MONTREAL THEN: THE COMEDY OF MANNERS

After decades of teaching, Zsolt Alapi is a born-again writer, editor, publisher, who has made his home in Montreal for over four decades.

Zsolt, who retired from Cegep teaching in 2015, reflects on what was “the last straw”.

So I’m doing evaluations in another professor’s class and a student walks in late and declaims in front of 34 others: “What the fuck is this?” No excuse for being late, no shy slithering into his seat or asking if he can still fill out the evaluation questionnaire despite being late. Nothing.

I can only think of one reply, so I say, “I resent your tone, your language, and your inference. It should be: ‘Who the fuck is HE, no?’” He misses the irony, so he pulls out his smart phone, brandishes it menacingly, and starts texting immediately.

What has happened to manners and the basic decencies that make us supposedly “civilized”? Most of my students are either passively aggressive, or just plain indifferent. They are the victims of social networking where feelings are reduced to sound-bytes, acronyms, or, at best, short staccato phrases. How can they possibly understand the wit of an Oscar Wilde, Swift, or Nabokov, wit predicated upon knowledge of language, manners, and social conventions? They live in a world of scientific veracity where the literal and the empirical instead of the imagination are real.

And so I make them read — force them to do so, in fact — and they resent having to make the effort, of having to grapple with the insubstantiality of ideas, the essence of our ephemeral existence.

They are creatures of want, desirous of instant gratification brought to them with the click of a mouse or the swipe of an image. As such, they see the world about them not as a place of mystery, danger, and wonder, but a utilitarian shell to craft to their own purpose.

“I tried,” one of my students told me once resentfully, “to email you with my question before today’s in-class essay, but you never replied.” When I checked my email messages, his had been sent at 1:35 a.m. the morning of. Somehow, the thought of me not glued constantly to my computer at any and all hours of the day is inconceivable to him, so it was my fault that his last-minute question had gone unanswered.

Once in one of my classes, someone’s cell phone rang, and the student actually answered it. When I told him this was inappropriate, he held up his hand in protest to quiet me and said, “Wait, this is important.” When I later reprimanded him for his rudeness, his reply was “Whatever…”

It’s been a bad week, undoubtedly. During my office hours, I have been inundated with students working on a take-home essay and have left it until the last moment, expecting me to coach them on what to say, having no ideas of their own. In the late afternoon, after a particularly exhausting series of such meeting, in comes my student, Costa, who throws down a paper with some scribbling on it and waits for my response; no hello, no niceties, no nothing.

“Dis good?” he intones.

“Costa,” I say, “‘insecurity’ is not a literary device!”

“No?”

“No.”

“Well, it must be tone then, eh?”

“Not quite,” I reply. “Any other guesses?”

“Huh?”

“What part of speech is insecurity?” I try.

“What?”

“A noun, verb, adjective?”

“What’s a part of speech, sir?”

“Well, a noun is the name of a person, place, or thing. For example, ‘I have insecurities about passing my English course…’”

He cocks a birdlike eye at me, like some demented parrot, his expression glazed, suspicious.

Perhaps Costa is not to blame. He plays Triple A hockey and has sustained many a blow to the head, resulting in multiple concussions. In fact, our Learning Specialist wrote to tell me that he had “Acquired Brain Deficiency Syndrome,” which, when I read the email quickly, reads to me as “Squirrel Brain Syndrome.”

Thus, when Costa shows me part of his research paper on The Doors as an iconic musical group of the 60s, it reads something like this:

“The Doors were a rock group. They sang rock and roll. About drugs. About sex. They liked sex after doing lots of drugs like LTD and other ones that make you all lucidate. In the song “Light my Fire,” the singer sings ‘Come on baby light my fire / Cause I couldn’t get no higher’. There it is, he’s so high on drugs he can’t even go higher, so he wants to light her fire, which is having sex, metamorphically speaking….”

I can only think of Kafka, the Pêre Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, Jim’s grave, and start to say something:

“No, Costa, it’s not good, not good at all. I’m afraid that that last stick you took to the head in hockey really did it for you. Costa, you are a moron, and, sadly, will always be. Drop out of school now; do the world of academia a favor. Open a restaurant, father a brood of little Costas, buy a triplex in Park Extension, and rent out the upper flats for extra revenue. It is ‘metaphor,’ my dear boy, a comparison without the use of ‘like’ or ‘as.’ But what’s the use? Really, what use is it to you or me or to the world if you understand what a metaphor is or if you finish this paper or not, except that maybe then you will finally GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY OFFICE and disappear out of my life forever.”

Instead of this, of course, I say: “It needs work, especially in your choice of vocabulary.”

And so I close up shop for the day, load up my briefcase with bad writing, and make my way home.

Perhaps I will go home, have a drink, and put on The Doors. “The End” is a good song, maybe even a great song. And I will ask silently for forgiveness, for my thoughts, my anger, my despair about how we have lost the art of words and of the action and reaction bred of their insubstantiality.

After, I’ll light a candle for Costa and his squirrel brain and for myself, hoping that the fire won’t completely be extinguished, not just yet, at any rate.

“Metamorphically” speaking, that is.

1 Comment on MONTREAL THEN: THE COMEDY OF MANNERS

  1. Jacqueline Claire Hodges // October 9, 2018 at 12:48 pm // Reply

    Keep lighting those candles, Zsolt, you are a beacon of hope. Love you.

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