Weekly feature by: Jody Azzouni
There are the tests you fail, and the important ones that you fail before you scarcely know that there is a test to fail at, at all. The background, the particular details of how you failed the test don’t matter; for whatever it is you do, you do it over and over again all your life: the particular details of your failures belong to you forever: they curiously rearrange themselves in never-ending new forms, but ones you find altogether familiar (in that maddeningly subconscious way such things are always found to be altogether familiar): the pattern—and you need to know this—isn’t rooted in the primitive roots of your sexuality, it isn’t buried in the moss of the relationship (however thin) that your parents allowed you to have with them: it’s all just a matter of tiddlywinks, a matter, that is, of sheer timing: your tendency to take that sudden instinctual leap into the flat of a wall. There is, I regret to say, no cure. Once upon a time people much like yourself took wrong turns much like the ones you regularly take, and fell out of trees. They were eaten.
Think of the third grade, of children who are eight (and some of whom are already nine; for birthdays are scattershot over entire years). It’s all here already. The children—two of them in fact, boys let’s say, find matches, ones that can be lit by striking anything, sheer cement for (a pertinent) example. Thus armed they decide to do a Good Thing: collect litter that blows adrift and homeless on the streets of Brooklyn—they collect such litter, I say, and burn it. (So much adult behavior is already here, don’t you think? Especially the bit about it being a Good Thing.)
You may focus on the thought, good citizen that you are—especially after I tell you that they spend the entire afternoon repeatedly collecting a pile of litter, finding a somewhat spacious region (perhaps near a fire hydrant, in case of an accident: for they are not entirely thoughtless boys), and burning their acquired flammable loot—you may wonder: where are the adults in all this? Who, to begin with, was stupid enough to scatter matches (of this sort) where children might find them? And who, to continue the thought, are these strange adults who unconcernedly walk past two children crouching near a gutter while tending a makeshift campfire between two cars.
(Admittedly, one of the unconcernedly walking adults does intercede. Justice, such as it is, requires me to admit this. He has a briefcase: this means he’s coming back from work—probably—and so this places the event squarely between after five in the evening, but certainly before six thirty, since one of the boys at least, and probably the other too, has to be home for dinner by six thirty. The man gestures towards one of the cars and says: that’s where the gas tank is; maybe you should be careful. The boys thank him for his concern, a fresh experience for them, and tell him: don’t worry; we know what we’re doing; we’ve done this before. And then, the man walks off.)
The man walks off. Some stories, ones rather like this one, nevertheless end badly; but the accidents of childhood are only that, and no more: the character of a human that’s already in place—already, as it were, set the way cement sets (although much more rapidly); such a character meets the world, which is also already in place (and has been for quite a long while), and the world decides: this one I kill (and so a child, climbing around on the roofs of apartment buildings, wearing a mask and pretending to be Batman, falls numerous stories), this one I maim forever (and so a child, trying to make a bomb from homespun ingredients—aerosol cans snitched from the bathroom, for example, something viscous and in a jar borrowed from the cellar, an innocent metallic item or two from a toy store, one or two bottles of something bright blue or cherry red from his chemistry set—ingenuously succeeds), and some I simply this time (inexplicably) let go.
Consider now a little girl. (This is not exactly a change of subject.) The little girl in question sees the two boys setting the fire (the last fire they set that afternoon, unsurprisingly, especially given her reaction). Perhaps she even sees the adult with a briefcase, the neatly dressed one who has offered them such a sensible recommendation. She has an opportunity to shine, to perform—she grasps this, I hasten to stress, as much as (certainly no more than) the boys grasped what it was they were doing. First, and crucial to it all, is the infliction of agony: I saw you start a fire, I saw you, I’m going to tell Mrs. Gollum tomorrow. Just you wait. (The woman with the improbable name that the little girl has just alluded to is a real teacher, and is, in fact, their real teacher. I know of no reason for why her name has shown up so prominently in so much of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work.)
