Perched on the ledge of a hermetically sealed window inside the fifth floor of the college, I observed the parking lot below with attentive indifference. From this height, the vehicles looked like Dinky Toys—miniature metal car replicas of my childhood (In 1988, while taking a midnight stroll along deserted streets of Varadero, I spotted a DeSoto from the 1940s, the same toy model and colour I owned as a kid. In fact, apart from a few Soviet Ladas, I had the impression I had walked into a James Bond movie from the late 50s, or let’s say, No Caviar for Aunt Olga, jammed on pause).
The comings and goings of the passers-by below made me think of ants, how their life seemed derisory. Yet, I could also imagine being just as far away from myself, just as small as those individuals pounding the pavement below. When we move away from life, our attitude changes—the way selfishness and indifference take root statistically in people’s hearts as their wealth grows.
Perhaps it’s because when objects and people get smaller, they’re assembled into new and unusual global objects that don’t generate empathy. Seeing the absence of humanity in this whole invests us with a Zen-like wisdom. I imagine Zarathustra, who, unlike Moses, comes down from the mountain empty-handed. At the bottom…
Back at the Ranch
… it’s time to go teach my class!
We were at the end of May, a few years after the dissolution of the Soviet bloc. This is the first day of the summer session for those who’ve lightened their schedule, who have failed courses or who study all year round. Arriving early, I dropped my things off, greeted the first students settled in and went to get a coffee, four floors down. When I got back, I had a few minutes left. I peered through the corridor’s window, the parking lot became a siren song.
Entering the classroom, I placed my reading glasses on the tip of my nose and pulled out the folder containing my lecture notes, an archaic briefcase made of recycled brown cardboard. Its surface was filled with notes for reflection, educational finds, a phone number, books, CDs and DVDs titles, corrections to notes followed by the student’s name, a « to do» list, a digital password, a few appointment dates, not to mention two coffee stains and an orange juice stain.
“Hey, mister! Are we going to get up on our desks?”
I look up over my glasses: “Excuse me?”
“He wants to know if you’re going to get us up on the tables,” a heavy-set blond girl sitting in front, asks, with a giggle in her eyes.
The « he » in question is a funny little guy, sitting in the back corner. Blue-dyed hair, an Iron Maiden T-shirt and rapper pants, the zipper at thigh height. I know this because he takes the trouble to stand up, as if I were senile.
“Just like in the movie,” he says.
Senile… wait : “What movie?” I ask.
“Shhh!” I put my index finger on my lips for those who were going to answer instead of the funny one. The film he’s trying to remember is Dead Poet’s Society. When we discuss a film, we must be able to provide its title.
“… I forget,” he finally answers.
“It’s the age. It’s going to get better as you get older.”
A few students smile, and I go back to my notes. Some are wondering what they missed. What was so funny? So, I tell the story of the film. Caught up in the game, I engage in a digression and lose my idea, as we say in Montreal.
“Why does the teacher make them get up on their desks?” I ask the blondie. Her behaviour is quite strange.
An incident comes to mind subito presto (not a culinary expression). Besides, it brought my idea back to my mind.
“I’ll tell you an anecdote,” I finally say. “An old man in my neighbourhood used to lean with both hands on a pole to move his kidneys, which was a great relief to him. He suffered from a back problem that was easy to guess when you watched him jog at a slow pace. One day, at the corner of St-Denis and Mont-Royal, a young suburban girl points to the man and exclaims without embarrassment, ‘he’s crazy!’ Having never observed similar behaviour in her “mall-terminus-hot place-hot-in-the-hood” (the “ ” are my fingers mimicking quotation marks), or even in an American movie or on Youtube, the conclusion was obvious : crazy, inevitably. Let me conclude with my arms raised in front of my amused audience, some a little embarrassed. This teenager had the open-mindedness of an autistic safe.”
The image makes them smile. This is the moment :
“When you find someone’s behavior strange, before you conclude that they are crazy, you have to ask yourself what their gesture can be used for.”
“I don’t get it, » remarks an athletic young man, second to last row, with his face on.
“The old man wasn’t crazy. He was simply relieving his lower back. We understand each other?”
I look at the young man and then at the class, everyone nods.
“Robin Williams acts strangely in the film to make his students aware of the poet’s vision. He was responding, I think, to a student questioning the usefulness of writing poetry. He can’t give a simple answer. He doesn’t want to show them poetry as a relic that lies under glass in a museum. The teacher wants to put them in a poet’s shoes. To make them walk in his footsteps.”
Short break. They are mine (This moment reminds me occasionally of a long tirade of the conductor in… (hum)… an Italian film where the musicians of the orchestra become communists and question the role of the conductor of the orchestra).
“To create a poem, you have to look at things differently. You have to talk about life without having both feet stuck in it.”
“Like when you ask why philosophy is compulsory, » cleverly points out a student who, until now, has only shown discreet smiles.
“To be able to climb on her desk!” inserts the low pants guy, raising general hilarity.
Okay, I’m being tested.
(… to be continued)