From You Have I Been Absent (Returning Spring 1/10)
She wasn’t Jean. I was sure of that. Well, most of the time I felt sure. Sometimes I wondered a bit, I have to admit. There were moments when I doubted my own perceptions, and there were more of them as time went on. Everyone but Charles seemed perfectly willing to believe she was who she seemed to be. Still, nobody knew Jean as well as Charles and I did, and we both felt sure this wasn’t her. That had to mean something. Most of the time I thought it meant a lot.
Other times I’d worry about that. I’d wonder what it meant that it was just Charles and me. The whole school believed her story. They were all thrilled that she hadn’t died after all. Even ‘Ro believed what Not Jean said, and I wouldn’t have thought anyone could fool her.
Ororo had been Jean’s best friend, aside from me. The first two women in the X-Men, they’d been close since their teen years. Jean and ‘Ro had drifted apart a bit during college, but pretty much picked up where they left off when Jean and I returned to Westchester. As Storm, ‘Ro was a key member of the team, as our history teacher a valued colleague in the school. I relied on her as my second-in-command on missions. She has saved my life more times than I can count. I’m full of admiration for her and consider her a close friend. But what she’d had with Jean had been much more – a kind of intimacy and closeness that I’ve never achieved with ‘Ro and a mutual understanding that rivaled what I had with Jean. And ‘Ro had no doubt – from that first day she walked in – that Jean had come back to us.
‘Ro wasn’t angry with me for denying Jean. She said she understood my doubts, that she thought my judgment was impaired by the shock. She told me that she thought I was just now managing to envision a life without Jean, after over a year of working to accept her death. Storm said, in that calm, reasonable way she has, that she thought it shook my world up too much to have all that change. ‘Ro said she thought I was too scared to believe in Jean, too frightened to trust in her and then maybe find out I was wrong. If that happened I’d be back where I started, trying to begin my grief work all over again.
Storm told me she believed with time I’d get over my fear and resistance and come to accept Jean for who she is. She told Jean – no, the woman who said she was Jean - that, too, and asked her to be patient with me. ‘Ro was wrong - I’m sure of it - but I was thankful for the approach she took. It made a volatile situation a little calmer, and it bought me time. The intruder being willing to wait a while for me to come around gave Charles and me breathing room. We had time to figure out what to do about this interloper who looked like Jean, sounded like Jean, and somehow had managed to learn so much of what Jean had known.
I thought a lot about what ‘Ro had said. Was I scared to believe in her? Scared that I would be in for a disappointment if she turned out to be an imposter? I guess that’s possible. More troublesome to me was the nagging feeling that I didn’t want this woman to be Jean, that I didn’t want Jean back. If Jean were really to come back, how would that affect Logan? How would that affect Logan and me?
What were we anyway? Friends? Fuck buddies? Or something more? Logan was pretty clear that he was never going to be interested in anything more and that kept me from thinking about him as more than a friend. Most of the time, anyway.
We had sex frequently; we spent a lot of time together. It was easy being with him, companionable. But not love. He wasn’t the type to fall in love.
Well, with me. Maybe with any man. For all he’d denied it, I felt pretty sure he’d been in love with Jean. I’d seen how he looked at her when he first came here, and how he’d looked at me when he realized she was mine. And I’d seen how shattered he was when she died. For a man who claimed never to have been in love, he’d done an awfully good imitation of heartbreak. Good enough that I’d seen it through the fog of my own grief and despair.
If this woman who came back were truly Jean, where would that leave me? Would that be the end of his interest in me, such as it was? Well, where did it leave me even if she weren’t Jean? If Logan believed she was Jean, did the truth matter?
I’d seen them together a few times, speaking earnestly in the teacher’s lounge or walking together on the grounds. Once I’d gone to Logan’s room at night and heard her voice as I was about to knock. It reminded me of the time I had walked in on them together when he’d first come here, when Jean was showing Logan where he’d be staying. That time I’d gone in and confronted him. This time I walked away.
Still, she wasn’t Jean and I at least knew it, even if she could fool him. I’d had an ongoing telepathic link with Jean for years. I felt the moment she died in a profound and intense way, felt suddenly alone in my brain. It was a loneliness so sudden, so compelling, so all-consuming that I can’t even begin to describe it.
The imposter wanted to establish the link I’d had with Jean. Reestablish, she said, but I knew better. I told her no, but she kept trying. Mostly I kept my mental shields up. Sometimes I let her in my brain briefly, just to verify again that she looked and sounded like Jean, but her telepathic presence was different.
It had been a shock when she walked into my Nineteenth Century American Literature class unannounced. A shock for me and the kids. And truly, that just goes to show she couldn’t really be Jean. Jean would have waited until I was alone to see me, not just barged in like that. She’d know that appearing without warning in front of a bunch of kids who thought she was dead would scare them half to death themselves. The Jean Grey I knew always put the students’ welfare first.
I didn’t even know she was there. As it happened, my back was turned when she walked in. We were doing Huck Finn, and the kids and I were all pretty absorbed in the discussion. I’d turned to write something on the board to illustrate my point, and missed her entrance.
