This is the story of a father who is estranged from his daughter.
|“I guess what I’m trying to say is this: You can only hijack a plane when you’re on it.”
Erin Brock, chairwoman of the teaching staff’s council, crossed her legs and swept a little lint from her black leather skirt. She was a middle-aged, still very beautiful blonde woman with quite a career behind her. She had started working at Hailsham at the age of twenty-seven and at age thirty-five she had become the youngest female mathematics professor nationwide. She had written a book and a number of articles on algorithms and data structures. She was eloquent, open-minded and warm-hearted. It was impossible not to trust her. That’s why sixty percent of the teaching staff at Hailsham had elected her to protect their interests.
For a moment, Stephen thought about what she was saying. It hadn’t been easy for him to approach her. After his discussion with Jonathan Hart, Stephen was inclined to drop the whole issue. He wanted to go back to his work, concentrate on the preparation and execution of his classes, read French novels or nonfiction about language science. He didn’t want to get involved in university politics any longer, he wanted to stay out of all of it. He wanted to hide. But the nagging thoughts just wouldn’t disappear. Whenever he was preparing a class, correcting a paper, reading a novel or writing an article, he caught himself straying from whatever he was doing and thinking about the horrendous wheelings and dealings at Hailsham university. He continuously felt the urge to confide in someone, someone who would be equally appalled by his revelations. And since he had voted for Erin Brock as chairwoman of the teaching staff’s council, going to her seemed the next logical step before going to a newspaper and turning into a regular whistleblower.
“I’m afraid I don’t quite understand”, Stephen replied.
“Well”, Erin Brock countered, “I’d be lying if I said that I’ve never heard of Mister Stewart and his cozying up to our generous donors. And I am equally appalled as you are. The only reason I don’t look surprised is the fact that I’ve been fighting him on this for quite some time now and I must admit that I haven’t found the proper strategy yet. You see, I still hope to solve the matter internally, but in order to do that I need teachers like you who are willing to speak up and who encourage other teachers to do likewise. But with Mr. Stewart’s intimidating practices I very often feel like I’m all alone, tilting at windmills with no comrade-in-arms.”
“I see”, Stephen said, slightly disenchanted.
“I’m glad you came to me with this”, Erin Brock pressed on. “Because it encourages me to continue on my path. I’ve been collecting data on Mr. Stewart’s tampering with the student’s grades and now, thanks to you, I can open another file. The thing I need you to do is to collect hard evidence. You still have a copy of Holden Fisher’s paper, I hope?”
Stephen shook his head.
“No, unfortunately, I don’t. I gave the paper and my written assessment of his paper back to him. But I still have the assessment file in my computer.”
“Mmmh”, Erin Brock sighed. “I’m afraid that’s not hard evidence. If there is any chance, if you could get your hands on the paper then that would be swell. You could contact Holden Fisher and tell him that you’d like to reevaluate his paper but that you need the original.”
Stephen thought about this for a moment.
“I suppose I could”, he finally said, seemingly unconvinced.
“Look”, Erin Brock continued, “don’t be disheartened. Cases like these take time to build. Once I have enough hard evidence I will talk to the other members of the council, present them with my evidence and then we’ll take it from there. But, in the meantime, I’d like you to act as if nothing had happened. Take the tenure, sign the papers, keep teaching your classes and don’t do anything too rash. You can’t fight this on your own. And by the way, what good would it do if you came forward now? You’d lose your shot at tenure, you’d bring Hailsham into disrepute and you’d probably lose your job, too. I think it’s best to deal with this behind closed doors. That’s what I meant when I said that you can only hijack a plane when you’re on it. Once you have got your tenure you are untouchable. And when you do have tenure we will fight this together, along with the other teachers who came to me.”
“How many other teachers are there that have come to you and complained?”
“So far, there have only been four other teachers. But one has retired, and another of them has already left Hailsham. That’s why I need you. I’d like you to talk to other teachers, see if they had the same experience with Mr. Stewart as you. Then send them my way and I’ll pick it up from there.”
