CW: sexual harassment
AKTHAR: There was a contract between him and his class. Quite what the contract was or what it involved would be hard to say. But it was there.
— Alan Bennett, The History Boys
If you must go to Cuba, go with a toothache. Reclining under a ceiling fan in a dental clinic off some side street in Havana will situate you in a place far removed from its image. Here is where the Bay of Pigs and the spectre haunting Europe and the CIA assassination plots (and the poisoned scuba suit and the exploding cigar) and the revolution that happened as well as the one perpetually in motion are all momentarily relegated in significance. What begins to matter more are the quieter workings of the past. The literacy drives. The efforts towards social welfare. A national striving for dignity when dignity is denied by external forces that operate without it. You will get your broken crown fixed for nearly nothing, and you will leave understanding that history is not made of straight lines.
I learnt this when I was sixteen, in a classroom with windows that faced away from the sun and tables arranged in a horseshoe. There were other things I learnt that year, too.
I learnt that everybody in the world knew the limits of their understanding of mathematics and science, but most did not know what they did not about the past. I learnt that I was being trained in a delicate and arcane art, that I would live my life as a custodian of its secrets and that they in return would exempt me from a blindness to complexity that apparently afflicted all those who were not sitting in this classroom with windows facing away from the sun and tables arranged in a horseshoe. I learnt to look for holes in everything, and if I couldn’t find any, to make them, because a well-constructed challenge to an accepted interpretation would not just please an examiner, but would stand in its own right as something beautiful. Every argument had an architecture, and we were in the business of building cathedrals. I learnt to receive everything I read or heard with suspicion so as to better counter it — everything, that is, except all of the above.
I did not learn, until much later, about the small distance that exists between learning something and being taught it. I was never told about the many delusions and compunctions that this fissure is capable of holding.
In hindsight, I don’t think I learnt very much about history at all.
“Shinto belief: division btwn real world of today and spirit world of past is a permeable gauze. Past is always superimposed onto present.”
—My notes from a lesson on nineteenth-century Japan
To understand why I would happily trade the clarity with which I remember all that I am about to tell you for a better ability to recall where I left my keys or for a few more memories from early childhood or, frankly, even for a biscuit, you have to understand how it all happened. You have to understand Michael.
I must admit that I am still yet to. In the years since, all of us who were taught by him have cautiously approached the problem amongst ourselves, and each time the conversation arrives at the same precipice. Here is what we know. We were anxious children who, for two years in a classroom that remained half-dark in the equatorial afternoon, had our nerve endings stitched back together. He made change and continuity, decline and reform, feel urgent and personal. It was demonstrated to us that everything had its cause, and everything had its future. We were encouraged to believe that, despite rejections from universities and acrimonious families and that constant grinding cycle of self-loathing and loathing others that lends the experience of adolescence its apocalyptic quality, so did we.
And in the end, everyone I have discussed the matter with concludes that a person so skilled in helping one understand remains himself beyond understanding. I myself have only fragments of evidence with which to approach even the edges of who he was.
He was the only teacher I ever saw cry. In the beginning, nobody participated in the class discussions he initiated because they often took imaginative detours from the syllabus and demanded a level of engagement that most of us found unnecessary for passing an exam. One day, after an invitation to talk about Che’s dress sense met another prolonged silence, he broke down. He told us that he had grown up poor. That what had rescued him from the ineluctable shape of his own life was the ability to care about art and literature and history. “You won’t get anywhere without it,” he said, welling up. “Passivity is not your friend. Trust me.”
“Ah, the speech, did he cry?” said a friend who was in the class he taught an hour before ours.
“Ah, the speech, did he cry?” said a girl from the year above when she heard people discussing the incident in the library.
I may have wondered for a second about the precision of the performance. But it was only for a second. I had been won over by the sight of an adult man crying. I had learnt to care.
