I’d been aware of the White Student Union since its inception the semester before, having encouraged my students to participate in the group’s meetings. (If they disrupted the agenda by overwhelming the message of exclusivity with one of inclusion … I wasn’t going to complain.) Their first speaker, a self-described “racial realist,” had spoken glibly, and in radio-show-host tones, about human nature and diversity — how the combination of the two could only lead to tension and conflict, not strength. Shorty after, the Southern Poverty Law Center placed the White Student Union on its national map of hate groups.
How would I respond, at the end of the day — having already taught three 75-minute classes, my brain mostly fried — besides saying something innocuous about the beauty of human difference? I was not able, for instance, to controvert some of the more specific arguments of Pat Buchanan. I was not current with the politics of the ANC Youth League in South Africa. I probably should have been. But I also needed to be current in contemporary American fiction, in community container gardening, and with the trade rumors surrounding the Washington Wizards. There were only so many hours in the day. These were the excuses wheeling through my brain.
I was quick to seek out my colleagues, and what they told me seemed right: “Just teach the class. Don’t change anything.”
I consoled myself with that. Teaching fiction argues strongly against the tendency to generalize. Writing about all people of color, for instance, or about all homosexuals, is the same silly oversimplification as writing about all people, which results in flaccid storytelling. Revision often necessitates choosing one of those characters and getting to know them much more intimately—their strengths and weaknesses, the fears that keep them up at night, the small moments of beauty that move them through a day. In other words, to write better fiction, it is not unusual for me to ask my students to humanize their characters. Would I offer any different advice to a “racial realist”? I’d simply teach the stories I was planning to teach, focusing on the unique complexities of the people who populated them.
But the first unsettling moment came early. We were reading, “What Happened During the Ice Storm,” a story about a group of teenage boys who, during an ice storm, are struck by a sudden compassion to remove their jackets and cover some frozen, dazed pheasants. In doing this, they keep the pheasants alive, where otherwise they would have made for easy prey.
As the students discussed this story in groups, he turned companionably in conversation to each of the two women sitting next to him. They seemed to be commiserating about some point the writer was making. But after a few minutes, he raised both hands in exasperation. “I can’t take this!” he said, and put his chin to his chest, removing himself from further chatter.
I thought about what to do. I thought about breaking up the discussions to address his problem as a class. What I came up with was this: I said nothing. And the little pods of conversation in the room continued.
Eventually, I opened them into a circle, and posed the question of the merits (or demerits) of the story’s “happy ending.” He raised his hand and said that the author clearly had no blue-collar background. That this wasn’t a happy ending. His voice was authoritative, measured, articulate. He said that there’s nothing beautiful about an ice storm, that it can wipe out an entire year’s crop. It became clear that by questioning the author, he was, in a way, mocking my own pantywaist reading of the text. The other students looked at one another, a bit like dazed pheasants, themselves, and I conceded that his reading was certainly another way of interpreting the story. He went on to say that furthermore, if he’d ever come home without his jacket in an ice storm, his kin would have beaten him, that by not killing the pheasants, those boys had deprived their families of food. That would be unheard of in a poor rural community.
I asked him where the story gave clues as to the community’s socioeconomics, or if it was possible that a rural community might have the means to be well-fed. He said he’d never seen a rural community that wasn’t poor.
This was the beginning of what I saw to be the primary means of his instigative expression: not the racism I was expecting, but an insistence on intellectualizing a kind of redneck order of the world. An insistence that the things that make liberal professors cringe (child beating, or maybe even the word “kin,” for instance) were the vocabulary of legitimate analysis.
Instead of finding a counter-example — a rural community that was, for instance, doing just fine — I said: “OK. Maybe what I read as compassion or whimsy was actually foolishness. That’s possible, too.”
The following class, he arrived wearing a shirt with a Confederate flag. The words “It Ain’t Over” were printed beneath it, but it was subtle — a dark green shirt, the flag a small one over the breast, with a larger version on the back, which was pressed against his chair. As I saw it, I thought, “What are his rights? Are they limited by the level of distraction he poses?”