Stephen leaned back in his chair. Again, there was a lot to process. He trusted Erin Brock on this, and he understood where she was coming from, but he sincerely wondered if he had the tenacity and the slyness to do what she asked him to do. How was he going to approach his colleagues about this subject matter? How could he possibly slip this issue into casual small talk? Hey, how are you doing? Oh, by the by, has John Stewart ever coerced you into changing a grade of one of your students? He has? How interesting! Tell me all about it and then tell it to Erin from council!
No, that didn’t seem very likely to Stephen. But, for the time being, he felt that there was nothing left to do. And Erin Brock was right: going public with this would probably harm the university’s reputation as a whole. Who would still send their kids to this university, let alone donate money if every donation was considered indecent and shady. Hailsham was doing a lot of good, it was a great institution, it was simply affected by this tiny cancer that needed to be rooted out. At least, that was what Stephen told himself.
“I thank you for your time”, Stephen said as he got up from his chair.
Erin Brock got up, straightened her skirt and walked Stephen to the door. On the threshold she extended her hand to take his, shook it firmly and looked him straight in the eye.
“Let’s keep in touch”, she said. ”And remember: any hard evidence, any other teachers you come across and who have experienced this, send them my way.”
“I will”, Stephen replied.
And with that, he was out the door. Again, he had confided in someone who he thought would help him. Once again, he had hoped for swift justice. He had hoped for someone in charge who would storm right into John Stewart’s office, slap his face and say something like: “Lawyer up, you prick, because you’re done for”. Instead there had been more talk, more drivel, more claptrap, more spiel, more carefully weighing one’s options and not doing anything too rash, and like before, little to no action. But Stephen also understood that he was looking for someone who would do the job for him, but that this person wasn’t easy to find if not non-existent. Nobody, not one living soul in the Hailsham universe, seemed willing to get their hands dirty over this.
Stephen found it hard to focus on the lecture he was about to give. Once more, he tried and eventually succeeded to pull himself up by his bootstraps. Seconds before he entered the lecture room, he just stood next to the door, bracing himself for the next ninety minutes. Then he stormed right in.
“Good morning, everybody!”
“Good morning, Mister Hill!”
Stephen virtually threw his school bag onto the desk and turned to his audience.
“So, let’s not waste any time. As I’ve already said in our last lesson, I would like to focus on a very specific French newspaper today, called Rivarol. The namesake of this newspaper is Antoine de Rivarol, a monarchist and counter-revolutionist from the 18th century, who defended the singularity of the French language. Anyway, the newspaper itself is a right-wing, often anti-Semitic newspaper. It was founded in 1951 by former Pétainists, that is people who were known to be Nazi collaborators. One decisive moment in this newspaper’s recent history was when Jean-Marie Le Pen, head of the nationalist political party Front national, described the gas chambers of Auschwitz as a minor and insignificant detail of World War II. Now, with that background information, let me ask you: What kind of articles do you expect in a newspaper like this?”
There was a moment of silent deliberation, but it didn’t take long for Emilio Cortez to raise his hand.
“Mr. Cortez, yes, please”, Stephen said, in a willfully joyous mood, in order to make the quarrel from the last lesson forgotten.
“Well”, Emilio said, “if the newspaper wants to make a political impact it probably features editorials which describe the gross incompetence of the current government. I’d also expect one-sided articles about crimes committed by non-indigenous French, such as Moroccans, Algerians, well, Maghrebians in general. All in all, I’d expect a very partial and biased view of current and past affairs.”
“Yes, Mr. Cortez, as always, you’re right on the money. But of course, any newspaper that wants to be bought cannot simply restrict itself to its political agenda. If Rivarol only featured articles about serious topics, it would get all too tedious and boring in the long run. So, of course, there is always a section with lighthearted articles that, at first glance, have no other purpose than to offer the reader some distraction.”
Stephen paused for effect.
“At first glance!”
He had the students’ attention now and he enjoyed it for a moment. It was one of these moments for which he had decided to become a teacher.
“I have brought with me today an article taken from Rivarol, which seems innocuous and trite if you consider the title, but which is downright insidious and snaky if you truly understand the meaning. It is an article about squirrels. Now, I will hand out the article to you and then I want you to tell me what this article is really about, and, in a second step, what it has to do with metaphors. If your level of French is above average, then you’ll have no problems understanding the article, but if you find yourself struggling with the text, feel free to use your dictionaries or your cell phones with the respective app.”
