Ms. Yellin taught social studies, though it should be noted that you aren’t teaching unless somebody learns. Her pedagogical style could be called stolid; Ms. Yellin faithfully followed the prescribed curriculum and assigned chapters from the not-unimpeachably-reliable textbook ordained by the state legislature. When her husband, who must have been better at his job, got a promotion and a transfer to the West Coast, Ms. Yellin was naturally eager to leave with him; but, sternly reminded of her contractual obligations and the need of some time to find a replacement, she reluctantly consented to finish out the term. And so she did, though in a fashion that made it clear her heart was in San Francisco. Like most joyless teachers she was a strict one; however, in December Ms. Yellin meandered carelessly through the prescribed subjects, not even getting mad when we confessed our unfamiliarity with the assigned reading. Save for the few compulsive overachievers among us, we stopped handing in homework. Instead of reaming us out, Ms. Yellin simply gave up assigning any. In fact, she seemed grateful to be relieved of having to grade our work. At the end of the term she gave a B to everybody in the class—a lump of coal for the compulsive but a nice parting Christmas gift to the rest of us.
The principal and department head, who didn’t care for our calling them Harvey and Frank, hadn’t much time to find a replacement but counted on the supply of teachers—even of competent ones—outstripping the demand. The first week in December they placed an ad in the local paper but got only one reply, a long letter from an ex-middle-school math teacher who’d burnt out after two years and was still eager to say why. On the verge of panic, the following week they paid for an ad in the Sunday Times. This yielded two score applications which they whittled down to half-a-dozen, then conducted phone interviews. The most promising conversation by far was with Mr. Frausberg who had seven years experience. The problem was a gap in his c.v. for the previous five, but he accounted for it by saying he’d taken the time off to travel the world. That sounded like just the sort of enriching, even romantic experience that would wow the children and impress their parents. Nevertheless, due diligence required contacting the man’s last employer. Harvey was able to track down an email address for the retired principal at Frausberg’s last school in Oswego, New York. To his request for an evaluation, he got a one-sentence reply: “Mr. Frausberg is gifted but unconventional.” It wasn’t much but time was running out. Harvey wanted to give Frausberg the job and get started on his Christmas shopping, but the scrupulous Frank insisted on a personal interview.
“We’ve at least got to see what the guy looks like, Harvey. And I wouldn’t mind hearing a little more about the last five years.”
“Why so suspicious, Frank? You’re not threatened by his being ‘gifted’, are you?”
Frank scoffed. He had he been tenured for nearly three decades and was ten years older than Harvey, who was a little afraid of him. “It pays to be careful, Harv. Trust me.”
Mr. Frausberg took a bus from Chicago and came to the interview in a sport coat, white shirt, tie, and a fresh haircut. When asked about his “pedagogical approach,” he served up some pablum about being “student-centered” and “fostering critical thinking” to which Harvey nodded as if hearing a familiar hymn. When Frank inquired about the five-year gap, Mr. Frausberg smiled wistfully and turned toward the window that looked out over the playing fields, the prairie, the planet. Then he regaled them with a couple of stories.
“In Mali I spent a month living with a tribe of pastoralists. Wonderful people, very hospitable. They eat a lot of millet and lentils, also locusts; goat meat’s reserved for festivals, initiations and weddings. For a long time this tribe was at war with another, the local farmers. As you know, it’s an ancient rivalry—shepherds versus agriculturalists—maybe the most ancient. Some biblical scholars regard the enmity between Cain and Abel as a symbol of the abrasion between these two ways of life and their conflicting Weltanschauungs. Anyway, a couple of generations ago, the two tribes reached an arrangement. They kidnap young brides from one another so that all their marriages are intermarriages. This custom not only put an end to the violence, it did away with dowry problems too. The raids are, for the most part, peaceful, more like rituals really, and conducted at night. I went on one myself. My shepherds handed me a spear and a goat-hide shield. You had to dress the part. We were told in advance which hut to go to, but somebody made a mistake and we went to the wrong one, a real screw-up. There was a fight and we had to defend ourselves. We grabbed two girls and made a run for it. Luckily, nobody was seriously wounded, including the fellow I jabbed in the leg. Jabbed lightly, you understand. Peace was made the next day when we sent six goats to the farmers. I suppose my hosts must have been pleased with my conduct because they offered one of the girls to me. Of course, I declined.”
Neither Frank nor Harvey said anything to this. So Mr. Frausberg went on.
He told them about how, when he was teaching English to Tamil children in Sri Lanka, a rumor got around that he was a Mossad agent. “Well, after that absolutely nobody would speak to me in public and the children stopped coming for lessons. Privately, a parent of one of the boys told me I’d better move on. Without delay, he said. As you probably know, it was the Tamils who invented suicide bombing.’”