When he leaned forward, I thought I saw a student crane her neck suspiciously. But it was only a T-shirt. It was distracting, yes, but not much more so than his camouflaged backpack and crew cut.
That day, we read Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist,” and my questions quickly revealed that he was one of the only ones to have read it. He was quick (and smart) to point out the story’s commentary on the nature of celebrity and its perversions, and seemed to take pleasure in the Hunger Artist’s pitiful death in a bed of straw. “The same thing,” he said, “happens with celebrities today. Just wait until it happens to Miley Cyrus.”
If I was once ashamed of my excitement at having him in class, that shame didn’t keep me from talking about him. Though it made me uncomfortable, he’d become the most interesting part of my teaching. I was primed for something to boil over, but I also found myself liking him. He arrived to class on time; he was prepared; he was respectful. He had a way of calling me professor in the middle of sentences that appealed to my ego. “You know, Professor, what Kafka might be saying here …”
In spite of his militancy, he was quick to joke and smile. He often stayed after class to shoot the breeze a little.
I spoke to a colleague about this, that I felt myself being charmed against my will. She was not surprised. “He’s a community organizer,” she told me. “He has to be likable. He has to be charismatic.”
There’s an anxiety to that, but of course she was right, that people espousing wildly antithetical beliefs to me can — surprise! — be pleasant. They can check me out at grocery stores, and help me with legal documents; they can be my neighbors. And how would I even know?
Or am I simply allowing myself to be fooled? Is it just that, as a middle-class white man, it doesn’t come up all that often? The difference between those people and whatever it was that my student was peddling was that with my student, I’d received the memo beforehand. It was out in the open and brazenly so (the Confederate flags on his shirts were getting larger, and he’d adhered a sticker to his laptop that read “The South WILL Rise Again”).
It was a few weeks later that he stayed after class to alert me to an upcoming absence. He was going to CPAC as a member of the college Republicans. It was decent of him to tell me, but it also seemed like he was bracing for a fight. “It’s an excused absence because the SGA is paying for it,” he said. To my knowledge, there is no such arrangement between the student government and the university. Not that it mattered. I told him it was fine.
I can’t remember how I first saw the videos. It may have been the friend who emailed me, the subject heading: “Is this your student???” I clicked the link and saw the photo at the top of the page; indeed, there he was, wearing that same Confederate flag shirt, and now a credential, looking as open as he often looked in class when discussing “story versus plot.”
The video footage was of a Q&A at a conservative strategy session. And though it wasn’t my student asking the questions, there he was, sitting right next to the questioner (another member of the WSU) without any measure of shock, without offering any restraint, as the question was smugly posed what it was that Fredrick Douglass had to forgive his former slave owner … “giving him shelter and food.”
It was hard for me to take. Though I’d seen it coming, I felt a bit betrayed. I’d been telling myself that he was a decent kid who’d gotten sucked up by the experiment of his own rhetoric — that he enjoyed the attention more than the ideas, themselves. But this was CPAC. This was hand-held iPhone stuff. He wasn’t being hijacked by the liberal media. The rest of the room was audibly uncomfortable with the level of insensitivity.
His profile in the national media continued to grow, and by the middle of the semester, he was the most hated man on campus. There were rumors that, to intercept black men from committing crimes against white women, the WSU would lead nighttime patrols on campus. There were rumors that they were training in mixed martial arts, and that they were networking with racist groups across the country. And yet, in class, he continued to be guileless. Outside of an occasional raised eyebrow, I couldn’t even tell if my other students knew who he was.
One day, he came in a half-hour after class had started, and then stuck around to apologize.
“Sorry I was late,” he told me. “I was dealing with the police.”
“The police?” I said.
“I might not be in class on Thursday. I got my first death threat.” He lifted his computer to show me his Facebook wall.
“Usually, they just call me a motherfucker or tell me to suck a dick,” he said. “But this one says they’re going to kill me on Thursday.”
“That’s terrible,” I said. “What are the police doing?”
“They’re not doing anything.”
