10/03/2011 11:32 am ET Updated Dec 01, 2011

Jon Stewart and the Kids

Jon Stewart came to Indiana for my birthday. Well, okay, on my birthday. When I was a college freshman in 2002, we used to gather in the basement of our dorm, next to the laundry machines, on smelly, ramshackle couches to watch The Daily Show. Those were the halcyon days before Stewart stood for something, held a rally, and lost some of his fans as a result. But here in Bloomington, he packed IU's auditorium twice tonight (Friday). Of course, we all wondered how much Stewart had been paid to wander around what he called an "adorable movie set of a town" for a day and entertain an audience that prompted him to do what Junot Diaz did in February at the AWP conference: shade his eyes from the spotlight, squint at the crowd, and remark, "My God, You. Are. All. So. White."

I wrote before about how in the digital age, syndicated television and the internet are the new town square, with Stewart and co. not the official town criers but the ones shouting "That is such bullshit!" from the peanut gallery. Somewhere in there the intelligence and incisiveness of Stewart's critique of American politics elevated him (and Colbert) to nationally politically relevant status. Stewart knows it, but also knows enough not to abandon the comedy altogether. Tonight, after jogging onstage to the opening of The Who's "Baba O'Reilly", he joked about getting wasted at Kilroy's, the infamous sports bar where, on IU game days, Indiana kids in red shirts can be counted upon to line up for entry as early as 9am. I taught creative writing last year to varsity athletes who turned in poems about nights at Kilroy's; it's that much of a cultural reference point. Lauren Spierer, an IU student who disappeared, was last seen after a night out at Kilroy's this summer, but Stewart probably doesn't know that--although he's likely seen the posters. The freshman this fall never knew Lauren, but they see her face daily.

I am, for the first time, teaching elementary composition to twenty-three of those freshman. Comp is the one course every Hoosier is required to take to graduate. I am to encourage students to locate themselves within discourses, to adopt a rhetorical stance.  They must, then, know their audience. In the current Rolling Stone cover story interview, Stewart speculates that the Bush administration knew public outcry about its various blunders would wane as a result of our public's short attention span and lightning-fast news cycle (tonight Stewart likened newscasters to dogs, delivering monotone news-lines before jerking his head to the side and exclaiming, "SQUIRREL!"); public outcry over the Bush administration's actions would wane because, Stewart sums up, "a white girl's going to disappear somewhere, and all this shit's just going to go away." Lauren's face is on the wall in every local business; fliers pepper our crisp fall days with her smile. 5'2", a 90-pound pixie, a fashion merchandising major. An upperclassman, it's likely she took comp from one of the other grad students I pass in the hallway of the shabby English department on the 4th floor of a building in need of renovation.

After Stewart took the opportunity to level criticism at anti-gay protesters and shoddy treatment of those in the armed forces (and test the limits of the staid audience's comfort with a joke about Trump "eye-fucking America") but before he got tired of making jokes about yarmulkas that most of his audience wasn't getting, he charmed us with anecdotes about his children. He was clearly exhausted, but that worked in his favor, since bluntness and stand-up go well together. He pointed out that five-year-olds don't know sarcasm--that their enthusiasm for, say, mulch blows him away with its genuineness. Recently I showed my freshman Louis CK on Conan, Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy. "Could you wait for a second while your phone goes to space? " cries Louis about "slow" smartphone loads. And plane rides: "You're in a the sky." My kids thought of reasons for why it was so funny, i.e., why his rhetoric was so effective. They practiced the x/y tool: It could be about the generation gap, but could also be about American consumerism. It could be about technology today, they wrote, but could really be about how ungrateful kids today are.

Stewart referenced how jaded, cutthroat and diverse New York is next to Bloomington. "I'm scared," he told us. "I don't know what to do with all this eye contact out here." He lay down on the floor of the stage when he realized that the sound of his microphone cord dragging behind him was creating the rumble he thought was thunder--or the subway, before he remembered where he was. A few years ago, I spent some distraught winter months in New York working as an event bookseller for $40 a gig and trying to find a steady job. (In the publishing industry. In winter of 2008. Yeah. That worked out great.) There was some bad treatment from a past mentor and I shrank to a tiny size, all but disappeared--a result, IU doctors would later tell me, of adrenaline flooding my body. There in Stewart's audience I remembered that at orientation for teaching composition, as a get-to-know-you, we were asked to name a meaningful cultural object. I knew if I played ball I'd answer The Daily Show, but instead contested that there is no non-cultural object.  If we have a name for it, it is cultural; if we have recognized it, we have codified it.  Else we might be those fabled ones who do not see the ships on the horizon because they do not know about ships. I tell my freshman it's better to end up with more questions after analysis than when they began. "There has to be magic in science, there has to be reason in our religion. It can't keep being so dichotomous," Stewart said, rubbing his face.