And so, on the strength of one ambiguous and laconic recommendation, a brace of anecdotes, and faute de mieux, Mr. Frausberg was taken on for the spring term, with the prospect of renewal should things work out. They shook hands all around. Harvey and Frank offered tips on finding an apartment. Before he departed, Mr. Frausberg, humbly and with obvious embarrassment, asked if it might be possible to arrange an advance on his first month’s salary to help him move and get settled.
After he left, Harvey said they should congratulate themselves on resolving a potential staffing crisis so satisfactorily. Frank wasn’t so sure.
We returned to class in the new year, curious, though not hopeful, about our new teacher. A fortyish man stood smiling in front of us, leaning back on his desk. He was dressed in jeans, scuffed penny loafers, and an old black sport coat over a t-shirt with J’Aime N'Djamena printed on it, in pink letters. He didn’t nod or shift from foot to foot, either of which we’d instantly have fastened on as signs of nervousness. No, he stood still, arms behind him, waiting until we were seated.
“I’m Mr. Frausberg, your new teacher. Obviously.” Instead of then sitting down behind the desk and going through the roll, he announced that he was going to start by giving himself a test. This was something different, we thought. He turned his back on us and chalked a vertical line down the blackboard then turned around. Pointing at each of us he said our names. Instead of mumbling “here” or “present” we shouted “right” and “yep.” Every time he got a name right he put a line on the left side of the board. When he made a mistake, or pretended to, he made a mark on the right.
“Twenty-eight out of thirty-one. What’s that come to? Let’s see. A-minus. Right? Maybe I’ll get an A on the final.”
A few boys in the back gave a low cheer. He beamed at us. “You know, I’ve got to say you’re a lot better looking than those pictures they gave me.”
More cheered this time, and with more irony. He laughed. Mr. Frausberg relished shared irony.
Mr. Frausberg disposed of the textbook in a single sentence: “Only the Bible and Shakespeare should have double columns.” We almost always did our homework simply because his assignments were so unexpected. Design a medieval Japanese set for Romeo and Juliet. Write a biography of an Athenian who served as an oarsman at Salamis. Cut a potato in half, plant in the yard, see what comes up. Suppose you were asked to deliver a eulogy for Napoleon Bonaparte when his remains were returned to Paris. Make up a funny story of the kind Abraham Lincoln told his cabinet. Eat yellow rice and red beans for dinner three nights in a row. Read any book written by an African and another by a Pakistani. Divide into groups of eight and prepare a performance of Gas I by Georg Kaiser, The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco, or The Breasts of Tiresias by Guillaume Apollinaire. We did all he asked, though seldom very well. Maybe we just didn’t want to discourage him.
In place of readings from the two-column textbook he told us stories. These were far more elaborate than the yarns he’d spun for Harvey and Frank but, as with those, Mr. Frausberg himself lay, stood, ran, sat, or stooped in the middle of them all. These were serials that fascinated us the way Anna Karenina did cigar workers who couldn’t wait to get to work the next day, the way The Old Curiosity Shop did Bostonians who gathered at the docks to grab the next installment from England. Mr. Frausberg’s tales were suspenseful and fantastic; they exceeded the boundaries of geography, probability, and, sometimes, taste. There was the one about his being taken prisoner by a warlord in Uganda, the one about being trapped in a harem in Bahrain. There was a sea story telling of a harrowing trip around Cape Horn on a leaky Panamanian freighter, another about his solitary trek down the spine of Britain. There was a culinary-religious tale about learning the proper way to prepare osso buco in the Franciscan monastery of Assisi. He was attacked by wild dogs in Azerbaijan, stuck in a Szeged hospital for a week after being hit by a truck. In Petrila he was roughed up by neo-Nazis; in Cartagena, he won a billiards contest, and in Riga he was offered a bribe by smugglers. The last story he told us was about spending a white night with a farmer’s widow and her two blonde daughters in Farsund, which is in Norway. He described this experience as “memorable”.
One day Frank showed up, unannounced, to observe a class. It was a good class. Mr. Frausberg had made a video of himself arguing the case against the French Revolution in the style of Edmund Burke. After each point, he paused the video to offer a refutation in the style of Thomas Paine. Then he had us choose sides, Tories versus Jacobins, and we played a game to see who was right: the Jacobins had to make as many words as they could using the letters in Robespierre’s name, while the Conservatives did the same with the name of the premature feminist, Olympe de Gouges. The Conservatives won by two words, plump and segue. Frank stayed to the end of the game then walked out without saying a word.
Two days later Harvey put in an appearance. He stood against the wall, arms tightly crossed. Later, somebody cracked that he looked like an idol waiting impatiently for a child to be sacrificed.