“You shouldn’t have to deal with that,” I said, while at the same time knowing that — had he not been in my class, had I not seen him furrowing his brow over Carver or O’Connor, asking serious questions about characterization and voice — a more reprehensible me might have muttered he deserved it.
He stood with his hands clutched in front of his waist, looking down at his chest, very much like a frightened child.
“It’s been getting worse for you?” I asked.
“These interviews keep getting it wrong. They take out all the good stuff I say.”
“It’s a huge price to pay for this kind of celebrity.”
“I guess I have to double down,” he said. “I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all.”
This was my moment. I thought maybe I could change something. There he was, after class, a scared kid … and me, in loco parentis. But I wasn’t sure what to say.
“Or,” I tried, “you can just go silent.”
He thought about that. “But then they just write whatever they want.”
“For now,” I said, “and it might get worse before it gets better. But if you don’t feed it, it will eventually starve.”
“That’s interesting,” he said, looking me in the eye. “I might try that.”
Maybe I’d gotten through; maybe I’d made a connection. And what was more, at a university where I felt politics were often treated with apathy, new and myriad connections were being made. A few professors had organized a teach-in about racism on campus; the president of the university was forced to comment on policies of inclusion, and students were watching the news, staging protests and talking about it. At a majority white school on the edge of a majority black city, I’d once sat through a presentation that bemoaned the fears that “suburban people” harbored for “urban people,” keeping them off of public transit. At least now the issue was becoming black and white.
The next emails came on May 2.
On May 1 — May Day — there had been Workers of the World-type protests in D.C. The emails in my inbox had subject lines like, “At it again,” and “Is this what it’s like in class?” They linked to videos of the White Student Union standing in a line across a street, calmly leaning Confederate flags (more appropriately sized for poles) against their shoulders, as a wave of bearded and backpacked anarchists approached them, flanked them, and began to call them “fuckers” and “racist pigs.”
They chanted, “Nazi scum, your time will come,” told them to “get in the fucking ground where you belong,” and held extended middle fingers fractions of inches away from their faces. There was my student, unflinching, chewing a piece of gum, occasionally asking someone to stop grabbing at his flag. In other videos, he posed measured questions about affirmative action to his screaming counterparts. It was only after someone managed to rip his flag from his hands that he lunged forward, was caught up in a shoving match, and was lost in a swarm of police. Later, I read that bags of urine had been thrown at him.
I guess that for someone accustomed to an all-in brand of righteousness, my suggestion of just shutting up had lacked a certain credibility. What kind of “connection” had I really made? I’d told him to keep his opinions to himself. Was I comfortable with that advice, even when giving it to someone who had advocated for a whites-only state?
“I know,” he’d said to me earlier in the semester, “you probably don’t agree with my politics, because no professors do, but you’re one of the only ones who treats me like a human.”
I’d wanted to receive it as a compliment, but does receiving a compliment always mean letting down your guard?
In a way, I was getting my own education in human contradiction. As much as I railed against it in my students’ stories, I’d been acting no differently in my attempts to oversimplify — to fit him most easily into a prefabricated slot in my mind. I had not wanted to acknowledge his complexity, let alone adjust my teaching style to it. Was he the manipulative leader of a dangerous hate group? Or a college kid experimenting with the power of his voice? Of course, he could be both, and he could be many other things to which spending two and a half hours a week with him had granted me no access.
It was no wonder he’d become frustrated trying to exist in media sound bites. Who among us can keep a message on fire in 30-second bursts — for good or bad — before having to lie down in the straw, exhausted, demoralized or forgotten?
On one of the last days of the semester I saw him in the hall, hours before we were due to meet for class. He was playing with his phone.
“Hi,” I said, catching him off guard. He looked up and said hello as though he had no idea who I was. But after class, later that day, he stayed again. “Professor,” he said, “I just want to really thank you for saying hello to me today.”
“Yeah?” I said.
“This morning, a girl spit on me. When you said hello, it really turned my day around.”
“I’m sorry,” I said to him. “You shouldn’t have to go through that.”
What should he have to go through? I still had no idea.