[ September 18, 1987 ]
"Odysseus is a man who is never at a loss. The gods strip him like bark, separate him from his men, exile him from his family. Yet he persists-travels to hell and back, always with a plan, without doubt, never baffled. He is ever at the ready despite his many trials."
Mr. Oglesby looked over the class of sophomores, steadying himself in a lean against Teddy Boudreaux's desk. The next quiver of questions was a deliberate digression from the lesson plan, and he shot them out rapid fire.
"So why does Homer ascribe contradictions to his hero? How can he never be at fault yet decide that taunting a Cyclops is a good idea? Why would someone smart enough to win the Trojan War be so stupid as to anger the gods?"
Oglesby returned to the blackboard, raising one of his many teaching sticks-this one named Keisaku-and pointed to the words he had written earlier: The myth of the hero.
"Mr. Humphrey, what kind of a hero is Odysseus?"
Oglesby shook his head and stared out the window at the faded green of the courtyard. "Don't regurgitate, Mr. Humphrey. Mr. Atherton?"
"Uh . . . he's a classic hero."
"Next you'll tell me he's Greek."
A discomforting five seconds passed as Oglesby stalked the center aisle of the classroom, punching Keisaku at the carpet like he was on a mountain trail.
"Gentlemen, stop guessing and start thinking. Can someone actually prove to me that they've read this book and not Dr. Cliff's summary of the plot?"
Oglesby exhaled through his nose, his disappointment as subtle as a vaudeville act. He lowered his head and considered what remedial assignment he would have to resort to. A hand went up from the front row.
"Yes, Mr. Gilchrist."
"He's a hero because his greatness can contain contradictions."
"Yes, and . . . ?"
"And he is searching for something he probably won't find."
"What do you mean?"
"The hero has a quest."
"Thank you." A wave of relief passed across the teacher's face, and he started a peripatetic shuffle up and down the center aisle. "Gentlemen, Mr. Gilchrist is correct. The hero is defined by his journey. A hero isn't perfect. Every man has flaws that he must confront and overcome. That is the internal quest of the hero. And the eternal quest of literature."
Daniel Malone frowned. He knew that answer and should have raised his hand.
This was second period, sophomore honors English, taught by Mr. David Oglesby at the Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas. The course and its teacher were legendary for their rigor and Socratic curveballs. Each morning, Oglesby walked into class purposefully, carrying his "persuasion stick"-today it was the black-and-maroon Keisaku; he had many others-and an olive-drab backpack slung over one shoulder. The pack was government issue and a reminder to the sophomores that their teacher had once been an army medic on a search-and-destroy team in a place we used to call Indochina. For this version of boot camp, Oglesby dressed sharply-Hickey Freeman sports coats, button-down oxfords, cuffed Brooks Brothers slacks, cordovan penny loafers, and a sequence of solid knit ties that were in fashion the fall of 1987.
For the first two weeks, Mr. Oglesby was quick to prove command and control. He had two default modes: stern and strict. Each day, twenty new vocabulary words, and each night, a journal-writing assignment-at least one hundred words on weird topics that included: epic simile, Venetian blinds, Pyrrhic victory, and something called the Paraclete. Oglesby's class came with a minor catechism of standard-issue rules-"Organization is the key to high school," "Think before you speak"-and absurd ones-"Never give a gun to a duck." ("After all," he'd say, "the duck might be a quack shot.")
Each class was at once a performance and an inquisition aimed at startling sophomores into effort. Dan Malone certainly was intimidated. Oglesby had a booming teaching voice, dactylic in cadence. He had wide, searching gray-blue eyes that were quick to appraise whether the light was on or not with a student. He also had the reflexes of a black belt and was quantum quick to grab a wisecracking ephebe by his tie knot (Oglesby synonyms: cravat, foulard) or bring his teaching stick down with an emphatic near miss of a sophomore skull.
Dan had strong marks from freshman English and had moved up to the honors class with his crew-namely, Rick Dowlearn, Rob McGhee, and Steve "Sticky" O'Donnell. None of the boys knew what to make of Oglesby's strange temperament. Rick admittedly did the best Texas Brahmin impression ("Misterh DAWH-learn, de-FINE mimesis"), along with a mea culpa beating of the breast with a copy of Strunk and White, which ended in a back-of-the-hand-to-the-temple half swoon. But all the sophomores were on guard for when Oglesby's class turned into a close-reading cross between Jeopardy! and Press Your Luck.
