Sample Two-Page Papers

American Culture and Fatal Attraction

The movie clips from various endings of "Fatal Attraction" express many different ideas about men and women and their positions in American culture. According to Raymond Williams, a writer discussed in class, "RED" represents an acronym for culture. The letter "R" stands for "residual" and represents attitudes from the past that are still present in modern society. The letter "E" stands for '"'emergent" and represents new ideas about culture. Finally, the letter "D" stands for the word "dominant" and represents the main ideas about culture. Williams' acronym represents progressions of American culture, and explains why certain endings of "Fatal Attraction" are more appealing to viewers than other endings.

In the original ending of "Fatal Attraction," the male takes responsibility for his actions and goes to jail. The affair is seen as the man's fault and he accepts the blame. Viewers do not think very highly of the original ending because it is an "emergent" idea of American culture and not widely accepted. Women are commonly expected to play either sweet and innocent characters, referred to as angelic characters, or harsh and volatile characters, referred to as monster-like characters. The idea of a woman character either representing a wholly negative and mean side or a completely calm and angelic side, express the main idea of women being angels or monsters. Due to the fact that this particular ending does not depict-women as- either "angel" or "monster," as Virginia Woolf expresses, the ending is seen as too "emergent". The ending was an example of 'emergent" culture because the male takes the blame and is left powerlss, while men are often seen as mighty and powerful. Also, it does not limit the women characters to extremes of angels or monsters. Society quickly dismissed the original ending because it deviated too much from the norm and was "emergent."

The second ending is more accepted than the previous ending. In this ending, the husband is arrested for murdering the other woman, however the wife proves that the woman killed herself and saves her husband. Here, women are again depicted in terms of angel and monster. The wife saves her husband from going to jail and therefore represents the angel. The other woman kills herself and assumes responsibility for the affair and is seen as the monster. The man does not take responsibility and keeps his dignity. These ideas represent aspects of "residual" American culture. Women are again looked upon as less than human, representing fictional characters and the man is mighty and without fault. Ideas of less than human women paired with powerful and authoritative men are prime examples of "residual" culture, or ideas in American culture that have been around for years and still carry into the present times.

The ending first shown in class combines both "emergent" and "residual" aspects of American culture to represent "dominant" ideas. The "emergent" ideas are expressed because the wife kills the other woman when the husband is not able to. The woman is more powerful than the man is, so it is "emergent". The first ending reflects "residual" culture with the wife playing the role of the angel, saving her husband and her family, and the other woman playing the role of the monster, breaking apart the family and trying to kill both the wife and husband. Combining ideas of powerful women and repressed women show the "dominant" aspects of American culture. The main ideas in culture today are mixtures of ideas representing women as a repressed (angel and monster) species, with ideas of powerful women (woman killing the other women when the man could not). The two extremes combined create ideas of "dominant" American culture.

It is clear that the different endings of "Fatal Attraction" represent the different aspects of society Raymond Williams expresses with the acronym RED. The endings that did not work represent the extreme aspects of culture, both the "residual" ideas that many feel are outdated, and the "emergent" ideas that some feel are too outlandish. The ending that works, however, represents a mixture of both sets of ideas and reflects the "dominant" culture by mixing both the "residual" and "emergent" cultures. The most appealing ending combines women as angels and monster, but also expresses women as powerful creatures. This combination of ideas results in an ending that appeals to almost everyone and best represents the "dominant" culture.

Boys With Guns: Masculinity in the Firing Zone

Gregory Gibson, in thinking about the Columbine shooting writes, “I’ve got a feeling this problem is embedded in our culture, way beyond bad movies and cheap guns. It is as transparent as the air we breathe. It’s in our history. It’s in the myths we tell ourselves about ourselves. If we see it at all we celebrate it. ...It might be the sickest kids, the neediest among them who have taken our biggest lies and thrust them back at us, bloody and terrible” (164). While he’s all to painfully aware of the manifestation of a particular kind of vigilante violence in our culture (having lost a son in a school shooting in 1992), he seems at a loss as to the motivations behind it. Violence is obviously no new problem. What is relatively new, however, is the increasing number of incidents in which a lone gunman enters a public space and seemingly randomly opens fire, particularly disturbing when the gunman is a minor and the public space is a crowded school cafeteria.

