Mr. Ben-Hur had fallen off his rocker some time before we knew him. His creased face and smudged glasses unsuccessfully oppressed his mischievous eyes, but no level of personal enthusiasm was sufficient to transfigure his guttural cadence into a language I could understand. “Mumble mumble, mmmblggghhh, ha ha! ha ha ha!!, grzzzzzzbmmlr, hahaha, bmph” he proffered for the first two days of seventh grade. I didn’t understand a damn word until day three, when whoosh! he was clear as day.
Seven years later, in the broad California sun of a school day, Mr. Ben-Hur (so named because I have seen that film, in its entirety, twice — both in his classes — consuming approximately an entire month of history lessons) would grab an axe, stride to the memorial of a cancer-slaughtered former colleague, and hack that apple tree to tinder.
Mr. Ben-Hur proclaimed he had two class rules: Honesty and Integrity, and Know Thyself. He was a social studies teacher, after all, and introduced these two!(?!) rules as sufficient to govern ancient Greece and Rome, and therefore, sufficient to govern giraffe-limbed girls and sweatpants-to-jeans boys.
Sparse classroom rules are the mark of a confident or naive teacher. We tell our emergency credential-toting idealists to post positive rules, and they march into their classrooms, and they wilt. But the thing is, kids aren’t dumb. They know you’re panicked, that you think these rules are bullshit, that all you want to do is what was done to you — NO HATS NO GUM NO CURSING NO BATHROOM BREAKS — that you know, you know, that positive rules only work for well-trained white kids. And the fucked-up thing is, that if you actually had believed that positive rules work, and you’d walked in there with a smile and firm eye contact and brought the heater and announced your presence with authority, it would’ve worked, no matter how confused you were.
So, that first (or third) day of seventh grade, you think, “know yourself. What the fuck?” But, your whole eleven, twelve, thirteen years, you’d already been trying to do that, you’d been grasping, feeling, exploring, rubbing one out for that goal all along, and finally some jackass tells you how to name what you’ve been doing. And you’re incredulous, and a snarky pubescent, and you’re satisfied, and you want to be it, live up to it, despite how many times you insist on shoving around your puny dick in your P.E. shorts every god damn day.
Having even one immigrant parent means that you will never not know you are American. It doesn’t matter if you voted for Nader, or if you always refer to this country as “the United States,” or if you hate the NRA, or if you’re vegan, or if you have some Eat Pray Love complex. This biological omnipresence wholly removes the possibility of ever considering yourself anything other than a product of this culture into which your parent injected herself.
Jhumpa Lahiring (yo it’s a verb) ignores the possibility that feeling torn between cultures also forces you to sink-or-swim in knowing thyself. If you had neither culture nor self, you’d have fallen apart by age three. So, even if you define yourself in opposition NO HATS, you started consciously negotiating your identity far before Mr. Ben-Hur laid that shit down.
There is no point to this post. Mr. Ben-Hur is probably dead now; or, at least, convalescing somewhere with at least one sinister orderly and not nearly enough fresh air and heartbreakingly dwindling visitors.