It’s a tricky book to teach. Worth it, but problematic in some ways. I don’t believe in censorship, and I think it’s an important text for all sorts of reasons. Still, there’s no doubt it’s hard for all the kids, and especially the African American ones, to read a book that has the single most offensive name for black people in our language on what feels like half the pages. It’s not easy to read that, and it affects all of us in many ways. In some ways, it constrains how we talk in class, what excerpts we read. Every teacher has to grapple with the whole question of just how to handle the language and many do opt out. Many schools have chosen to drop Huck Finn from their required reading lists, feeling that the kids can read it on their own, or in college.
I see that point of view but I can’t agree with it. It’s something we’ve discussed at length in our curriculum planning meetings. We all agree our kids would miss so much if they didn’t read Huck Finn as a class, and read it at this point in their lives.
It’s an amazing novel. I read it yearly for class, but I think I’d read it often even if I weren’t teaching it. I get something new out of it every time. Over the years, I’ve gained a deeper understanding of the human capacity for love from Huck’s relationship with Jim. I’ve learned something about natural nobility and dignity from Jim’s character and something about how a truly good person is affected by an evil society from Huck’s. I’ve honed my sense of justice and fairness and even simple kindness by learning from them both.
I want the kids to get all that, and more, for it to be a book that they read again and again and gain deeper understandings each time, too. I want them to understand the society Twain wrote in. I want their history lessons to come alive because of what they learn from reading this book. My literature class and ‘Ro’s Nineteenth Century American History course are taught back to back, with the same students in both. ‘Ro and I always coordinate our assignments. Reading Huck Finn enhances and consolidates what she’s teaching them while her history lessons help give them a better understanding of the book.
It’s worthwhile for the history, for its importance in American literary history. I want the kids to understand its place in American literature and how influential Twain was on authors who are writing to this day. But first and foremost, I want them to read this book and read it right now because it’s a coming of age story. It’s a tale of what it means to be on the cusp of adulthood but not yet an adult. It’s the story of what happens when circumstances lead you to make big decisions for yourself while you’re still in large part a child. They need that now. No matter how many times they read it, there’s no substitute for reading Huck Finn at fourteen.
So, we read it, but we don’t gloss over what makes it hard to read. We handle the race issue right at the outset. I talk about the language and the milieu that Twain was writing in. I talk about the distinction between what the characters say and do and what the author believes. I talk about how a word that is shocking now was commonplace in Twain’s time.
I don’t downplay the impact. I tell the kids, truthfully, that I find it jarring every time I come across that word. I take a passage that uses it a few times and read it aloud to them, substituting “mutie.” The kids all flinch, and we talk about what that feels like. And we read essays for and against using Huck Finn in high school classes and talk at length about why we choose to read it here at Xavier’s. By covering all that at the beginning, I find that it’s not a nagging question throughout the unit, and we can talk about the book itself and the author’s intent without any lingering feeling that something important is being ignored.
On this particular day, we were talking about the scene where Huck decides not to turn Jim in, even though he believes saving him is evil. We reread the scene where he writes the note revealing Jim’s whereabouts and then tears it up, and talked about the feelings he experiences doing that. The kids were grappling with that ambiguity, as kids - and adults - have for well over a hundred years. Jubilee was disturbed by how at peace Huck is when he writes the note dooming Jim, how sure he is that he’s doing the right thing. “I mean, I know he doesn’t realize slavery is wrong,” she said. “He’s been taught that slaves are property.”
“And he’s been taught that property rights are of paramount importance. That’s how things are in his world,” I added, agreeing. “Remember, his father – the symbol of all that is wrong – steals things and tells Huck that’s okay, but Huck knows otherwise.”
“But Mr. Summers! Jim’s not a thing,” she countered. “He’s a person. Huck knows that. He truly does care about him, doesn’t he? So why does he feel good and think he’s doing the right thing when he’s going to turn him in? I mean, I know he’s conflicted, but he does say something about feeling good.” She found the passage in her book, saying, “Here it is: ‘I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life.’ How can he feel like that knowing what he’s doing?”
A couple of other students jumped in. Jamie pointed out that even though Huck feels good for a minute thinking he’s doing the right thing, he tears up the note. “So it’s not like he’s sure of it. It’s not like the good feeling lasts.”
“Well, there’s certainly internal conflict there,” I said.
“Do you mean he’s not sure he knows what’s right?” Jubilee asked.
“Could be. Or maybe he is sure, but he’s sure of two things at once, two contradictory things. His knowledge of right and wrong comes from what he’s been told and he believes it’s wrong to assist a runaway slave, that it’s stealing property. On the other hand, his inner sense of what’s right and wrong is different. Huck and Jim have a true bond that tells him that Jim isn’t property but a human being like himself.
“So, there’s a conflict between what he believes and what he feels, between what society wants him to do and what he wants to do as an individual. Twain said later that Huck was struggling with the conflict between a ‘sound heart’ and a ‘deformed conscience.’ Freud would have called it a conflict between the ego and the superego. The only way Huck can live with himself is to help Jim, but the only way he can understand what he’s doing is to see himself as doing something wrong.”
I turned to the board to write what Huck says next, when he tears up the note. I heard the classroom door open and close as I was writing “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” but I thought one of the kids had just gone to the bathroom. So, I was perplexed to hear gasps. When I turned around they were all looking at me with expressions of shock and fear.
No one was missing from the class, but there was one more person there, sitting in back. “Hi, Scott,” she said. “Did you miss me?”
She wasn’t Jean. I don’t care what anybody says, not even ‘Ro. If Jean came back, she’d never have done it like that.