The argument has been made that white rapper Eminem owes his popularity to his decision to perform white representations of “black masculinity.” After his involvement began with Dr. Dre, his lyrics almost overnight became filled with images of violence: violence against women, violence against other men. But who’s buying into it? If you look at the demographics the majority of people who purchase this stuff are young, suburban, and white. Notably, this is the same demographic that’s responsible for the barrage of school shootings in recent years. The rest of the country seems as dumbfounded as Gibson. Considering the rampant use of racial profiling by police, and the crackdown on inner-city schools, these kids just don’t fit the profile of what our nation thinks an “at risk” looks like. So I’m asking, essentially, the same question as Gibson. What is it that causes these kids to decide to pick up a gun and blow away their fellow students? What objective does that sort of violence achieve?

Wallace Stevens, in his essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” spoke of “a violence from within that protects us from a violence from without...[that] seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation” (163). If self-preservation is the motivation behind these acts of violence (as I believe it to be), the question then becomes what is it that these young, white, suburban males feel so threatened by? Where is the “violence from without” coming from and what aspect of their “self” does it threaten?

Michael Kimmel links the desire to assert a form of hyper-masculinity via “testosterone infused superheroes” who pit themselves “against a horde of pretenders to the masculine crown—criminals, Vietnamese soldiers, unctuously well-dressed Eurotrash mobsters, cutthroat Japanese capitalists” etc. (307) (sound familiar?) with men’s resistance to the Feminist Movement, which undermined the traditional equation of white masculinity with power. He writes “For straight white middle-class men a virtual siege mentality has set in” (330). The feminist movement has enabled women to challenge white masculine authority in a variety of ways, including women’s increasing ability to enter the economic world of exchange as well as gain control over their own bodies. Feminism demands an end to rape and sexual harassment, and “a secure right to choose how to respond to pregnancy” (330), as well as a host of other rights that no longer make it safe for men to assert their masculinity by controlling women’s bodies.

While the Feminist Movement has clearly had a major stake in destabilizing masculine identity, what seems even more crucial to understanding the nature of the threat against masculine identity is the movement that feminism (to some extent) laid the groundwork for: gay rights. What is really at the core of the deep-seated fear that engenders such violence in these young, white middle-class men is the paralyzing threat of encroaching homosexuality. With the destabilizing of such sources of masculine authority as control over economic viability and control over women’s bodies, it becomes increasingly difficult to define masculinity, and more importantly male identity, as something that can be distinguished from female identity/femininity. Kimmel briefly discusses the implications of this “feminization” of American manhood which, according to him, “only partially cloaked a simmering homophobic fear, a fear that homosexuality was ‘spreading like a murky smog over the American scene…’” (278). Homosexuality is, and has been for hundreds of years, the ultimate threat to masculinity, the “love that dare not speak it’s name.” When confronted with such a “violent” assault upon some of the deepest rooted ideological values that American masculinity possesses, the only recourse left to men is to respond in kind, with extreme violence.

In this sense, acts of vigilante violence such as the shooting of Brandon Teena, the crucifixion of Matthew Shepard, and the Columbine shooting are all acts of self-preservation. In all these cases young, white men, when confronted with the threat of their own imminent emasculation, reach for one of the strongest and last remaining bastions of masculine authority: the gun. As Richard Wright (via the voice of David) so aptly puts it, “In the grey light of dawn he held it loosely, feeling a sense of power. Could kill a man with a gun like this. Kill anybody, black or white. And if he were holding his gun in his hand, nobody could run over him; they would have to respect him” (262).

Works Cited:

Gibson, Gregory. “Our Violent Inner Landscape.” Course Packet. 164

Kimmel, Michael. Manhood in America: A Cultural History. New York: The Free Press. (1996)

Stevens, Wallace. “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words.” Course Packet. 163

Wright, Richard. “The Man Who Was Almost a Man.” Course Packet. 257-67

Education By Poetry

In "Education by Poetry," Robert Frost objects to the removal of poetry from the college course. He says that even when poetry is taught it is denatured and trivialized, because no professor is willing to admit that their grading should be based on taste and judgment. Frost then says that when college students get out of college they still need education because they-have not been able to develop their taste and judgment. I was particularly struck by the second half of the eighth paragraph when he says of these "uneducated" college graduates "they don't know how to judge an editorial ... a political campaign. They don't know when they are being fooled...." Then he gets to the thesis of his speech: Education by poetry is education by metaphor.

