Finding Meaning in the Death of a Teacher

06/09/2011 01:33 pm ET | Updated Aug 09, 2011
  • Haroon Moghul Fellow at New America Foundation and a Ph.D. candidate in Columbia University's Department of Middle East, South Asian and African Studies

Physically awkward, socially uncomfortable, mechanically rigid, and not balding, but conclusively balded, having lost it and pointing it out with a toupee. For high school students, that's blood in the water. We'd regularly tease him; our pre-calculus class in particular was famed for its brazenness (and be sure we reveled in that notoriety). But because he wasn't the type of teacher -- or the type of man -- who knew how to push back, he'd end up all but asking for more. I mean, he was a math teacher wearing a toupee. Did he expect differently?

One day, during passing time between classes, someone opened the door to our room and tossed a toupee into the room. While he was lecturing. I still remember how quickly everything stopped, as we watched the toupee fall to the floor, rather like a leaf, and our teacher's voice first stumbled and then seemed to be sucked out of existence, leaving behind an unbelievable silence so perfect we could not imagine it hadn't endured forever. If the room itself could be embarrassed, then the air was red in the face.

He had this podium he'd always lecture from, gripping the sides like otherwise we'd draw him in and spit him out. When he was out sick for a few days, some students brought this podium down to the shop and had it painted a radioactive yellow, returning it some days later. That prank went too far, even for our class: a younger math teacher, one who didn't have any apparent testosterone deficit, let us have it, and with good reason. That podium was some kind of family heirloom, and we'd ruined it.

But did we stop? Maybe there was something intimate in this testing of boundaries, but the more I remember it, the harder it is to see why we so earnestly scorned him. In one terrible but mercifully isolated incident, a student brought in a book about Nazis and openly perused. You see, our math teacher was Jewish. I don't think this had anything to do with why he was so often on the wrong end of what we considered comedy, but it didn't help.

Years later, I find myself on the other end of the room. More often than not, when I'm teaching teens, I'll find at least a few boys (girls, speaking anecdotally, tend to be better students) who seem compelled to respond to every other thing I say, do or ask with a rude interruption and a lame joke. It's a sad sarcasm, but the more I encounter it, the more I try to figure it out. The desire to challenge authority, sure. To seem cool before one's classmates, yeah. But there's a deeper truth here. Sarcasm can be an attack, but it can also be a defense, and I believe it's more often the latter.

Because there's perhaps nothing more terrifying to an adolescent than to be identified with the supposed charade of middle-age, its banality, its stability, its homogeneity, a prejudice encouraged by the vacuity of consumerism. None of us wanted to see ourselves in a high school math teacher. Probably we all presumed ourselves destined for something greater. We were young and cool; he was genetically and phenotypically not. Adulthood was an unwanted, intimidating wasteland, where every positive attribute went to die, and the last shreds of authenticity collapsed into shameful minivans. The best way to stop it might be to mock it away, to point out the gulf that separated us from him, and widen it with words and taunts.

Our math teacher passed away some weeks ago. An old friend from high school sent me his obituary, though I had trouble believing I was reading about the man I remembered; we're always generous in the postmortem, but there's only so much that can be fudged. After retiring from the public school system, our math teacher taught at a community college. He volunteered in statewide efforts against illiteracy. Long ago, he served in the Army, and had gone over to Vietnam as a communications specialist. That awkward man communicating anything intelligibly seemed preposterous, and for him to do so under fire brought science fiction to mind. But that was who he was, and who was I to dispute?

It's not like I could feel genuinely sad, considering I didn't actually know him. There was no gaping hole in my life left by his departure. But I did feel a sense of shame, uncomfortably reminded of how we'd treated him -- there's nothing like the death of someone your life has only briefly intersected with to remind you of your mortality and fragility. Too far away, and they mean nothing; too close to you, and you are too grieved to philosophize. But he and I were instantly linked the moment I received word of his passing. How could my end be any different -- and was there anything in that life, seen from its beginning to its end, which I should feel unfulfilled by, were it my own?

I hadn't taken the time to know the man, but I hadn't minded mocking him, or appreciating when others did the same. It was self-centered, but perhaps we're too immature at that age to really be called out for it. We are expected to change. But rather than learn the virtue of humility, we face our society's version of a spiritual lesson: What the culture promises, economics takes away. Our arrogance -- and our promise -- is stolen from us. The logic of unthinking capital crushes us, and by the time a decade or two has passed, we often find ourselves seeking the kind of banal stability that in prelapsarian days we'd flippantly deride.

But there was something else that bothered me, as I read the calm outline of the facts of his life: student, soldier, high school teacher, college professor, volunteer, deceased. And as I thought on it, I realized this: His averageness is not to be laughed at. The quiet dignity of a life of service was for a long time beneath us, and now, karmically, it appears out of our reach. His passing comes at a time when our politics brings to my mind that precalculus class from all those years back (who the math teacher is in this analogy I do not know). At the close of The Lord of the Flies, the children are about to give in, fully and entirely, to savagery, until the adults show up -- which is all well and good, unless the adults behave like children, too.

Somehow we've ended up with ideologues who bring to mind nothing so much as high school students, sarcastically mocking what they do not understand, refusing to accept processes that do not meet their expectations, trying their best to widen the gulf between real Americans and faux Americans with whatever twists and turns of language they can employ. Modesty, as a virtue, seems at best quaint, a patience before the different, the unknown, and the challenging, which we have no patience for. The prosperity gospel preached a city of God on a suburban lane, where His children would drive Hummers into McMansions, to each his own castle, oversized and unnecessary. To each his own, and each is now alone.

But, for a moment, forget our woes at home, and consider our international prospects: Hundreds of millions are now eager to consume as we did. We're competing over limited resources with people who are as hungry as we are, if not more so. Students from some of the nation's top universities confide to me that they do not know what careers to choose, because there's no permanence in anything. And would I say too much if I wonder about the ire that has been directed towards our nation's tenured teachers, with those dislocated by capitalism spitefully seeking to dislocate those given some protection from its excesses? The anxious turn on the anxious. We don't even know who to be angry with anymore.

It used to be that our heroes were scientists, explorers, litterateurs, thinkers and dreamers. Today, our most recognized figures are celebrities, including many of our political figures who, in the face of uncooperative economics, retreat into assertions of our inestimable uniqueness. The loudest voices either mock scholarship or produce their own versions of history, which they can inhabit as the world goes by. The vapid culture of fame, which Byron called "the thirst of youth," has so hollowed us that we lack the determination to respond intelligently to adversity. It is as if we have matured backwards, a country born of political and intellectual giants -- and now what?

I don't blame the generation that grows up in this, maybe because it's my generation, because I suffer its anxieties -- and because our society will certainly be changed by these insecurities. Where we will find the spiritual and psychological resources to deal with broken dreams? Many of us will find ourselves settling for something which we would've thought beneath us. Many of us may struggle with physical, financial, or existential conflicts which have no easy resolution. Many of us will find that, having come of age in the great recession, the options open to us are not so broad as we were told they would be.

We are insulted and humiliated by processes far beyond our control, while our entertainment and our politics continue to tell us that the promise that once made our country can still be had. We can still be wealthy, although we have become one of the most immobile societies in the developed world. It sounds like a crude religion, and maybe it is, though all the more terrifying for its appeals to earthly paradises found at the end of iron laws of historical physics. And so this paradise has nothing to console us with. It cannot tell us why we suffer, why we mock and why we are mocked, and what, if any, good might come of it. It cannot make us see in our brief intersections with one another the seeds of a community, and only offers us the ability to fight and scream and taunt.

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