in the midst of these hours of discussions with these wonderfully mature students, a moment of clarity came to me.  At some point during one of the class periods, one of my students offered a rather insightful comment.  The whole Interview – with its references to Victor Frankl and the Holocaust, and with its three versions of the same story about a brutal gang rape, and with its bold statements about identity and self-knowledge – can be summed up in the very last sentence:

“You don’t know sh*t.”

When talking about suffering and degradation and violence and self-knowledge and identity – especially in terms of others – we just simply don’t know what they go through.  We can’t know.  It is impossible to ever fully understand another’s pain and suffering.

And yet this understanding of our inability to understand became very freeing for me.  By knowing that I will probably never fully understand these things, I gained freedom from having to try to figure it all out.  Paradoxical and contradictory and difficult to explain, but freeing all the same.

I don’t know sh*t, and I’m ok with that.

[1] The nearly thirty-minute reading is almost the same length as my commute to work, so it is perfect for those days when I need distraction from the troubles of that day but still want something challenging to think about.

[2] Teaching at a parochial school, I need to be sensitive to parents and students when it comes to language and sex and violence.  Since this story had the worst of all three – a number of F-bombs and descriptions of a gang rape – I needed to be very careful in how I approached this if I wanted to use the story in class and keep my job afterward.

[3] A quote from a comment on the “Infinite Summer” blog written by someone very intimidated by the enormity of Infinite Jest.

[4] Being the department chair and the only teacher on campus who is College-Board approved to teach both AP English classes, and riding a 79% pass rate on last year’s AP exam, I figured I have about the closest thing to tenure that a private school can offer.  So I thought it a risk I could afford to take.

The Pale King – Chapter 13

Dear Dave,

In the fall in my AP English Lit classes – which consist of mostly seniors – I have my students write one of their college application essays for a class assignment so that I can give them feedback on their writing and hopefully better their chances of getting into the college of their dreams.  Most colleges’ prompts are pretty formulaic and lend themselves nicely to a standard five-paragraph essay, but on the advice of a veteran teacher I recommend (actually demand would be a better word for it) that they tell a story rather than write an overused five-paragraph essay.  I tell them that stories are more memorable and impactful and more likely to provide that extra edge in the cut-throat arena of college admissions.[1]

Most of these essays cover your standard topics: death of a loved one, moving to a new school, learning a lesson from a community service experience.  But one student, J–, wrote an essay that grabbed my attention right from the start.  He told the story of how, several years prior, he began experiencing a rather peculiar tingling sensation at the base of his skull.  A little research on WebMD had him convinced he had a brain tumor.  Too scared to say anything, he waited to see what would happen; knowing what symptoms he ought to look out for should the “tumor” progress.  Nothing did happen, and after his next annual physical he realized that there was nothing wrong with him.[2]  He concluded the essay reflecting on the lesson he quietly learned about the dangers of over-thinking and overreacting to a situation.

Reading the opening line of §13 reminded me ever so slightly of reading this student’s essay several years ago.

“It was in public high school that this boy learned the terrible power of attention and what you pay attention to.  He learned it in a way whose very ridiculousness was part of what made it so terrible.  And terrible it was” (91).[3]

Like my former student, David Cusk learned the difficult burden of hyper-self-awareness.  For J–, this hyper-awareness took the form of unnecessary anxiety.  For Cusk, this hyper-awareness manifests itself in sudden and severe sweating attacks.  And like the Depressed Person, the fear of an oncoming attack and the hyper-awareness of his surroundings only compound the severity of Cusk’s attacks.

I’ve come to know a little something about fear and anxiety over the last few years.  I’ll just come out and say it: I have anxiety issues.  I tend to internalize and worry about things way more than I should.  Little things, big things; insignificant things, important things.  It doesn’t really matter.  I worry about it all.

And if that’s not enough, I tend to have adverse physical reactions to this often-unnecessary stress.  Including, but not limited to eye twitches, muscle spasms in my back and neck, and migraine headaches.

So my worrying causes these adverse physical responses, which then causes me to worry even more.  What if it’s not just a headache?  What if these pains are from something more serious?  So I worry some more, which only makes the headache or muscle spasms worse, which makes me worry all the more.  It’s a vicious cycle, really.  An ugly, vicious cycle.

I found myself in the midst of one of these downward spirals recently.  I don’t really remember what started it[4] – probably something of very little import – but I found myself stressed out and not feeling well and stressed out about not feeling well.  Then I caught a glance of my right wrist.

“This is Water”[5]

I can’t control my circumstances.  I can’t change what’s going on around me.  But I can choose my response.  I don’t have to let these things get me down.  I don’t have to revert to the “default setting.”  I just keep telling myself:

“This is Water.”

“This is Water.”

“This is Water.”

[1] Unfortunately, in some cases, not even a damn good essay was enough to allow some of my top students rise to the top of the “keep” pile.  It’s often a sad time in early spring when my students with a 4.whatever GPA and stellar resumes get a rejection letter from their first-choice university.  If being valedictorian of a rather competitive prep school doesn’t get you into a top-tier school, then I don’t know what will.

[2] This hypochondriac’s essay was an interesting – if not humorous – counterpart to another student’s essay about how he actually suffered a brain tumor as a child.  His was an inspiring story of faith and perseverance in the midst of a very frightening ordeal.  He’s perfectly fine now, aside from a rather large scar on his scalp.

[3] This opening line is also rather reminiscent of the opening line of “The Depressed Person” from Brief Interviews: “The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component and a contributing factor in its essential horror” (37).

[4] I rarely ever do remember what it is that gives me that little nudge that begins the newest cycle.

[5] Written in – as I told my students after returning from my trip to Antwerp for the “Work in Process” conference – very, very, very permanent marker.