When I read this section I immediately thought of traditional West African education, which utilizes education by metaphor through riddles, parables and poetry. Emphasis is not placed on what they call "book knowledge"--knowing names and dates and places to be memorized and regurgitated on an objective exam--but on a student's ability to comprehend the meanings of metaphors and use them in the correct context. When taken together, Frost and this education system make a powerful case for each other, the West African education system is a great example of what Frost is suggesting, and this system, often shunned by Western society for its informality, gains a credible ally in Frost. According to both, an intelligent person is one who can make metaphors function.

For example, the Yoruba people of Nigeria might remind their young ones, "The wearer of a white dress does not sit in a palm oil stall." It is left to the student to decode the parable: the white dress representing reputation and responsibility, the palm oil stall representing bad company, and thus warning the student they may be courting trouble.

The Yorubas also use riddles to teach their children to think metaphorically. A father may ask his child, "What is a ladder that stretches from the skies to the earth?" To-which the child would answer, usually after many days of thought, "Rain."

The Kru people of Liberia often say, "One does not embrace a cotton-tree intentionally." A cotton tree is very thorny and to embrace it intentionally would be foolish. Thus the cotton tree is a metaphor for all things that cause trouble and embracing it intentionally means looking for trouble.

One can also see this use of metaphor in Chinua Achebe's tragedy, Things Fall Apart. In one scene, a young Igbo man, Okonkwo, asks an older, revered man for a share of his yams to start a farm, which could be compared to applying for a scholarship in our society. The older man explains that many young men ask him for yams, but he refuses because he thinks they will not cultivate them properly. He then says, "When I say no to them they think I have become hard hearted. But it is not so. Eneke the bird says that since men have learned to shoot without missing, he has learned to fly without perching. I have learned to be stingy with my yams." Perhaps if one of the college graduates without an understanding of metaphor Frost speaks about were to read this, they would be confused by the seeming randomness of the sentence about Eneke the bird. But in Igbo society, they are prepared for the abrupt switch from literal thinking to metaphorical thinking. It takes a metaphorically prepared mind to realize that when the older man is talking about Eneke the bird he is really talking about himself When the older man tells Okonkwo he will give him a portion of his yams he says, "I can trust you ... you can tell a ripe com by its look." Again, he's not really talking about com, but Okonkwo. The phrase is he uses is a metaphor meaning he can see that Okonkwo is mature enough to handle the responsibility of raising his crops.

Frost says in "Education by Poetry" that all thinking in all areas is metaphorical, and gives numerous examples of metaphor in science, history, psychology, and art. Metaphor can also be seen in West African art and history. The epic story of Sundiata, the greatest king of the Empire of Mali, serves as part historical-document, part allegory for triumph over adversity. When Sundiata was seven years old, he had not yet learned how to walk, and he dragged his shriveled body around on all fours. When his father, King Mari Djata, expressed his concern to his fortuneteller, the man foreshadowed, "Even the silk cotton tree springs from a tiny seed," assuring Mari Djata that his son would one day rule over Mali like the great silk cotton tree lowers over the African plains.

Most interesting, though, is the use of metaphor in the Adinkra clothing patterns of the Akan people of Ghana and Cote d'lvoire. The patterns are visual representations of traditional parables--metaphors imbedded in metaphors. For example, a common print found on Akan clothing is that of two crocodiles crossed over each other, connected at the torso. This design is a visual metaphor for the parable "Sharing one stomach yet they fight over food." Thus, wearing this pattern on clothing represents the interconnectedness of all in society and the need for unity.

In most African cultures, the "educated", and hence, respected person is the one who masters the art of saying one thing and meaning another. When I read Frost's "Education by Poetry," I wondered if he had known about African education. If so, he could have used it as a comparison with the Western system he was frustrated with, and as an example to strive for.

“The Negro Artist” and the Returnee to Martha’s Vineyard

Whether we like it or not, we all have roots.  Black or white, from up north or down south, we all come from somewhere.  While some do all they can to distance themselves from their roots, which they consider to be of the less prestigious variety, some cling to their roots, showing even greater identification with their culture than is found in the average person.

Hughes is not “black.”  The “black” people tell him so.  Because of his lighter-toned skin, he could be considered to be of a higher social class than those with the darkest of dark skin.  According to Hughes, many Negroes consider their culture to be less prestigious than that of the whites.  Many middle-class families work hard to distance themselves from their Negro roots, trying to become more and more like the generic white family.  Because of this, the blacks expect him to use his lighter-toned skin to his own advantage and identify more closely with the white culture.  But instead of trying to exalt himself socially, Hughes lowers himself, reveling in the beauty of this culture that its most true members aren’t even proud of.  His “own people” are ashamed of their culture. Instead of being grateful for his beautiful expression of their life and culture through his poetry, they ask him not to reveal so much about what their lives are really like to the white folk- they are embarrassed of their own culture.

