by Jim Aitken
He needed the job because he needed money to pay his bills. It was as simple as that. This interview, if he passed it, could do more. It could enable him to follow his dream of enabling youngsters to dream themselves. Right now people needed to dream again – especially the young and especially here.
He had gone over in his head a thousand times how he would present and project himself. He would explain how literature had saved him from a life of dissolution and aimless indulgence; a life where you constantly rake over the embers of a past to stop you making a new life that could blaze again.
He was as ready as he ever would be. This would be a real job, one with hope and ambition, one with the potential to inspire and be inspired. No more dead-end jobs now.
As he entered the room he saw four faces – two white, two black, two male, two female – appraising him with both courtesy and their clear sense of superiority over him. The Chairperson asked him to sit so that the four faces could scrutinise him further. It was the Chairperson herself who then asked him why he wanted to teach English. He was ready for this and he promptly invoked the names of the writers that had meant so much to him, had helped form the person he now was, and who gave him a particular way to look not just on life but on his nation too.
He spoke of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’, how the charged writing and the passion of the words spoke of an America that was full of promise and optimism. He spoke of Emily Dickinson, her long slender poems that seemed to resemble her own physique, and how working out meaning was what we needed to do in poetry just as we need to do it in our own personal lives. He spoke of how he wanted young people to feel the music, the cadences and sounds of Wallace Stevens’ poetry and sense his deeper meanings. And he spoke of the poetry of Mary Oliver which demonstrates the uniquely personal nature of our lives in all that surrounds us and confronts us.
He made a case for F. Scott Fitzgerald by saying that beneath the glamour and glitz of the roaring twenties there was a cry and an ache for simplicity; to show that all that glitters is not gold but rock hard emptiness and loneliness. He said how discovering William Faulkner and his characters who lived in his fictional southern county of Yoknapatawpha made him understand America today and how its sores have never been healed but allowed to fester. Talking about Faulkner in this way enabled him to seamlessly move on to Maya Angelou who had died just four years ago and talking about her led him to refer to Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’, written in the 1950s, though set in the 1930s. Black lives mattered to this black author who made them alive and real for those with eyes and hearts to see.
He spoke passionately on diversity – this was a multicultural High School and he felt he could speak honestly – about the enormous value schools should attach to multiculturalism because it represents how America actually is and has been.
He could tell the members of the panel were impressed with his reading, his understanding and his articulate delivery. He had that sense that it was in the bag. His references were superb – one from his college tutor and one from his parish priest – and his teaching practice had awarded him a Merit for the course.
The Chairperson spoke to him. ’Well, you have made a tremendous case for the study of our nation’s literature and its relevance to the lives of the students in this school. Your passion and sincerity are clearly not in doubt here.’
The three other members of the panel nodded and mumbled in assent. Their faces felt warmly reassuring and supportive. He had a sense that he had impressed them and won them over.
‘However, we have a rather delicate final question to ask you – and I must stress we are asking this of all our applicants – how would you feel about being one of the armed teachers? You will have heard our President comment after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that he believes there should be 20%……’
He sunk into a state of suspended animation. He had not reckoned on such a question ever being posed and his head began to swirl in bouts of incredulity. He was shocked, amazed and terrified. The case he had put for American literature – a case that was designed to cure the nation’s mental health – was possibly irrelevant set against the answer he would give to this question. His parents and grandparents had all abhorred guns. His grandfather had come to America from Scotland in the 1930s and he wanted to scream out that in the land of his grandfather’s birth there had been a shooting at a primary school which resulted in the owning and carrying of guns being made illegal.
He owned no gun himself and had no intention of ever owning one and could not imagine ever using one. The question seemed to negate everything he had said at this interview. He had made a case for America finding its true, multifarious self through an exploration of its literature and guns had no place in this vision.
He recalled his parents once telling him that in this country you have to make compromises with the beast. You have to find ways to survive, they said to him. His parents had been young Civil Rights supporters during the 1960s and they met on a march. They were radical or what America calls liberal and both had done well – by way of teaching high school themselves they both ended up lecturing at University. How would he answer? Would he betray everything he had said earlier? To make compromise with the beast must he compromise himself?
‘Yes, I know about the reaction to that shooting. It was awful, just like all the others before and the others that will inevitably follow. It is not the gun that is to blame. It is the one who uses it that is to blame.’
He could tell by the looks on the faces of the panel that he was moving in the right direction.
‘I also believe that the best antidote to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. While I do not own a gun myself I would be prepared to take training lessons in its use and if required would also be prepared to be part of the 20% of armed teachers our President suggests. I would hope never to use a firearm but if it meant taking out someone who was willing to kill the students in my care – the ones I hope to inspire so that they can find their way in this great country – then so be it.’
He hated himself, loathed the way he had turned upside-down everything he believed in. He was a hypocrite of the highest order. This compromise was utter betrayal and he wondered momentarily whether his parents had betrayed themselves a generation earlier. All thinking people of conscience must betray themselves here. To survive life with the beast that is what you have to do – hate communists and communism without any debate as it was in the eras of his grandparents and parents, hate Islam and Moslems today without any enquiry into our nation’s foreign policy, but love our weapons, the ones that kill abroad and the ones that kill at home.
The home killing now exceeds 30,000 a year, the size of a small town wiped out annually. That figure of 30,000 includes 11,000 who kill themselves each year. What does that say about the state of this nation that would never be mentioned in any State of the Nation address? Yet each day we are programmed to love this nation, love this nation in all its ugliness and ignorance, in its supposed exceptionalism. All this ran through his brain with wave upon wave of understanding and realisation, both of which did not result in any outpouring of loquaciousness but instead resulted in a mute kind of Cistercian silence. He needed the job to pay his bills and he got the job to pay them.
Jim Aitken is a poet and dramatist living and working in Edinburgh. He is a tutor in Scottish Cultural Studies with Adult Education and he organises literary walks around the city.