Tomorrow calls for rehearsals, some of them dress (did this girl become an actress later? this is one, and only one, possibility). Each child in the class—apart from the culprits who presumably already know what they’ve done—is told ahead of time in just those words what the little girl will tell Mrs. Gollum once the class has assembled (once the audience is seated). Some children are whispered to while they dutifully wait on line with her; some are told on the way to school; many are told in the schoolyard in a small group that collects around the girl, perhaps for the first time. This is certainly behavior that bears repeating. Just watch her.
Here, then, is one test. (There have been several already.) Several children approach one boy and tell him that the other boy denies that he started any fires at all. The boy, feeling betrayed, and despite seeing his friend gesticulating madly to him from across the yard (as only eight year olds can), denies firmly that he started the fires alone. Eddie did it too, he says. Of course, this is the wrong remark to make. The right remark to make goes (something) like this: Fire? What fire? Was there a fire (somewhere)? Whatever are you talking about? (Contrary to appearances, this is not yet a prisoner’s dilemma; those, inexorably, come shortly later in life.) As you may imagine, a boy who has to be told when to coordinate his remarks with those of others is one who in short order is friendless. Let’s not dwell any longer on that particular and sad repercussion of the story.
We think of advertising, email spam, phone solicitations—some of us are even proud to so think of them—as modern inventions. But they are not: they are old character traits in new guise. This, it is worth pointing out, is equally true of gas chambers. It is, however, not true of certain other things: some things really are new under the sun. The theory of relativity, for example. But I take it that the reader has not failed to notice how little the theory of relativity comes into this.
So here we are: the girl—to repeat—has made a Very Big Deal Of It All. Call what she has been engaged in “public relations”—after all, if it isn’t now, it soon will be. But, apart from this, there are many directions the story can now take; many endings that are possible. (The world chooses only one.) Children, after all, who start fires, can get in a lot of trouble if their deeds are publicly packaged the right way: once pedagogical authorities see that changes are needed in a child’s environment their lives can veer in ways scarcely imaginable, taking a trajectory—it is worth adding—that no child would have ever predicted. A different child, one about eleven, once dropped a rock over a highway from an overpass, said rock in turn, and dutiful to the laws it is required to obey, went through the windshield of a moving car. The calculation of impact—the rock’s momentum, due to its mass, its distance from its point of impact, the constant g, air resistance (on our side this time), and, hardly insignificant, the motion of the car itself—leads inexorably to the conclusion that things went badly for the driver of the car, or perhaps, for the chatty recipient in the front seat next to the driver, and consequently, went badly for the child as well. It is interesting to speculate what such a rambunctious child could have found to do thousands and thousands of years ago, what activities, that is, thousands and thousands of years ago, that would have been seen as requiring drastic intercession by his tribal authorities (say).
Our story is, and has been for some time, a quieter one. In this case, the teacher is in a bad mood. (Well, the odds of that, I’d imagine, are pretty good.) But there’s more. When the little girl begins by saying: Eddie and Stan—a beginning with, from anyone’s point of view, a lot of promise, its tone pitched just right, the rest of the class unusually silent—Mrs. Gollum (for that really is her name) says: Ellen would you just please just shut up? And that, oddly enough, is the end of it. (Ellen, and this too, is a matter of character—her’s in particular—does not try again.)
An experience like this can do a lot for the children involved. (The world has now performed; its character’s turn once more—another word for this, sometimes still used, is contemplation.) Let us focus on the boys, or on one boy in particular, as an illustration: some children would learn that this is a way to live; I mean, of course, that some children would learn that this is the way they will live: risk after risk after risk: people won’t tell or people won’t listen or people won’t believe. (I’ve tried to forgo the all too natural cheap shot at political figures. But there it is, nevertheless.) There are other children, however, who react differently, who ruminate over this event, a pretty insignificant one from a certain point of view—after all, worse things (so one says) have happened to pretty much everybody. Still, if one ruminates on this event, not obsessively, not on a daily basis, but often enough over the years so that when he has reached the far side of sixty, despite this, he can still recollect its details clearly, then he won’t agree with the dismissive characterization of it: pretty insignificant; for if it isn’t forgotten (and it isn’t), there must be a reason. And I’ve tried to tell you what that reason might be.