"Gentlemen, I'm returning your journals," Mr. Oglesby said, his back to the class. He whirled around and peered at them one by one. "Let me say this: Your parents are not paying tuition for you to scribble such narcissistic drivel. Writing begins with thinking. Thinking begins with asking questions. Rule number four: your journal is your life-force."
Oglesby dropped Dan's journal onto his desk in the back row without pause or comment and continued on to Cameron Coleman, then Jay Blaylock. Already this early into the school year, the last row was a nose-picking, catnapping affair, and Dan felt a bit of exile on these back benches. Dan was a solid, if uninspired, student; mostly A's, but that came at the hectoring of his mother, herself a teacher baptized and confirmed in the pre-Vatican II rote academy. Dan had always taken the path of least resistance with reading and writing, while math, like most boys, he gleaned from the sports page. He wasn't exactly lazy, but in class, he didn't try to show off or even engage much. Part of this was fear of being teased or labeled a nerd, but he was cleverly unefforted and unmotivated, and his talents had lain under the bushel. Until he came face-to-face with Oglesby, who seemed to have the drop on this routine from day one. Dan opened his journal and leafed through his entries. Check, check, check. And one comment:
Fine but not fine.
"My compliments to Mr. O'Donnell," Oglesby said. Sticky tucked the long bangs of his dark brown hair behind his ear and sat up nervously. "Who actually did some inquiry on Venetian blinds and postulated a connection to Botticelli."
There was a pause while the sophomores shot glances at each other and wondered why they hadn't thought of opening a World Book encyclopedia and doing a lick of research.
"Gentlemen, writing is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. One hundred words-Mr. Deangelis, are you listening?-does not mean padding out an assignment with adjectives and articles. I want ideas. Brains running, not jogging."
Finished with the pass-back, Oglesby returned to the front of the classroom, closed his eyes in fake meditation, and waved Keisaku back and forth across the room like a blind samurai. "Rule number eight: writing is thinking. And reading is paying attention. Our rule number seven. Mr. Lamberty, what is the reason I assigned The Odyssey?"
Troy Lamberty hesitated, the simple answers fluttering into an ontological void. Oglesby took two steps forward and stomped on Mark Flanagan's tapping foot.
"Um, to study the hero?"
"And this is one of the first stories about heroes."
"Can anyone help him?"
Mark Flanagan, writhing in pain with his foot still impaled by the heel of Oglesby's loafer, looked up at him. "Because Odysseus will win in the end."
A few snorted at Flanagan's suffering. Oglesby poked the sophomore in the chest with his stick. "I've given you all too much credit. Forget the discussion of heroes. Gentlemen, that is beyond the capabilities of this class."
"But we did the reading," Colin Indovina whined with his hand up, as if arguing an offsides by the line judge.
"Mr. Indovina, no doubt you moved your eyes over the pages of this book, but what do you really know?" Oglesby returned to the front of the class and opened his planner. "Prove to me you read this book."
Indovina spoke in a slow, perplexed pitch, as if bringing his teacher up to speed. "Odysseus returns to Ithaca. He kills the suit-"
"Yes, yes, yes. We know that. Everyone who listened to Homer sing his alexandrines for the first time knew that already. Okay." Oglesby closed his eyes again and held up his hand. "I have two tests in mind for next week. The first is a multiple-choice test on the themes of the hero, which will be fairly easy if you've been paying attention in this classroom. The second test will be a comprehensive essay, examination, and close reading about every character and event that took place in The Odyssey. That test will be near impossible.
"We're going to play a game. How well this class answers my questions in the final ten minutes of this period will determine which test I prepare and how much suffering your weekend will entail. Now, the class as a whole will be given five strikes-five wrong answers, your fate is sealed, and the close-reading test guaranteed."
"Can we play Monday-after we've prepped for this?" Liam Plimmer, a big grade hound, was worried about the ruin of his GPA at the hands of others.
"But that's not fair."
"Rule number one, Mr. Plimmer: life is unfair." Oglesby picked up his well-creased copy of the Rouse translation.
"Mr. McGhee, let's start with an easy one. What does it mean to keep the Bear or Wagoner on your left as you sail the sea at night?"
Rob was good at stalling until answers came to him, but not today. "Well, in ancient times, the currents of the Mediterranean-"
"It refers to the Big Dipper," Oglesby said with dirgelike certainty. "Strike one. Mr. Tsao."
Ethan Tsao rubbed his eyes behind his glasses, annoyed at getting called on.