Mr. Frausberg had taped three huge pieces of paper to the wall behind his desk. He gave marking pens to half of us and set us to work making a copy of Paul Gauguin’s Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Meanwhile, he led the rest of the class in a run-through of William Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus.
We were so engrossed that we didn’t notice when Harvey slipped out.
That Friday, Mr. Frausberg was strolling around the room telling us the story of his stay in Uttar Pradesh during an election campaign when Harvey came back, this time accompanied by a bald man in a blue suit. Mr. Frausberg didn’t interrupt his story; he merely gave them the slightest of nods and proceeded. “The candidates delivered their speeches standing on their heads. When I asked about this I was told that the rule had been imposed to cut down the length of speeches. You see, India’s politics are a little like the Hindu religion. Hindus have a pantheon of thirty-three million gods and India’s got nearly two thousand political parties, all with candidates who insist on making speeches.” Mr. Frausberg challenged us to memorize a sonnet and recite it while standing on our heads. When we laughed, he got down on all fours, put his head between his hands and slowly extended his legs into the air while reciting John Keats’ “When I have fears that I may cease to be.” Then he did a somersault and leapt to his feet. We applauded. “Okay,” he said, “the upside-down sonnet’s optional, but for Monday I’d like you to find out why the Greeks called plays with unhappy endings goat songs.”
Harvey and the bald-headed man didn’t exactly slam the door behind them.
On Monday, crammed with information about Dionysus, vegetation rites, Aeschylus, and Thespis, we were greeted by Frank and Harvey. Mr. Frausberg wasn’t there.
“Is he sick?” we asked.
They ignored the question.
“It’s test day,” Harvey announced, then Frank handed out the question booklets, bubble sheets, and number two pencils.
Grimly, we set to work.
Mr. Frausberg was back on Tuesday and explained. “They don’t want the tests administered by your teachers. It’s a security thing.”
“Seems some teachers used to give out the answers. Lots of rules get made this way, you may have noticed.”
“Shutting the barn door?”
“More or less.”
That Friday afternoon we learned that Harvey and Frank had informed Mr. Frausberg his contract would not be renewed. The reason they gave him was our abysmal test scores, the consequence, they said, of his not teaching the state-approved curriculum or using the prescribed textbook but choosing instead to engage in pedagogical anarchy.
“Have you ever considered you might be asking the wrong questions?” Mr. Frausberg replied.
“We don’t move the targets to catch their arrows,” quipped Frank. This was a witticism he had appropriated from an essay and trotted out as often as he could, as if he’d just made it up on the spot. We’d heard it at least twice.
We posted signs in the halls; we mounted a protest in the cafeteria; we pestered our parents, most of whom didn’t mind telling us they agreed with Harvey and Frank: “State funding depends on those test scores, you know. . . Teachers have got to be held accountable. . . If he’s not doing the job he was hired to do. . . not supposed to be all fun and games. . . I don’t care if you know about osso buco and vegetation festivals and —what was it?— Taoism? Daoism? Shmaoism?” A handful of mothers felt otherwise however, and two of these were PTA officers. So there was a meeting to air the matter.
Frank spoke first and began by saying he understood that Mr. Frausberg might have a certain charisma that might enthrall the young and impressionable. Students, he said, can tell you what it’s like to be in a teacher’s class but they can’t tell you if the teacher’s teaching the right things. Then he gave this account of the last class he had visited.
“I make it a point to check up on my staff. I’ve sat in on several of Mr. Frausberg’s classes. In the one I visited two weeks ago he told your children a cock-and-bull story about being in some village in India where candidates for office give campaign speeches standing on their heads. He himself stood on his head.” Here there was some derisive laughter which delighted Frank. “Then he challenged them to memorize a sonnet”—here he consulted a 3x5 card— “that’s a fourteen-line poem often about unrequired love—and recite it standing on their heads.”
Next, Harvey took the podium. “Thank you, Frank. I’ll take over now.” The principal addressed the crowd gravely, in the same tone he took with us about bullying and safe sex. “At his interview Mr. Frausberg accounted for a five-year gap in his résumé by saying he’d taken the time to travel the world. An admirable undertaking, we thought, a fine preparation for teaching your children about social studies. He had experience and enthusiasm. As you may know, we had to replace Ms. Yellin quickly so we took a chance on him.” Harvey paused briefly before sealing our teacher’s fate. “Last week I contacted the Passport Office at the United States Department of State.” One more short pause before he triumphantly concluded: “That Office has no record of Mr. Frausberg ever applying for, let alone obtaining, a passport.”
