19 October 2, 1970 Happiness Is Printing By ti p Newspapers Magazines Political Specialists Signs and Placards Bumperstrips Office Supplies 100% Union Shop L.1 1 Phone 512/442-7836 1714 SOUTH CONGRESS P.O. BOX 3485 AUSTIN. TEXAS 111 IFITURA PRESS Since 1866 The Place in Austin GOOD FOOD GOOD BEER 1607 San Jacinto GR 7-4171 Apology to a freak By James Giles De Kalb, Ill. I’ll call him Tom. I first knew him as a student in my sophomore English class at North Texas. Then he was about as straight as one can be -short hair, blue jeans, sports shirts; as a friend put it, he was doing the whole 1956 bit. From a small Texas town and just transferred from a Texas university one would never associate with radical -or thinking students intelligence in conflict with his background. At the first of the semester during class, he sat on the back row in lengthy conversation with an archetypal Susie Creamcheese coed. Gradually, however, the literature opened up ideas for him; and his participation in class discussion became one of those experiences which make teaching worthwhile a bright, but untrained, mind dealing for the first time with abstract concepts. Sometimes he looked foolish he refused to believe any Oedipal theme in Sons and Lovers because “mothers don’t feel that way.” But much more often he looked promising. When we discussed Chekhov’s “The Bet” and he told me that reading the story had changed his life, I dismissed it as one of those things that enthusiastic students say. But Chekhov had clearly vanquished Susie Creamcheese. San Francisco-style nonconformity hit NTSU that year; and, when I saw Tom for the first time in the summer session, the hair was moderately long and he had a mustache. He was enthusiastic about becoming “involved” with the student newspaper, campus politics, the whole bag. And, laughing as he said it, he told me he currently thought he was a poet. \(“Chekhov was right, you know, material having reached him, and that’s about all I felt. A few weeks passed, and Tom came by the office angry. He couldn’t work on the student paper until he shaved his mustache and got a haircut, he couldn’t get a job or go home because he had rejected 1956’s hair styles. \(“A friend wants me to go to San Francisco with him, should I go? I him to go on and he’d see that all the world wasn’t Denton, and he’d feel better. The writer recently decainpted Texas to pursue his teaching career in Illinois. IDIDN’T SEE him again until the middle of the next year; but, before I did, I began to hear that Toni was back and that he was rumored to have become a militant drug advocate. And that his hair was really long. Then he came by the office, and he was different than he had been. \(“You’re really pretty square, too, you know. Why aren’t you risking your job to get rid of some of these idiotic disciplinary regulations for students? I know, you went to a meeting with the Dean of Students to protest politely with some ‘nice students.’ Big deal! But you’re still okay in the classroom; and you don’t For about a year then, ‘I heard about Tom by word of mouth. He was always about to get busted, he had offended one of the old guard in the English Department by proclaiming that Norman Mailer was better than the writers taught in the course. I wasn’t completely sympathetic with Tom’s behavior; but when the teacher, a man who got frantic at the suggestion of student evaluation of teachers and who has disapproved of every educational advancement since the Oxford Movement, told me that he had vanquished Tom by giving an impromptu lecture on the vileness of Mailer’s language, I wasn’t totally unsympathetic either. For a time I began to run into Tom often on campus. His hair now fell below his shoulders, he had a beard, and he often didn’t seem in contact with reality. Sometimes he spoke, sometimes he didn’t. Once he looked blazingly into my eyes and said simply: “I’m waiting for you, man.” Then, inevitably, he dropped out of school. He was gone from Denton for several months, and this time I nearly forgot about him. The world had fallen in around some of us who had fought for reforms in the NTSU English Department, and 1 was leaving Denton too. A lot was on my mind. ABOUT A week before the end of the last spring semester my last semester on that campus 1 was standing in the office suite about to dial the phone. The anti-Mailer prof was also there. Barking in the hall. I looked up and there stood Tom with two of the most enormous and most scrofulous dogs I’ve ever seen. lie looked like an Old Testament prophet just in from years in the desert. His eyes didn’t focus on anything. “I’m back and I’ve started a church. You can conic.” “What do you believe in?” I asked. “Breathing, man! Breathing,” with a tone of fanaticism that must have been comparable to John the Baptist announcing Jesus. Then he was gone. I yelled “Chekhov?” after him, but he didn’t hear. The other teacher asked: “Was that —-?” “Yes,” I said, damn mad for some reason. “I taught him,” he said. “I know,” I said. You look back and wonder. Was it you, or Chekhov, or the guy in journalism who first told him to get a haircut, or all the people who wouldn’t hire him, or the people who made the restrictive rules for students, or the teacher who disapproved of Mailer’s language who failed Tom the most? Or something or someone earlier before you knew him? And you can’t know. But you feel that the people who think they can tell other people how to wear their hair and the people who discourage ideas in precocious students with pedantic and irrelevant lectures and call themselves teachers are more to blame than you. But you also know that the academic profession breeds a disease that Dave Hickey calls “upward mobility syndrome” which makes you get so concerned with getting the course in modern poetry away from whoever has it and with putting down your colleagues in the lounge and with getting raised and promoted before y our fellow coffee-drinkers do that the students get lost somewhere. So does Chekhov. And you’re sorry for the whole mess.
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