One dichotomous truth is, I'm a creative writing MFA candidate and not an English PhD. We're farmed out to teach comp just for our second of three years. It's supposed to be an albatross for us, and it is rather hard to act like I know what I am talking about when I have to cover MLA formatting, quotations, or keeping op-eds out of analyses. My comp section conflicted with a class I wanted to take, and I was hoping to switch sections with another instructor. Then I had my first session with this particular batch of eighteen-year-olds on their first day ever in college. It didn't seem reasonable to ask them to locate themselves on paper if they hadn't located themselves personally in the space of a university classroom, so we sat in a circle and I asked them things about themselves and about pop culture. I didn't know who Snooki was exactly, but they told me. "She represents everything wrong with our culture," they moaned. I asked who had actually met her and no one had. "So what we know about her must have come through a filter of TV footage, or magazine articles, or the internet, right?" I said. "'Mediated messages' is a term for that. 'Authorial intent,' too--someone decided you'd see a bunch of footage of Snooki drunk and passed out. What are they inviting you to believe there, and why?"

That was a month ago. After our section ended in the crisp dusk this past Wednesday and I headed homeward, three fire trucks roared and screamed and flashed past me back toward the dorms. I wondered how many cats were trapped in some tree. As Stewart noticed in his wanderings around the town square yesterday, Bloomington is no war zone.

When I was a freshman in college, frequent Daily Show guest and comedian Lewis Black came to speak. It was about a year after 9/11 and we were newly deep in Iraq. It was only the moment he was dead serious that I remember, when he said with his hand on his chest, "Your leaders should remember that it is an honor to lead you." My comp director said recently he was sorry I couldn't switch to another section and I told him I wasn't, not after meeting these particular kids. "They're mine and I'm theirs," I told him. Each face and hairstyle and studied posturing. Each voice and pair of eyes. "The heartbreak," Stewart said tonight with his hand to his chest, "the heartbreaking thing about parenting is knowing that that unbridled enthusiasm for life kids are capable of, will end at some point. That it absolutely will."

It was a suicide. A freshman. In his dorm. That's where the paramedics were going.

Today my kids sang to me. I said it was my birthday in hopes that they'd be obedient, because today is peer essay review day and it's not the most lively lesson. They decided I should have a song. They sang it. When they were done I realized I'd put my hand over my heart. I said, "I'm so glad to see each of your faces. We lost someone this week, someone like you"--they all nodded--"and I don't know what we would do if one of you were gone."

I told them about how, in the same vein as a death in the family or a divorce, transitioning to college is one of the most major experiences of stress people in peaceful societies undergo. Stress is a physiological phenomenon, I said, and we can feel pretty bad if our serotonin or adrenaline is out of whack--and that isn't a personal failure or spiritual weakness, just an adjustment of the human system. Pay attention to your sleeping pattern, or if you're suddenly never hungry, or always hungry. Student health services are good here, I said, and it's good to check in even if it's just to keep on good track. Then I handed them back their analytical essays, several of which were marked with disappointing grades because it's so hard not to say what you feel about something.

Tonight Jon Stewart jogged back onstage after we stood and applauded for an encore. "I'm just going to say one thing about perspective," he said. He related how, after the 9/11 attacks, he felt like nothing would be okay. But then he came out of his apartment one dreary day after many dreary days to find a homeless man on the building stoop. The man's pants were down and he was jerking off, and he merely nodded at Stewart in greeting when he saw him. "That's when I knew it was all going to be okay," Stewart said. We laughed, clapped again, and he left for good this time. We filed out as John Mayer's "Waiting on the World to Change" filled the speakers. I rode my new used bicycle home through a nighttime mist.  Last year I moved sight unseen to the Midwest, just me and a big red duffle bag, into an apartment above a video store and next to a Big Red liquor mart. Now I live in a basement, but in an actual house, a house with a large oak in the back yard. On my way home I looked up and a family of deer were crossing into the park. I stopped to watch them in the shimmering dark, their slender legs and attentive ears, and I thought, I could be here, now, living this moment; or dead, or very old, or dying, and reliving this moment.  There might not be a difference. We have to allow for magic in science.
Maybe magic is the ship before we call it one, the young face before we see it.