This contrast between extreme pride and shame can also be seen in Labov’s linguistic study of Martha’s Vineyard, an island about 3 miles from the coast of the New England area, which showed how people’s feelings about their culture are reflected in their accents.  The people of the island have a very unusual, distinctive accent that involves their pronunciation of vowels.  What Labov found was that people with negative attitudes toward the island, who want to move to the mainland, have very weak accents in comparison with those who are firmly rooted in the island’s way of life and plan on remaining there.  However, the really interesting occurrence that Labov noted is that the people with the strongest accents out of anyone are those who left the island to try a different way of life and then came back to Martha’s Vineyard to live and work.  Here we see the connection with Hughes.

These people who left and later returned are like Hughes in that they appreciate their native culture even more than the average person.  Just as these returnees to Martha’s Vineyard unconsciously intensified their accent as a result of their greater appreciation of and identification with their culture, Hughes’ themes in his poetry come from the Negro culture that he appreciates even more than the people who have never had the opportunity to go beyond that culture. 

In the same way, just as the attitudes of natives of Martha’s Vineyard about their way of life are reflected in their accents, black poets’ varying attitudes about their culture are reflected in their choices of theme and style.  Like the poet Hughes describes who doesn’t want to be a black poet, blacks that aren’t proud of their roots don’t usually write in the vernacular of their native society or write about concepts, values, or traditions of that society.  Since the blacks of Hughes’ culture see themselves as the low end of the social stratum, they don’t understand Hughes’ conscious lowering of his status by identifying himself with them.

What the blacks don’t see is that prestige to Hughes, and to the people who return to Martha’s Vineyard as well, is not found in the dominant culture, but in their native culture, in their roots.  Those who look for prestige in other places, such as the poet who wants “to be as little Negro and as much American as possible”, reject the expression of their background in their lives, while those who find their sense of prestige in their heritage, in who they truly are, find contentment in expressing that heritage, no matter how that heritage classifies them socially.

Landscaping Our Violent Inner Landscape:
How Violence Elides Violence (and Democracy) in America

So I’ve been grappling with American violence: our fascination/obsession with violence, the violence in our art, the arguments of desensitization to/by violence, etc. And although I agree with Gregory Gibson, in his article “Our Violent Inner Landscape,” that we are hard-wired with violence, I believe that the violence he describes is only a symptom of a larger violence, one more pervasively harmful, yet less exposed or examined: the anti-democratic violence in our society—more lived than committed, more known and felt than documented or televised. I will return to this notion of violence later, but first would like to make a distinction between it and the violence Gibson describes. And although I have neither the immediately adequate means nor intention of explaining/rationalizing it, I, too, confess an interest in, and fascination with the same celebrated violence from which Gibson can’t escape. From Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian to a Tarantino flick, I’m interested in this celebrated (“stylized” or “romanticized”?) violence. But like I said, I’m not trying to explain or justify it. Yet, I can say this: I don’t like “real” violence—the physical, emotional, and psychological suffering in our reality. And for me there is a distinction to be made between this real violence and the violence on the screen or page, in the same way Chandler notes a distinction between “murders scented with magnolia blossoms” and murders that are “act[s] of infinite cruelty.” But rather than further explain this distinction, let me just give another example of it, and this is perhaps the strangest case of an inexplicable fascination with celebrated violence.

My mom loves boxing. She never missed a Tyson fight, but if she sees two kids fighting on a street corner she will, to this day, pull the car over and scream for them to break it up. Like her relationship with boxing, this reaction to real violence is also somewhat inexplicable, somehow instinctive or automatic. See, with the exception of boxing, she doesn’t like real violence either. Most of us, I want to believe, don’t. But what strikes me the most is that we have a narrow sense of real violence, and—more than film, fiction, and boxing—this narrow sense of violence distorts, conceals, and perpetuates experienced, very real, anti-democratic violence. What I’m realizing, and what troubles me the most, is that the attention to the most explicit, sensationalized, and “extreme” instances of violence such as the Columbine massacre or Rambo or even boxing diverts public attention away from, and thus perpetuates, the violence we experience and “commit” every day against one another: the violation of democracy and humanity. This may sound either very apparent or very far-fetched, but I can explain.