Stephen handed out the work sheets with the article about squirrels and then went back to his desk. He used the student’s reading time to check the attendance and to write down the absentees. There was one student on his list who hadn’t showed up a single time yet and he wondered if this person actually existed or if it was a mistake by the administration. He put a little exclamation mark next to the name and wrote Check existence underneath. After having done that, Stephen took the liberty of walking up and down the stairs of the auditorium, hovering over some students, politely asking if they had any questions. After perceived ten minutes he went to back to his desk again.
“So”, he said. “Now that you’ve had ample time to read the article, can somebody give us a quick summary of what it is about?”
A young female student that went by the name of Rose Goldfarb raised her hand.
“Miss Goldfarb, we’re all ears.”
“Yes, well, as far as I can see, the article is about the red squirrel which is common throughout Eurasia. We are given the basic facts of the red squirrel and there are two paragraphs about its historical and cultural significance. For example, there is mention of a red squirrel named Ratatoskr, a squirrel that plays a prominent role in Norse mythology, I believe.”
“Very well, Miss Goldfarb. Anything else?”
“Well, I’m not quite sure but I think that in the end it says that the red squirrel is in danger of becoming extinct, but I’m not sure I got that part right.”
“No, Miss Goldfarb, you’re absolutely right. Now, on the surface this looks like an article that is as harmless as can be. Be that as it may, it is my contention that this article is nothing but racism in disguise. Can you see why?”
Emilio Cortez raised his hand a tad too eagerly for Stephen Hill’s taste, so he gave the rest of the class a little more time to come up with an answer. He certainly didn’t want this lecture to become another round of ping-pong between him and Emilio, but it seemed as if this article was simply too difficult for the majority of his students. Stephen saw no way out other than to start with a bunch of leading questions.
“Well, let me ask you this: What do the squirrels in North America usually look like?”
A male student by the name of William Reacher came forward.
“Yes, Mr. Reacher”.
“I believe they are grey!?”
“Is that a question or an answer?”
“Okay then. Well, you’re right, the grey squirrel that we see in this area is native to eastern North America and it is very different from the red squirrel in Europe. And this brings me back to my question: How is this article racist?”
Again, Emilio Cortez was quick to raise his hand. Stephen was certain that his reluctance to let Emilio talk would become all too obvious if he refused to pick him a second time. So he gave in.
“Yes, Mr. Cortez”, he said, subduing a sigh, “what’s your take on this?”
“Well”, Emilio started and by the way he had said it, Stephen immediately knew that Emilio was about to give a lengthy explanation of why this article was racist. “The grey squirrel that we know here in the US has been exported to Europe. Rumor has it that in 1948 an Italian diplomat brought two specimen of the grey squirrel to Europe and set them free near his villa in Turin. Ever since, the grey squirrel has ousted the red squirrel and therefore has jeopardized the survival of the red squirrel as a race. I believe that the main point the newspaper is trying to make is not so much about the squirrel itself but about “influences from outside” in general. The grey squirrel is to the red squirrel what migrants are to the indigenous Europeans: a threat. The grey squirrel is nothing but a metaphor that symbolizes these so called “influences from outside”. In order to preserve the population of the red squirrel in Europe the grey squirrel must be fought off, must be eradicated, annihilated, obliterated and whatnot. The underlying message being that if Europe doesn’t start to fight off the migrants from Africa, Eastern Europe and maybe even America, its own existence is in danger. Now, Mr. Hill, you said that the reason why the newspaper includes articles like these is to distract the reader, to offer him a little more than just the usual racist, nationalistic and anti-Semitic diatribe. But I believe there is another reason for this article, a very practical one. Rivarol uses this highly metaphorical text for legal purposes. You see, on the surface, this article doesn’t do anything but state facts. It is true that the eastern grey squirrel is slowly replacing the red squirrel in its very own habitat. But all the readers of Rivarol, readers who actually know what the newspaper is about, will immediately grasp the second layer of this article. They will understand its racist nature. But if a person wishes to sue the newspaper for its racist activities, he will be told that it is virtually impossible. You simply cannot sentence a newspaper for bringing an article about the vicious grey squirrel that threatens the red squirrel. The metaphor here allows Rivarol to indulge in its loathing of migrants and avoid legal implications at the same time.”
