From Scenes from a Failing Horizon part 1, "Field Trips"
For fear of commenting on history, I booked the bus for an a unheard-of provincial park, accessible through a corn field. Ahead now, a path faded into muddy vagueness, the forest ahead either a paradise or the bottomside of hell, roots with green leaves reaching at something they could never attain. No one could wait to enter. There, at the trailhead, a brown-painted box, holding maps and a guest list. You need to sign the list, I told them, so that if someone goes missing we know who it is. Meanwhile I asked, What does this remind you of? not referring to anything particular. The student pressing his pencil against the list, forming the letters of his name, lifted his head up and said, Reminds me of all other places that I have to sign in. Okay, I said. Sure. What else does it remind you of? At these words I felt someone, my husband, criticizing me—for masterminding their experience, that they have bold insights! You are funneling them towards what you think will make bold insights! As soon as they discover this they will realize exactly what part of the allegory they perform: the naïve followers drawn to a dark unknown, coming into awareness, via their leader. You the present, they the improbable future. But I have given them nothing to go on, I responded in my head. They resist or give in, but it ends there.
The students are well ahead of me. They know that I am not the same when not in school, that I follow the rules of school when in school, but outside the school do not, that I go out to restaurants with people whom they don't know, who are not other teachers, that I have a girlfriend, whom I kiss, whom, yes, I suppose I am in love with. Even after class I am not the same as during class, I am more relaxed, more frank, will talk to them as though they are adults, would even cut a deal with a student. Though they know I have this life, they do not really believe it. But it does not matter. This they have learned: their freedom lies in the interplay between the school and me, and that when the school is not there, the rules I uphold might disappear, unless they are rules that I believe in outside the school. They know this through observation, not through sympathy to my situation. They know this because they want this arena. Some of them, despite knowing a flexible system of rules, continue to uphold those of the school even outside school. I don't want to call them brownnosers or teachers pets, but they will form our future workforce, which is to say they will become adults. Other of them call me by my first name, realizing we are outside of something, that things have changed. Yet there is no comfortable relationship possible, the first name is a stepping stone to casual wrestling, profanity, and pushing to know what websites I frequent. I want to know nothing more of them. Our relationship is impossible.
We are in nature for my trying to affect their nature, which is admittedly stupid, I now think to myself. Try not to bring the taint of the classroom into your labour, I ask, floating about them, happy at their indifference to me. The two fallen trees at this otherwise unremarkable spot would act as benches for their parliament, if in their adolescent strength and will to show it off they could heave them into place. At their touch the enormous trunks crumble and flake into powder and cubes, and for their geometric disintegration and weight they would remain immovable. Spiraling out, but never losing sight of their toil, I remove myself, ghosting away from my adolescents. Try to imagine I'm not here, I shout through the trees like one of their parents, perhaps a dead parent lost too soon to a disease (cancer). Better that I equip them with chainsaws, I think, and allow them to cut logs, to begin from workable pieces. One is always revising, thinking, ah, but next time.
A number of them on someone's land—I hadn't told them whose, but it was a dying man I knew—three hours out of the city. They had read similar books, modern masters and recent translations. Around a fire now voicing ideas, tentatively. Trailings off in the dark. I let them continue like this, and I listened to each one's stabs at something, and tried to avoid saying anything myself. Some things were directed at me to comment on, but I resisted. From behind our circle a stranger appears. Is everything alright? a student asks the man. He responds in gibberish. Do you know English? another asks. In his twenties probably, the same age as the students, dressed in heavy layers, arms hanging like anchors at his sides. Hello, I finally say to the stranger. Do you speak? I ask. English? Do you speak English? Speak? My idea for this retreat was to combine abstract ideas, philosophy, with concrete, tactile experience. The camping and cooking were to unfold as concrete experiences. The abstract ideas would be brought about through words, through attempts at unworking our habitual perceptions, through grammarless poetry, through the un's or dis's or a's of negatives, through muttering partial words. We were still warming up. A cloud becomes visible as the man steps forward, like tiny flies, a swarm that seems like a single-minded unit rather than hundreds of parts. A cloud of bacilli enshroud him, I think, when of course they are mosquitoes or blackflies or some other harmless insects. He steps forward, leaning in to our fire with his infectious cloud. The smoke comes up on all sides of him, up his thighs and around his crotch, about his torso, as though sourcing gravity, dispersing the mosquitoes. It shifts like a baggy outfit, doubling his size. I could not have planned such a thing, that we may have to take care of him, or at least get rid of him.
The assignment handed out, and in complete faith of it, of its legitimacy and therefore of mine too I suppose, they write for an hour. No matter how much space I give them they fill it, if half an hour they use half an hour, if an hour and a half they use an hour and a half, like concentrated detergent added to a small bucket of water they sud haphazardly to fill whatever they are given. The assignment is a simple question, something we studied but that they haven't seen entirely in the same form. It is a gift from me to them, from teacher to students. "How do you see yourself in history?"
But let's be realistic, it's not a gift, but a sore—a herpes virus I've called to the surface, not transmitted but triggered, mostly dormant yet known by them all too well. With each recurrence, I think—observing the sclerotic grips overpowering their pens and pencils, observing the faces as they search for lost information—the sores raise less concern, they monitor them rather than obsessing over them, recognizing the virus not as retribution for some messy misstep or regretful misjudgment earlier in life (late one night, boozy and adolescently opportunistic) but as life itself. Everyone has this irritating, unshakable and unending party, pluming redness as a reminder of earlier life, infancy maybe or teenagehood.
is a Toronto-based writer, editor and book designer. He is the editor and designer of The Coming Envelope
, BookThug Press
's journal of experimental prose. He is presently finishing a novella on the theme of unlearning entitled "An Exercise in the Life of a Classroom Teacher," which forms part of a larger project on pedagogical themes entitled "Scenes from a Failing Horizon."