In my discussion sections on Faulkner and O’Connor, I decided to focus on violence, both in the texts and, more generally, in America (e.g. socially, culturally, historically, etc.). Two questions from my quiz were geared towards the desired discussion: 1.) From “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” describe an instance of violence that occurs before the Misfit shows up and starts killing off the family; 2.) From Faulkner’s story “Barn Burning,” describe an instance of violence (besides barn-burning). I had no doubts that, if they had in fact read, these would be easy questions to answer and would serve as a nice intro into our discussion. Ironically, these questions not only helped introduce the topic of violence, but—from one student’s reaction—also helped support, indirectly, the argument I was going to construct, one that seemed apparent but important to make: that violence—contrary to the popular, misleading (and perhaps media-manipulated) representation and subsequent public consumption of it—is not merely the (increasingly less) isolated and extreme incident (e.g. a school shooting, a bombing), but a complex, subtle, and very terrifying network whose origins are perhaps impossible to trace, but whose innumerable roots grow very deep.

In both “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “Barn Burning,” what I had in mind were cycles of familial violence whose tangents intersected with the lives of everyone they encountered, thus transmitting and extending that violence—and thus setting into motion a part of a larger structure whose terrible momentum constantly increases and whose effects stretch perhaps infinitely, omni-temporally/directionally (if that’s not too far-fetched and/or melodramatic). The assumed and hopefully discussion-motivating premise was that violence is not just physical, but also emotional, psychological, economic, etc., and, therefore, is simultaneously more pervasive than one would imagine, yet less exposed than one should expect. So back to the student.

After the quiz I introduced violence as the topic-for-the-day, prefacing it with the qualification that violence is the above-described, complex web often eclipsed by the sensationalized, shocking, and explicitly physical act—such as the Misfit exterminating families or Abner burning barns and their contents: hay, livestock, or humans. Before I got much further, a student raised her hand: for her, violence was, necessarily, by definition, physical. Although this narrow definition of violence was what I wanted to examine, I’m still not sure what response I was anticipating in class . . . nor am I now absolutely sure I can unpack my argument, but here goes. If the violation of democracy and humanity is not violence, then what is it? And if it is violence, but we are apparently so desensitized to violence, then what informs our supposed desire for democracy but the seemingly counter-productive apathy or even hostility towards it? That is, if we are desensitized to bigotry, oppression, and hate, then we will likely become (or already are) hatefully oppressive bigots.

A good example of what I have in mind as anti-democratic violence can be found with the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” I believe that she is, in many ways, perhaps more “hard-wired” with violence than the Misfit. Consider her wonderful little story of the black boy who “E.A.T.’s” the watermelon or her following, lovely epiphany: “Oh look at the cute little pickanniny! . . . Wouldn’t that make a picture, now? . . . Little niggers in the country don’t have things like we do. If I could paint, I’d paint that picture.” Well, the picture was (and perhaps still is) painted—with some alligators thrown in for shits and giggles—and is hanging in white homes today . . . I know because I’ve seen it. That, like a school-shooting, a bombing, a barn- or church-burning, or a lynching, is violence. Perhaps it’s not as publicized (which is part of the problem) or sensationalized (also part of the problem), but it’s unmistakably, pervasively, and violently anti-democratic. And this anti-democratic violence, it seems, is as much a part of our “violent inner landscape” as Blood Meridian, boxing, Rambo, or Columbine.

Midlife Crisis, Averted
Judith Warner
June 19, 2008

“…a long, swirling roar incredible and soundless, blotting the stars, and he springing up and into the road again, running again, knowing it was too late yet still running even after he heard the shot and, an instant later, two shots, pausing now without knowing he had ceased to run, crying ‘Pap! Pap!’, running again before he knew he had begun to run, stumbling, tripping over something and scrabbling up again without ceasing to run, looking backward over his shoulder at the glare as he got up, running on among the invisible trees, panting, sobbing, ‘Father! Father!’”
— William Faulkner, “Barn Burning”

I could not attend my 25th high school reunion in New York this spring. It was the night of my daughter Julia’s 11th birthday party. But, this month, there came a consolation prize: an alumnae event in Washington D.C., featuring a William Faulkner class taught by one of my all-time favorite English teachers.

