“Every choice is a step into the moral arena.”
I wasn’t really ready for another book set in a private school, but since In The Fall They Come Back came from the mind of American author Robert Bausch, I decided to take the plunge. Told in retrospect by Ben Jameson, who is now, twenty years later, a lawyer, this is the tale of two years spent teaching English to high school students. Freshly graduated, Ben needs “an emergency job” and needs money so that he can “save up for bigger and better things.” He takes the job teaching in Virginia at Glenn Acres Preparatory School, and for Ben, he admits even decades later, these two years “changed the world for me in ways I’m still contemplating.” The story examines the boundaries between teacher and student–when caring goes overboard and involvement becomes entanglement. I have a feeling that teachers who read this may identity (and wince) with some of the scenarios here as our (then) idealistic narrator makes some formidable errors.
This is a story about caring a little too much; or maybe about not caring enough. I really don’t know which.
It’s 1985 Ben is just 25 years old and lives with his extremely attractive girlfriend, Annie when he’s hired by the indomitable owner/headmistress of Glenn Acres, Mrs Creighton. The idiosyncratic nature of the school is immediately made clear through Mrs. Creighton’s behaviour with her dogs. They are locked up in her office at night and then the following morning, Mrs Creighton cleans up their poop. Only an owner could do this, and while this seems like a small observation, it’s indicative of how Mrs Creighton runs her school.
Ben is hired on the spot with the caveat that he read his students’ journal pages: the pages that are supposed to be private and unread. He’s supposed to report anything troubling back to Mrs Creighton. Of course, this rings alarm bells for the reader, but Ben is young, needs a job, and is also inexperienced when it comes to employment.
It doesn’t take long for Ben to begin to wonder how “anybody could be a teacher for his whole life.” He also details the monumental burden of reading thousands of pages of student writing a week (a conservative estimate is 1,250 a week). So it’s not long before Ben finds himself not reading everything and making generalized comments in the margins. Ben forms a close relationship with a much older teacher, Professor Bible, and together they compare concerns about student George Meeker who bears the brunt of his father’s misplaced conceptions of masculinity.
Ben isn’t a sloucher; he genuinely wants to get his students involved, and he embarks on almost suicidal missions to ‘awaken’ his students’ moral consciences. He introduces the subject of Hitler and the Holocaust and then later, he invites the students to write about God.
While Ben’s choices make ‘sense’ as he explains them through his narratives, the reader also understands that Ben is treading on thin ice. According to Annie, who understands Ben all too well, he has a “Christ Complex,” and is deliberately placing “little traps” for himself by introducing such controversial subjects into the curriculum. Of course, Ben protests these accusations, but Annie is onto something as it turns out, and for this reader, it’s clear that Ben’s idealism contains a streak of subconscious self-sabotage when it comes to imagining teaching as a life long career. It’s also clear that something is going to go horribly wrong….
Bausch tells us that what happens is based on a “true story,” and I believe it. There’s the sense of lingering pain in the tragedy that takes place, and the novel’s strength lies in the sincerity of the narrative voice. The intriguing and paradoxical thing here is while the narrative voice is sincere, it isn’t always honest. Take Ben’s comments, for example, about Annie who is also “smirking.” Yes, Ben wants to ‘open’ students’ mind with the subject of the Holocaust, but that also allows him to sit and watch films in the classroom for hours on end. And then there’s the beautiful Leslie, and while Ben professes to have no sexual feelings for her whatsoever, he certainly crosses more than one line in this relationship.
Ultimately, the novel wrestles with moral questions regarding the teacher’s role in student lives. Mrs Creighton sets Ben on a disastrous mission when she asks him to read the students’ private journals. Where is the cut-off when it comes to involvement and concerns? Over the novel, there lingers the sense that still, twenty years later, Ben is attempting to justify his actions, and while this justification fails, perhaps this is a stronger novel because of Ben’s failure to convince the reader and himself.