At the start of the last week of classes, Mr. Frausberg told us about René Descartes’ thought-experiment, the one about a malicious demon or cosmic trickster, as clever and deceitful as he is powerful, who has directed his entire effort to misleading me. Descartes supposes the whole cosmos and everything in it, every one of his experiences, his childhood and parents, every other mind he’s encountered, each book he’s read, even his own body and the reports of its five senses— are all illusions conjured up by this evil genius.
“Just imagine the determination of this demon, the inventiveness and obsession, the single-minded dedication to tricking Descartes and furnishing him with a virtual life.” Mr. Frausberg let us imagine it for a minute then posed two questions: “Can a person be tricked into the truth? Is this so-called demon really God?”
Our tasks that final week were all about Descartes’ demonic deceiver. We drew pictures of what we thought he’d look like. We took turns improvising dialogues between Descartes and the demon that was both his master and servant. We wrote comparison and contrast pieces on the demon and God (“Both are immortal and omnipotent and yet. . .”) and essays on why Descartes, credited with initiating the Age of Science with his grand gesture of doubt, nevertheless insisted one should never doubt in matters of faith. (“Why doubt what can’t be disproved?” somebody’s essay began.) The most ambitious took up an even tougher challenge: if Descartes had produced an ethical theory, what would it have been? (“If other beings are illusions, why bother about abusing or being kind to them— or deceiving them?”) Somebody presented a formal lecture, complete with an outline on the blackboard, the point of which was that if everything’s an illusion, then nothing is.
“So, right you are if you think you are?” asked Mr. Frausberg.
“I suppose,” said the lecturer.
Mr. Frausberg then told us Right You Are If You Think You Are is the title of a play by Luigi Pirandello, a Nobel-prize-winning playwright and humane skeptic who nevertheless found it possible to support Mussolini. “I’m a Fascist because I’m Italian,” Pirandello said rather stupidly. He even donated his Nobel Prize medal to be melted down for use in the unjust Abyssinian war. It is so if you think so. “But,” Mr. Frausberg added, “human beings are complicated; they seldom go in straight lines.” Pirandello also said, “I’m apolitical, only a man of the world” and ripped up his party card right in the face of the Fascist Party’s Secretary-General. After that he was kept under close observation.
“Are playwrights evil geniuses too?” asked Mr. Frausberg. “Can the best ones deceive us into the truth? To their characters, are they God?” Mr. Frausberg paused, hung his head for a moment, then looked up and raised a professorial finger. “According to Saint Augustine, things can be true in a way because they’re false in a way.”
We were perplexed, baffled, unsettled. Mr. Frausberg had never spoken to us so much as he did that week. He usually preferred giving us a shove then listening to the results. It dawned on us that he might never again have a class to entertain and provoke, that Harvey and Frank had succeeded in restoring their order and things would again be as tidy as a military cemetery.
The week ended. The school year was over. We collected money and gave Mr. Frausberg a plaster bust of snub-nosed Socrates.
He swiped at his eye. “You know,” he said, “Socrates could drink anybody in Athens under the table.” Then he thanked us, wished us all well, and we scattered.
It’s years later. Whenever we run into each other the conversation turns to Mr. Frausberg. As no one has any facts, all we can do is ask questions, questions that seldom rise to the level of a Cartesian thought-experiment.
-Do you ever think he was, you know, crazy?
-Those five years—he might’ve been in an institution, suffering from delusions?
-Think that’s what he meant—you know, that last week—about the evil genius? Was he confessing to us?
-What? That he was nuts, deluded? I don’t think so. If somebody knows they’re deluded then they aren’t.
-Then confessing to deluding us?
-All those stories he told us, do you think he believed them himself?
-Of course not. Do you?
-I don’t know. But I wonder. Any idea if he went back to Chicago?
-Not a clue. Was there anything for him to go back to? I mean he never mentioned a family, did he?
-I used to imagine him resuming his travels— you know, hiking up in the Andes, on a slow boat to China.
-But all that was deception —Mali, Azerbaijan— all of it.
-I know, I guess. But all the same that’s how I pictured him.
-Do you think we let him down?
-Let him down? How do you mean?
-Well, those test scores really were awful.
-Didn’t you love that he said they were asking the wrong questions?
-But what would the right questions be?
-I don’t know. Maybe that’s what he wanted us to figure out.
-Sometimes I wonder if Mr. Frausberg wasn’t the evil genius.
-The malicious demon?
-The cosmic trickster who tricked even himself.
-Do you remember that question he asked us?
-Whether a person can be tricked into the truth.
-Well, isn’t that just what he did to us?
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published the story collections Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood; a book of essays, Professors at Play; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal, and essays, stories, and poems in a variety of journals. His novel Zublinka Among Women won the Indie Book Awards first-place prize for fiction. His most recent books are The Artist Wears Rough Clothing and Heiberg’s Twitch.
His stories have appeared frequently in Offcourse.