The event brought together a couple dozen women ranging from their early 20’s to ages that made it impolite to dwell too long on the graduation years marked on their name tags. We gathered in the living room of a beautiful house in Georgetown while a waiter circulated serving drinks and canapés.

We all came in clutching copies of Faulkner’s 1939 short story “Barn Burning,” scanned copies of which had been e-mailed to us in advance, and as the room filled up, I was gratified to see that I wasn’t the only one to have gone at the story with a busy pen, highlighting, bracketing, scribbling in the margins. Someone else’s notes, semi-legible (was it cheating to have read them?) were visible all around the sides. The words “objective correlative” appeared right above the first line. They’d given me an unexpected shiver of pleasure.

We were provided with pencils, embossed with the name of our old school. There were blue exam books, too, the contemporary version of the smaller blue booklets into which we’d once poured our ambition and drive. It was a self-parodic touch. It made us laugh.

“Sherwood Anderson told him, ‘write what you know.’ So Faulkner went back to Oxford, Mississippi.”

Mrs. Sagor, our teacher, gray-haired now and more delicate-looking around the eyes, was otherwise exactly as I remembered her from 25 years earlier when, I realized with a shock, she’d probably been about the age I am now. She had the same ebullient energy as before, the same sense of urgency, the same way of dropping her notes as the excitement within her rose, the same ability to draw all of us in the room into the shared conviction that what we were doing in that moment — analyzing the actions of 10-year-old Sarty, the sharecropper’s son who betrays his tyrannical, hate-filled, arsonist father in order to escape the crush of his family’s poverty and exclusion — was the most vitally important task we could ever encounter in all our lives.

And, as I looked around the room, at these women raising their hands, with their serious looks and reading glasses, I thought: Please, let me stay here forever.

I find, these days, as I wend my way through my early 40’s, that I spend a lot of time mulling over some middle-aged version of the question of what I want to be when I grow up. Only it’s really not so much about “what” as it is about “who”; late in life, I’ve come to some realizations about Making Choices and the impossibility of Having it All.

These realizations don’t turn around the usual poles of work and family, but rather, embarrassingly, around a series of much greater banalities: the impossibility of having pedicures at the same time that you’re meeting deadlines, of wearing unstained clothes when you haven’t the time or the inclination to buy a full-length mirror, the basic fact that sustaining a thought and applying a full face of makeup — without, say, forgetting one eye — are mutually exclusive. At least for me. With middle age, these things have become much more important than they ought to be.

That these extremely basic, excruciatingly obvious truths took nearly 43 years to lodge in my head may or may not be linked to the fact that, at some point along the way, something happened to turn me into the kind of a person for whom the words “objective correlative” could send a thrill of pleasure down the spine.

“Faulkner’s favorite subject,” Mrs. Sagor said, was “ ‘the human heart in conflict with itself.’ ”

“Hit’s big as a courthouse,” Sarty thought, contemplating the landowner’s stately mansion “with a surge of peace and joy whose reason he could not have thought into words, being too young for that.”

I went through high school thinking they went together — exquisite real estate and exquisite literature. Not because they did for me — I grew up in a tiny, rent-controlled apartment in a building that had seen better days — but because they seemed to for my teachers and classmates. Some day, I thought, without actually thinking it, taking the bus every day to the Upper East Side, it would all be mine — the books and the pre-war built-ins, the floral upholstery and “the spell of this peace and dignity,” to borrow words, once again, from Sarty.

Why did I think this (without the actual words, being too young for that)? Because I was in Mrs. Sagor’s class, and that made me special. She actually said it once: we were “the crème de la crème.” There was a girl named Jane in my class who never earned a grade under a 96 — from what I could see, spying over her shoulder. I was not as smart as that. But I could discern, right down to the very core of my being, the many layers of meaning contained in things like the sound of the sharecropper’s foot, dipped in horse droppings, “as it came down on the boards with clocklike finality, a sound out of all proportion to the displacement of the body it bore.”

I could inch my grades up from the low 90’s to a solid 95. And so, all was due to me.

“What are you going to do with your life?” my cousins, a New Jersey dentist and his wife, asked me soon after college.

“Read and write,” I answered, with no small degree of smugness.

They laughed. “How are you going to live on that?”

We were all just one generation removed from the Lower East Side.