"Name me three of the four rivers of the underworld."
"Uh, the Styx, the Aching-"
"Uh . . ."
"Strike two." It was clear Oglesby wasn't kidding around. "The Pyriphlegethon and Cocytos are the other two. Mr. Warner-"
"Pass." A doomed laughter spread through the sophomores.
"Strike three. Mr. Hardy?"
"Strike four. Pass."
Oglesby shook his head and grabbed his chin. "Gentlemen, this is honors English. If you don't do the reading, if you want to be babied like a bunch of freshman smart-asses, I have a hundred exercises in vocabulary and grammar." Oglesby pounded the teacher's desk with Keisaku. "Reading is paying attention! I can't teach you to think about the big questions when you can't command the basic details. Four strikes. And I'm going to be benevolent and pick someone who thinks they've done the reading. Mr. Dowlearn."
"Come on, Rick."
"Don't screw this up."
"Dude"-Rick shook them off-"don't put this all on me."
"Mr. Dowlearn, who is the Crookshank God?"
"Poseidon," Deangelis stage-whispered. "He carries a shank."
"That's a trident, you idiot," McGhee corrected him.
Rick exhaled through his teeth in frustration. "It's not Zeus or Ares, but it might be-"
"Sir!" It was Dan with his hand up in the back.
"Yes, Mr. Malone."
"Permission to steal the question."
"Let Mr. Dowlearn pass to me."
"Do you know the answer?"
"Very well, Mr. Malone, who is the Crookshank God?"
"Malone saved us." Mike Torkel collapsed back into his seat.
"With one right answer, Mr. Torkel? I assure you I have many more questions." Oglesby thumbed over pages annealed with years of annotation.
"All right, Mr. Coleman." Cameron stretched-he was just waking up from a midperiod snooze interrupted by the smack of Keisaku on his desk. "In the hall of Alcinous, what is the name of the minstrel-the blind man many think is a stand-in for Homer himself?"
Cameron was out of it. "Is this before or after the Odyssey guy kills everyone?"
"Welcome back, Mr. Coleman, I hope you're well rested. Okay, that's strike-"
Dan's hand went up again.
"Yes, Mr. Malone."
"The minstrel is Demodocus."
"Correct." A barely perceptible grin ticked across Oglesby's face.
"Mr. Oglesby, sir?"
"I'd like to nominate Malone as our class representative for the remainder of this game."
Several heads nodded and affirmed.
"Mr. Malone, do you want to demonstrate what close reading means to your classmates?"
"Your men are counting on you, do you want to be the hero-or the goat? Remember, class, tragos-tragedy-is Greek for 'goat song.'"
"I'll try." Dan felt the pressure as everyone turned in their chairs. Aww crap, he thought. Stay calm, gotta focus. He had read the book, and years ago, his father had given him D'Aulaires' Greek Myths, which he had devoured. He knew his mythology but had been lucky that Oglesby had hit on familiar trivia with the last two questions.
"Here we go then. The name of the Cyclops is . . ."
"The name of the swineherd?"
"Who are the Spinners?"
"The seer who is half-"
"The following questions involve Odysseus's trip to the underworld. When he goes, name three queens he meets."
Oglesby looked up from his book. "Of course . . ."
"Tyro, Antiope, Alcmene, Epicaste, Chloris, Leda . . ."
"Christ, Malone," Sticky muttered.
Oglesby flipped pages rapidly. Dan's classmates just stared at him with disbelief. Rob McGhee was silently pumping his fist.
"Our hero smiles twice in the course of The Odyssey. When and why?"
"Once when Telemachos tells him to spare his servant Medon, and the second time when Penelope still doubts it's him."
"What does Homer describe as 'all-conquering'?"
Sleep or death, Dan thought, and then guessed: "Sleep."
"What must Odysseus do to right things with Poseidon?"
"Plant an oar in a land where no man knows what it's for."
Oglesby looked up again from the Rouse translation. "Very good, Mr. Malone. One last question, which no one in the history of this class has answered on the first try. You get it right, we talk about heroes, and the class takes the easy test. You get it wrong, and I will have Professor Spiridakos at SMU write the essay questions in ancient Greek. Are you ready?"
Holy shit, Dan thought.
"Do it for Johnny!" Jay Blaylock was a movie-line jukebox, and Oglesby's whipping boy.
"Mr. Blaylock-you can write a five-hundred-word essay on outbursts for tomorrow."
Copyright © 2021 by Sean Desmond. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.