Stephen couldn’t help but feel lectured by one of his own students. Of course, he knew that Rivarol used metaphors in order to avoid lawsuits. Especially since the cartoonist of that paper, Francoise Pichard had been sentenced for a racist drawing back in 1994. But he had held back this information because he had hoped to direct the students to this conclusion by asking questions. Instead, Emilio Cortez had already given all the answers. Stephen could have ended the lesson right there. He could have said that thanks to Mr. Cortez they had already learned everything he had wanted them to learn in today’s lesson and that he wished them a good day.
But instead he decided to continue the lecture. He subdued his impulse to start another quarrel with Emilio Cortez and his impulse to show that he knew far more about the topic at hand than ‘Mr. Smarty-Pants’. Instead, he went on to lecture the class on the various metaphors Rivarol had used in other issues. For example, there was an article about Tunisian immigrants that had squatted a high-rise building in a Parisian suburb. In the article, the entire group of Tunisians was referred to as a ‘malign cancer that needs to be rooted out’. The newspaper had been held accountable for this malicious metaphor, it was even sentenced in the first instance but the charges were dropped on appeal. The excuse the lawyers of the defendant had come up with was inventive and far-fetched but it worked. They claimed that the author of the article had compared the Tunisian migrants to a cancer, because migrants, just like cancer, had lost their terrible image and were no longer a deadly disease. This flimsy excuse had allowed the author to get off scot-free. Stephen Hill also read a few passages from Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor simply to fill the time. Even so, he ended the lecture ten minutes early.
When Stephen packed his bag, he noticed Emilio Cortez was staying behind again. All the other students had left the room in a rush, but Emilio obviously wanted some face time with his teacher.
“Mr. Cortez, what is it?”
“Well, Mr. Hill, I’m not quite sure how to address this, but I can’t shake the feeling that you don’t like me.”
Stephen Hill blushed, just like he always did when he was confronted by one of his students. However, once he had gotten a grip on himself, he tried to be as open as possible with Emilio.
“No, Mr. Cortez, that is not true. You are one of the best if not the best student in this class and I admit that in and outside of class I haven’t been very supportive. I guess the reason is that in my lectures, I always hope to reach all the students, get them involved, make them think about the subject matter. But, to tell you the truth, in every class there are students who seem to be wasting their time, students who don’t get involved, either because they don’t want to or because they are too shy. Or too dumb. And you are so different from them. When you show up, you’re always well prepared and you have an insight that I miss in a lot of the other students. My mistake is that I blame you for the ignorance of the other students, which, by all means, is not okay. It’s just that your intelligence and insight, I believe, intimidate the students around you. They feel reluctant to take part in my lessons because they know that whatever they say, it will never be as smart and as witty as the things you say. And your contribution in today’s lesson has intimated them even more, I’m afraid. So there is a little frustration there, among the students. And I’m a little frustrated, too, because I know the coming lectures will look more and more like today’s lecture. In the end, it will be nothing but a conversation between you and me and all the other students will content themselves with listening to what the two of us have to say. But again, and I’d like to say this in the strongest possible terms, it’s not okay if I blame you for this situation.”
Emilio seemed a little taken aback by Stephen’s frankness, but he seemed to understand as well.
“If you want”, he said, “I could possibly try to keep a lower profile.”
Stephen thought about it for a moment.
“No, I don’t think that that’s what I want. Where shall we end up if people start hiding their intellectual acumen. No, I repeat, the fault is not with you, it’s with the other students. Okay?”
Emilio Cortez smiled.
“Okay”, he said. “Goodbye, Mr. Hill.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Cortez.”
When Emilio Cortez had left the room, Stephen sat down for a moment and wondered if he had done the right thing. Thanks to his speech, Emilio’s confidence had probably gotten a great boost and it was likely that Emilio would come to class even more confident, more arrogant than before. But then again, he had reason to show off at least a healthy arrogance. He was smarter than all the other students and yes, intelligence was not a crime.
Stephen got up, picked up his bag, and left the room without further ado. He was done for the day.