My father always thought of himself as lower-middle-class, a child of the Depression — he’d been a City College student then, actually — long after the Depression was over and his circumstances had changed. We were not wealthy; my father drove an old car (proudly, defiantly, thumbing his nose at “planned obsolescence”), but we were not, by any reasonable measure, lower-middle-class. My father, by the 1980s, had not been lower-middle-class for almost a half-century. True, he’d told my mother that the food he’d had in the army in World War II was the best he’d ever tasted in the early decades of his life. But he’d earned a Ph.D in 1948. From the University of Chicago. Since 1961, he’d spent his days writing and seeing patients in an office on Gramercy Park, entering every day through a lobby that smelled like roses.

He paid for me to have the privilege of sitting in a classroom by the East River, watching the ice float by in the winter while Mrs. Sagor taught excitedly of objective correlatives and pathetic fallacies and Gerard Manley Hopkins (“Manley Hopkins!” we would shriek behind her back, being 16) and W.H. Auden.

“ ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past,’ ” she quoted Faulkner, that night in Georgetown.

“I remember every word you ever taught me,” I told her. I had counted the weeks, the minutes — or was it the decades? — until I would have the chance to say it.

“Yes, we still make the girls memorize poetry,” she said.

But that wasn’t, of course, what I meant.

I would have liked, that night in Georgetown, to have added my voice to the discussion about Sarty and his father, Abner Snopes. I would have liked to have said that Sarty’s betrayal wasn’t just conveyed by his actions; it was contained in his voice, in the slippage of speech from “Pap” to “Father,” from the unschooled language of home to the traitorous language of distant, educated adulthood, where the “lettering which meant nothing to his mind” had sorted itself into lyricism and loss.

“He did not look back,” Faulkner wrote.

But I did not raise my hand. I tried to do it — Mrs. Sagor’s eyes rested, for a moment, expectantly upon me — but I could not get the piece of arm above my elbow to rise.

I have been hit, in recent years, with freakish, episodic, bouts of shyness that literally leave me struck dumb.

That would not have been acceptable in high school. We were taught that, when we got out in the “real world” with the boys, we’d have to raise our voices. We were taught to speak strongly — no girly curleycues of doubt making the end of declarative sentences turn up into questions. (“Are you asking me or telling me?”) No Valley Girl “likes” or “you know’s.” (“Like what?” “No, I don’t know.”)

There was a voice I heard at the school. In the ladies of the Administration it was a kind of a lockjaw (my friend Juliet, her hair magenta, dried chicken bones in her ears, mocked it mercilessly), but in the girls it was modernized, less an accent than a series of accents on punched-up syllables, so that sentences came out syncopated with self-confidence.

If you were smart, and you wanted to be liked out in the Real World, you learned to temper your voice with a veneer of more pleasing self-doubt.

“Modulate your voice,” my father told me. “A man doesn’t want an intellectual sparring partner,” he warned. “He wants comforts.”

I’d learned to speak — to emit opinions and to argue them — at the dinner table. Night after night, starting in my late childhood, it was me and my father locked in combat, fighting for the definition of my world.

“At least they’re talking to each other,” my mother would tell her friends.

My father’s doctoral thesis was on the color preferences of psychiatric groups. Womanly women, he found, liked colors like pink. Manly men liked colors like brown. In my office now, I have his copies of the “Collected Works of Sigmund Freud” and “Feminine Psychology” by Karen Horney and the Old Testament, all heavily annotated, even the Bible underlined and bracketed, the very Word reworked by his own sense of significance.

He was horrified by the 1960’s. (“I’m not a square; I’m a cube,” he said, circa 1970). His horror hardened in the 1970s and 80s, grew seasoned by bitterness in a world that increasingly rejected his most basic ideas, and by the 1990’s, he’d largely retreated into a private, secret world of anger and fear. Most awful to him was that “hateful, horrible women’s lib” I’d picked up in that girls’ school.

Part of him was proud of me. Another part told me that I didn’t belong there. But this was the one place in my life where I ever felt that I truly belonged.

There are times when the simple act of growing up requires a betrayal. Sarty knew it; I lived it. When you have a parent both adored and maddening, their madness encases you, defines and delimits you. When you cut the umbilical cord, opening your mouth to find your voice, you find that you are out in the cold.

What safety there had been in those blue pages, I remembered, running my fingers down the cover of an examination book that I was taking home as a souvenir.

It has been with me, in my bag, amidst the checkbook and the crayons, the forgotten school notices and 10 types of headache medication, ever since.

Copyright 2008; The New York Times Company
(Read the blog responses here)