I have a new outlet for my pedantic nature and a new chapter in my ongoing satire. Imagine me on the faculty of an Orthodox Jewish college. Well, I already had the beard–although I grew mine out of lethargy rather than piety. And if in the next generation, a number of Orthodox Rabbis are prone to quote Victorian wits as well as the Talmud, I think you can trace the source of the heresy.
Yes, I am teaching rhetoric to seven young men who spend most of the day reading from right to left. They are immersed in Jewish studies from 9 to 4, and then these exhausted fellows are turned over to me and the secular curriculum. I am proud–perhaps amazed–that none has fallen asleep in my class.
Of course, I do command a certain awe. One of the students had “googled” me and found my claim to fame. So the first class began with the students asking about Jeopardy. A student exclaimed, “You were once on Jeopardy?” You can imagine the haughty tone in my reply, “It was more than once.” In every crowd, someone feels obliged to trying stumping me with a question. “Name ‘the Five Good Emperors.”’ I hope that I looked condescending as I reeled off “Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius.” You may be relieved that I answered every question correctly. (Thank the Orthodox Jewish God that these kids weren’t into sports; otherwise, they would see why I lost the Tournament of Champions.) After about fifteen minutes of Stump the Know-It-All, however, I suspected that the students were simply trying to avoid the joys of Rhetoric.
So, it was time to resume the syllabus. Following the department syllabus, our first day’s reading was two short stories. The authors made an interesting tandem: Elie Wiesel and Alan Sherman. Imagine the essay topic on those readings: Compare Auschwitz and the Catskills.
In a later class, the assigned reading was the E.A. Robinson poem “Richard Cory.”
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
The students were enthralled but perhaps not for the right reason. The motive of Corey’s suicide was less intriguing than his method. One asked why Corey chose to shoot himself. I explained, “That was the gentleman’s ‘way-out.’” A student disputed that, “I thought they used a knife” and he simulated disembowelment. I correct him, “That is how the Japanese do it. In the West, it is the pistol.” Another student asked about hanging. I told him that was considered low-brow. Drawing and quartering was mentioned; I explained the entire process of strangulation, vivisection and rending apart. Given all those steps, it made an impractical method of suicide.
I can’t vouch for my students being educated but they certainly are being entertained. “Richard Corey” was not intended to be a manual for suicide, but I am dealing with the adolescent mind and its distracting turns. I told the students, “If I were a train, I would be easily derailed. However, since you are my passengers you would all be dead.”