Lessons in Naming

Suki Bishop





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Without students, the classroom feels like a field of odd, forgotten artifacts. Nothing in the room gives away the secret that learning has taken place here. No books lie open to pages covered with scribbled notes; no half-hushed whispers carry across the room. I hear only the sound of my own breathing, the tick, tick, tick of the classroom clock telling me I am a half hour early, and footsteps down the far end of the hallway--footsteps reminding me that despite the room’s quiet, despite the closed door, this is a public space. Here, private lives may only intersect through the shared lesson, the common text, the rituals of class discussion. Here, the only evidence of transgression lies in sloppy, visual cues: graffiti on the desks, the occasional overturned chair, a crumpled paper on the linoleum floor. The room number may change with each writing class, but the room remains the same, as if such barrenness were necessary for the vibrant life of the mind. Each time: fifteen, maybe sixteen seats with wooden desks as arms, a window overlooking a brick wall, a blackboard with chalk stubs, the clock on the wall only sometimes telling the correct time.

No one has to know, I tell myself, as footsteps get louder, pass by the door, eventually disappear. I look at the chalkboard, its layers of lessons that have withstood someone’s feeble attempts to erase them, whole phrases still visible: “The American Revolution,” “Light travels at,” “3.56,” and I think I even see one of my own, “Radical Revision.” Other letters have blended so much they have become incomprehensible, creating a visual echo of now meaningless markers, chalk that once gave name to things now a ghostly dust waiting for a passing shirt on which to rest.

I pick up a piece of chalk but do not write anything on the board. Instead, I walk back and forth across the front of the room rehearsing teacherly gestures: the raised hand in explanation, the sudden pause, the direct look at the class, the swift turn toward the blackboard. I almost convince myself, except for the slight wobble of my knees anticipating your arrival.

I take out papers and a pile of notes for today’s lesson. We’ll be looking at an essay called “The Tree Beyond Imagining” by Reg Saner. It’s about a Juniper tree that constantly changes face:

This one thinks it’s a mad dog. Here’s another so riven, so warped, it looks like self-knowledge. Or is it just pretending to summarize World History?

I wonder how I will get the class to see how language creates opportunities for transformation. I am ready for the barrage of questions: How can a tree be a mad dog? How can a tree pretend to summarize anything, let alone World History? I understand resistance to such transformation. If a tree is no longer a tree, then what can we be certain about? If a teacher is no longer just a teacher, what happens to the lessons learned?

I walk around to the front of the desk and hoist myself up, my legs dangling like a schoolgirl’s. I look out at the classroom, hoping its familiarity will arrest my own transformations, that it will remind me that a tree is just a tree, a teacher a teacher. But the room, too, transforms before me; even the rows of chairs have trouble keeping it together: this chair faces the wall, three more cluster together in the corner, that one lacks a desk; its thin metal arm reaches toward the blackboard like an infrastructure exposed.

The empty chair in the corner still carries your weight in your absence. If I look long enough I can see you sitting there on that first day of class, as you slouched and stretched your legs, crossed your arms in front of your chest, smiled slyly, as if you were already waiting for me to please you. I can see your jeans rolled up at the ankles, your white oxford shirt hanging casually from your frame, your tie draped loosely around your neck, your short black hair falling in wisps around your delicate boyish face. I can still remember my surprise when you said your name--a girl’s name--and I noticed for the first time how slender your fingers were--too slender for a boy--as you carved something I could not see into the desk’s wood. I watched you out of the corner of my eye, noting how the other students turned to you for affirmation, and though I told myself I was beyond such displays of coolness, I could not stop watching you.

The day you came up behind me after class and put your hand on the small of my back I knew I was supposed to move away. I was supposed to tell you something about the homework or talk about the role of writing in the world. Instead I closed my eyes and leaned into you and imagined myself small enough to curl up in your lap.

Did you know that the first time you kissed me my knees shook so badly I had to place one hand against the desk to steady myself? Did you know the footsteps in the hall became so loud I could no longer tell their echo from my own heartbeat?

But I’m losing the lesson here, and students have begun to file in. I hop off the desk and pretend to take attendance, making meaningless marks next to names that don’t seem to fit. I look up to watch you stroll across the classroom and take your seat in the corner, legs outstretched, arms crossed, eyes on me. I wait for everyone to arrive before I close the door and the hallway becomes quiet once again. I turn toward the class. “Today’s lesson,” I hear myself say, “is about naming.”

As I speak I avoid your eyes, lest I lose my train of thought, lest the other students see me blush. My voice seems foreign to me as I tell the class to take out Saner’s essay. Slowly we trace the Juniper tree’s evolution; slowly we mark its movement, what language allows it to become: mad dog, self-knowledge, World History, tensed muscle and sinew, unbraided sisal, camel, riven trunk, gesturing limbs, shape-shifter, witch, juniper courage.

 No one asks the questions I am ready for; perhaps the class is easier with transformation than I am. And when I ask the class to tell me what is most remarkable about the tree, you raise your hand and point to this passage:

The Utah Juniper. You know the example before your eyes is a special case: a high desert strain of that species, one growing where it ought not to try [...] It’s by taking root at the threshold of impossibility that this most irrational tree grows against all reason.

I should have known you would be the one to draw my attention to the tree’s survival instinct, its ability to take root in the highest and driest of deserts--you, who could most understand the tree’s courage, its shape-shifting ease, its refusal to lie.

After class, you hang back and watch me pack my things. I say nothing as you walk toward me to hand in your homework, nothing as you grab my wrist when I reach for the paper. We stand there like that for a minute, eyes locked, listening to the footsteps beyond the open door, my heartbeat. We dare not move beyond the grip of a wrist.

What name do I give to what we are? To you whose hands hold me steady, even as I am already in flux? To you, a boy with a girl’s name, a girl with a boy’s frame, on whom, even as the force of you overtakes me, I imagine the fineness of breasts hidden beneath tight cloth wrapping.

A writer’s job is to name, I told the class. Well if I have to name, let me name: mad dog, Utah Juniper, self-knowledge. Your hand on my wrist a tense, sinewy branch, my shaking body a camel carrying the heavy load of an impossible desire.












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