My junior year of high school, I took English from Mr. K, who was somewhere in the vicinity of totally mad. He sometimes went over the edge and hurt students’ feelings, like the time he waved a fake gun at a kid whose father was being tried as an organized crime boss and told the kid he might need said item some day. That was not so nice. Nor was it kind of him to make me cry one day, although I will grant that making me cry was not particularly challenging in those days.
Nonetheless, he was the best English teacher the school had to offer. He might have had an alarming tendency to holler “BEEEEEEE! I’m ExPECting you!” at random moments, but at least he was not halfway to unconscious as was my freshman/senior year teacher. Mr. K had experience in the theater, serious experience in the theater, but he was never given management of the drama club, probably because the administration was a little afraid of what he might do. I don’t blame them, given that he spent much of the unit on Tennessee Williams telling us how he had seen A Streetcar Named Desire performed “at Café La Mama… In draaag.”
I guess I don’t need to tell you that he was gay, although knowing the town in which I grew up, I suspect it was a don’t-ask, don’t-tell-the-impressionable-young-minds kind of situation, which is ironic now that the school, like every other, has a LGBT club listed alongside the Chess team. In the eighties in Massachusetts, however, it was better to pretend to be liberal than to actually be liberal. Maybe Chris can shed some light on what happened to Mr. K, but I suspect the administration finally found some way to get rid of him that would not engender a lawsuit.
That was not before, however, he had the chance to teach us The Scarlet Letter, a book with a structure and complexity he clearly revered. We spent an awful lot of time on the carefully constructed scaffolding scenes, the character development and the (I now know) rather heavy handed symbolism. In later years, when I would go on to teach the same book to children the same age I had been that year, my greatest goal was to show them I loved that book as much as Mr. K had. I suspect, in fact, that is was his early influence that led me to believe, for a short time in graduate school, that I might want to specialize in Nathaniel Hawthorne, a delusion from which I was awakened when I met Henry James.
What I did not like about the way Mr. K taught The Scarlet Letter was that he always referred to Hester Prynne by her first name. The minister was Dimmesdale, the mysterious creepy man was Chillingworth, but the woman with the big A on her chest was Hester. Like her daughter, she was reduced to her first name.
This struck me as infantilizing at best and sexist at worst. Men, who go out into the wider world, are referred to by their last names, but women are kept more private. Women are domestic, and so are addressed by the name a family member would use, but men are worldly and so are addressed as Mr. plus their family name. They are given the respect accorded to their professions. Women are treated like children and so called by their first names.
This, of course, was not entirely Mr. K’s fault. After all, generations of scholars also have referred to Mistress Prynne as “Hester.” They probably do this because Hawthorne refers to her this way. Hawthorne was deeply steeped in his times, and the cult of domesticity was full-swing. He was not exactly a feminist; although he was rather close to a very forceful and intellectual young woman, he chose to marry her sickly and domestic sister, instead. He would never have thought to refer to a female character by her last name. You can hardly blame an eleventh-grade English teacher for following suit.
Nonetheless, when I handed in my (completely brilliant) paper on The Scarlet Letter, I was careful to refer to her only as “Prynne,” just as I referred to her pathetic excuse for a lover as “Dimmesdale.” I was breaking new ground, blazing trails, and getting my grade knocked down in the process. Yep. When he handed that paper back, Mr. K had crossed off every single “Prynne” and written “Hester” next to it.
In retrospect, he was right. I should have referred to her as the author did, unless I stated a good reason otherwise. But, Mr. K did not explain this. He just corrected me, which pissed me off and made me wonder what kind of a woman-hating, foaming at the mouth kind of cretin he was.
So, no matter for whom you intend to vote, I ask you to do me one little favor. I ask you to join me in remembering that Senator Clinton is just that, a U.S. Senator. She is not a private, domestic figure; she is a very public person. Yes, I know she has branded herself as “Hillary,” probably so we don’t confuse her with the other Clinton. I wish she had not done that, because it sets back feminism in subtle and powerful ways. It sends the message that her gender makes her less worthy of common courtesy, of the respect we give people in the public realm.
The American electorate should treat its public servants with linguistic parity, referring to the men and the women in the same way. (With the exception of those you truly wish to denigrate; it is your business if you want to refer to the President as “The Shrub”; personally, I think that until he is out of office, he deserves some linguistic dignity so as to treat the office with respect.) So, either the candidates are “John, Barack, and Hillary,” or they are “McCain, Obama, and Clinton.”
Do we really need to mark one of them with a scarlet W?