Juste une fable n° 49
if only the attitude of the border cops could have been the same as ours. we had decided to drive off a lawn where we were playing with a book that said many things about representation. and we were sort of joking but also scandalized that one of our colleagues who has close ties with english had not been able to do anything with his students
who were now your students too
except criticize them roundly for their views on what representation is. he also locked up their books and their papers with newfangled, very sturdy plastic clasps.
it was so weird to see how he, who could barely speak, read, write or understand french, would simply wrap up and fasten not only books that his students were trying to read, but also what they themselves wrote with these locks, as though they were presents and he had the ribbon, which, criss-crossed, would eventually make these packages symbolize everything they should.
my love and i were scoffing at this attitude. we knew that to teach reading or literature it took a bit more personal investment than that. you had to get to know the person who was trying to get initiated. you had to put yourself in his or her shoes and gently, ever so gently, get him or her to see how the world filtered itself through great texts. texts they could read, texts they could write, and thus keep this great world of words turning.
but alvin, he did not know anything about that, but still had strong ties to language of one kind or another and kept bringing through those ties students to our side. we were observing those charges mostly, but sometimes also helping them to get out from under alvin's negative sway.
i, on the grass, was performing my usual antics and whispering to the boy students that they might as well learn cartwheels from me as take to heart all the criticism and the obstacles that were being thrown at them by alvin. and though they were very manly
or at least pretending to be so
with no particular interest in french, i'm pretty sure a few were listening.
they were listening to me for my own sake but also because they knew i was connected to olivier and that he was a great knight when it came to understanding literature, greater than they could ever hope to be by simply adhering to any theory. and olivier was going to come by and swoop me up in a pick-up of all things, after which we would be headed for south africa, which no matter how you cut it is an english speaking country after all.
but before we leave the lawn, which must somehow have been attached to a campus, let me tell you there was also another crazy situation brewing with a different kind of lock inside.
that lock was attached to the restroom door that divided our hall from the hall where the english professors lived. and i had learned that depending on the time of day, this lock was supposed to be left open or closed. during the english department hours it was supposed to be locked on our side, during our hours it was supposed to be locked on theirs.
it was a woman graduate student who made me realize this was the case because she, like i, actually left all locks open at all times. and since she was studying with me and us, but olivier especially, as she was far from being a fool, she would use this little pivot restroom as a means to get from the english department to the french and vice versa through a very short and narrow hall.
i was very glad to learn about this secret passage and deliberating as to whether i should tell olivier about it or not. and now i'm happy with my decision that i did.
i'm happy because what i hope for always is to be able to tell olivier everything i know, no matter what the nature, no matter what we have to go through. this talking together on every imaginable subject and along a line which has no border is what has kept us close and always will for so many years.
and it's good that we were feeling close, and still are, as we went through the paces of our trip to south africa, because let me tell you, things over there were not pretty. they were much more horrible than i had ever imagined, and what i saw was not merely a matter of representation, though most of it unfolded through the windows of our truck.
i'm talking about poverty, unimaginable, people living under strips of tin without any clothes, and hungry, even starving, so that they barely had the energy for crime. and a justice system that had nothing to do with the law, people hanging in mid-air just for being, just because they had gone to the trouble of existing.
and everything was so much worse than i had ever seen in mexico that i felt my whole sense of the world and of culture, of development or non-development had been completely false and a fallacy. the fact was i had never understood the first thing about what it meant to come in different colors. to be human was terrible whether you were brown, black or white.
all of that was terrorizing me. now, i was realizing how deluded my cartwheels on the lawn had always been. but still, i was hoping that in a minute, maybe two, i could get back to them and play like that under the sun instead of watching all this suffering and doom.
let me go back into my corner, i thought, where i'm a professor and beloved for being funny and charming. and let's get the hell out of this godforsaken place.
that was my attitude as we were approaching the border and i was fishing around for our passports, preparing myself as i always do in such situations, but rarely elsewhere, to
keep your big mouth shut.
i was so weakened by seeing the suffering all around that even though olivier was speaking french, i was going to let the border patrol person address him first.
he asked olivier something, who responded straightforwardly in his impeccable english,
saying you had the passports certainly,
and would pull them out forthwith. but the border patrol looked at him suspiciously and then sideways at me also, even though i'd finally found the documents in the bottomless pit everybody calls my purse. since he's heard olivier's accent and he didn't show his passport right away, someone had already put a sticker on his arm. so i became aware that all the talking would be up to me.
i murmured, as i usually do, that olivier was respectable, a scholar and a professor of 16th-century literature, and that i too was something almost along those very same lines. but the border patrol just grinned at me with a smile that looked far more like a grimace and repeated, so you're saying this fellow is the principal of some sort of school?
i was going to correct his translation of the information i had given, started pointing out that there is always only one principal, by definition, whereas with professors, as he could see, there would be usually at least two.
but the cop didn't care about these fine points
or anything else you were saying
and stuck the exact same sticker on my forearm too.
Mary Shaw est professeure de littérature française des dix-neuvième et vingtième siècles à l'Université de Rutgers (New Jersey). Outre ses travaux universitaires, elle a publié deux livres pour enfants ainsi qu'un recueil de poésie intitulé Album Without Pictures (Halifax, N. S., Editions VVV, 2008).