There was enough reason to. “When the Fascist Italian government put the Communist theorist Antonio Gramsci on trial for writing subversive material, d’you know what the prosecutor said in his concluding remarks? We must find a way to stop this brain from working. You now need to knuckle down, to commit yourself to your craft in the same way, so that the examiner reading your essay will be forced to say the same thing about you.” This is what Michael told us after he marked our mock papers, and found them to be more than lacking. Michael had a special talent for making you feel human when the circumstances would not allow for it. Perhaps this was another warning.
“He’s so unprofessional,” complained Jake as we exited the classroom one day. Jake came from a fairly-large-c Conservative family and he had attempted to argue in line with his allegiances during a class discussion on the EU referendum before Michael summoned every major historical example of failed democracy to silence him. “I mean, this isn’t even history. It’s happening now. He had no right.”
We laughed it off because none of us were old enough to vote for anything, and had we been we most certainly wouldn’t have voted Leave.
“He’s kind of creepy, too. Have you noticed how all his favourites are girls?”
And we didn’t laugh this time but neither did we think too much of it because Jake was getting on everybody’s nerves by this point.
Michael thought I was clever, and he let me know this on occasion. He told me I saw things the same way as he did. I liked the beautiful parts of history — the geometry of Soviet propaganda, the way sentences fit together in Castro’s early speeches, the theatricality of the Tokugawa shogunate. I received an email from him the day he found out that I worshipped Bowie just as much as he had when he was my age. Knowing your love for Dave, I think you might enjoy this, it read, and contained links to songs by a band called The Tears. I think, on reflection, him believing I was clever was more a function of him being convinced that he was. I can listen to The Tears these days without being reminded of the email. I have learnt by now that it brings me no closer to understanding.
The last thing he ever taught us was a saying that he had discovered in his reading. It was the final class before we dispersed for study leave, and he was telling us what a pleasure we had been over the past two years. “In Ubuntu philosophy, they say that people are people through other people,” he said, looking over the tables arranged in a horseshoe. “I want to thank you all for making me feel like a person.” And for a moment I thought he was welling up again.
“I’m telling you, there’s something off about him,” said Jake later that day.
“[O]ne of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen.”
He slipped through our lives, and we let him because we believed him to be a quantifiable presence. He listened and advised. He followed up the next day to check whether the advice had been taken, and if it hadn’t, he would listen all over again. He helped read over personal statements before they were submitted though it was not his responsibility to. I remember a comment that he made on a friend’s draft: “You’ve explained very well why you’d make an excellent candidate for this course in terms of your skill and extracurricular activities. But I think it might be worth mentioning something else — that you are an unusually kind individual.”
Michael believed firmly in kindness. It was presented to us as a kind of first principle in the study of the past, more important than economic factors or political shifts, and every twitch of history could ultimately be explained by its absence. He made this so obvious to us that it would only make sense that he himself was kind. I no longer think that history can be explained in terms of kindness. I did not know who Richard Hofstadter was then or what he had suggested fifty years prior, but I do now.
So here it is. Here is how we were taught that the things that we thought we understood did not happen.
The news came in slowly, then very quickly, and then stopped altogether. Kindness had been a front for deeper ambiguities, ones that nevertheless emerged as damning on paper. There had been instances of indiscretion. Testimonies of discomfort. Liberties taken. Jake, in short, was finally validated, although I think he had long stopped caring about what became of Michael. After he was let go and subsequently vanished, the rest of us tried to follow suit. It was the quick way of negotiating betrayal. Not thinking too much, consigning it to a lesson learnt.
You have to understand what it is you are learning though, and I don’t think anybody did. You want to understand how someone could be two people. Why you failed to recognise it at the time. How it was possible for you to have believed that the things you were being taught rescued you from a blindness to complexity, when in fact you were plainly blind to the convolutions of the person teaching them to you. I wish there was some way of locating a grander logic in the way things turned out, some way of extracting the general from the particular, of making social history out of the personal so as to distance myself from the specific discomforts of what happened. Something to do with personality or intent or to substantively prove that giving unhappy children a sense of worth will make them turn the other way when you need them to.
I have tried, and have found nothing. History is not made of straight lines.