“The sign of being at home is the ability to make oneself understood without too much difficulty, and to follow the reasoning of others without any need for long explanations.”
—Vincent Descombes, on Proust's narrator, and all of us
These people step into the room, in pairs or alone. They’re all the way from towns you’ve never heard of in Georgia and Kentucky and Oklahoma and Arkansas. From Kansas and Louisiana and Texas. They manufacture farm equipment, or they preach. Or they speak only Korean at home, and what they do for work – or used to do – never fits into this stilted conversation.
Welcome to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.
The old man who looks more like Nora’s grandpa than her father has his hair newly buzzed and wears the name of his equipment manufacturer on his shirt pocket and asks what good will it do them, what we’re teaching them. He really does mutter something about commie liberals a few times. I’m sort of amazed at how calmly I am able to answer him. He talks about a much older girl they have who went upstate for a teacher’s degree – and he guffaws at how Nora in seventh grade scored, well, so much higher on the SAT than the older girl did on the way to college. This funny knack his kid has, like how some people turn out double-jointed or ambidextrous.
The divorced father of the girl we’ve been calling Anastasia, from outside Plano, scratches out notes with a pencil and says very little. His hair is an artificial grey and his forehead shines. On the phone, his ex-wife is alternately condescending and irate. Stacy’s older sister didn’t do so great on her ACT, but she knew what she wanted to go to school for and it was easy to sign her up. But then, now, Stacy got this perfect score in seventh grade, and it seems like she’s good at mostly everything. And I don’t know what to do for her. The father’s face is like putty.
Nora’s mother, who must be a couple of decades younger than the old man, tells how the older girl was kind of lazy and used to ask her little sister how to spell out certain words and what they meant. Here was this nearly grown high school girl asking her little third-grade sister to check her homework for her, the mom remembers. The old man says maybe Nora’d like to go to work for the family business – though she’s got her eye on the city university. He snorts at this – the most expensive college in the state.
They ask me what they should do with Nora. I speak slowly because I’m sleep deprived, and they mistake this for calm and gravity.
If he were your son, what would you do with him? Eli’s father, the Kentucky preacher, is actually kind of great. His wh words have a dignified whiff of h as they begin. We live in a desert, he says. Eli, he says, is…peerless. He holds up a hand. By which I do not mean – I am nodding my head already – that there aren’t other people, out there, like him. I’m nodding. But we live in a desert, he says.
Nora’s mother, who is meek and really very kind, half whispers how Nora’s friends don’t understand her jokes. She says Nora won’t let her read the things she writes.
In the antihero origin story Nora whipped up one day in class, the antiheroine is born with the sign of the serpent, which is the mark of uncertainty: what it portends could be wonderful or horrible. The father approaches his newborn daughter with fear and love, like all fathers have. When the daughter spends the thirteenth hour of her thirteenth year – as she must do for every day henceforth – as a dragon, her mother can only gape at her, horrified. They spend the rest of that hour, the girl-dragon and the mother, like that.
There is a decoder ring of a standardized test that, applied in the thirteenth year, reveals whether you’ve been marked.
Rufus the comics obsessed upholds the accuracy of his chosen heroic epithet each break as he trips over his own feet beside me, reciting from panel to panel plots from Batman, Superman/Batman, The Batman Chronicles, and Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight. Rufus stammers when he speaks, evidently because he’s receiving new wire reports even as he’s communicating the latest, each new transmission resulting in a small interruption. He likes to punctuate his speech with the cliff-hanger syntax of the comic book: Jekyll definitely misses Hyde, he might observe. The reason? Or: I’m pretty sure I know who keeps solving the Rubik’s Cube in the lounge. The suspects?
By the end of the first week, Rufus has taken to listening to what he calls Anastasia’s manga-logues, during which she distills the multi-generational plots of her own obsession, manga, into something like those contestants’ fifteen seconds on Monty Python’s “Summarizing Proust Competition” – except with her own, frequent interjection of Holy Cheese Nips! Rufus listens with a slight frown of concentration, respectfully quiet save for a few practical questions: Is Bulma’s watch analogue or digital? Does Piccolo know he’s a demon?
Rufus and Nora and Eli and Anastasia,1 along with the rest of their classmates here, all submitted to that decoder ring of a standardized test. As seventh graders, they scored in that magic 99th percentile of high school juniors and seniors who take the same test. And it’s not like they prepped for it, either. At this point, it really is just a funny knack they all have – this precocity that makes them superfreaks at home unless they keep a low profile about it. So they all, on the first day, seem quite capable of flying under the radar.
They’re mildly wary at first – and I’ve heard from another, returning teacher that it might be like this. They won’t want to work in groups at first, he says. They’ll all want to work alone, because they’re so used to everyone else being… He shrugs, allowing for how everyone else is. Because people misapprehend them, Nora later writes in an essay, antiheroes frequently work alone or have henchman whose skills are nowhere near the antihero’s capabilities. You begin to get the point: at home, either they keep their brains in check and are bored out of their skulls, or they reveal their full powers and pretty much end up going it alone.
They are here, in my class this summer, to study antiheroes – a pantheon of misunderstood monsters and divided selves and social outliers. And, of course, it doesn’t take long to see the attraction. But eventually – and this is the best part – the biggest attraction becomes one another. Remember that moment when Rogue and Wolverine first tour the grounds of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters?
There’s a kind of heartbreak to this job, though. These kids are here, after all, for just three weeks. They do, soon enough, go back to those towns you’ve never heard of and, when the summer itself ends, back to those schools where it will have become even harder for them to fly under the radar.
What good will it do them, what you’re teaching them, Nora’s father wants to know.
When we read Frankenstein together, it seems to me that the saddest thing about this creature (who learns at a preternaturally rapid rate) is his loneliness. There is no one like him. There is absolutely no one who understands him. He begs Frankenstein to forge another of his kind, but the scientist refuses, effectively dooming his creation to solitude.
When I ask Anastasia, one day mid-term, how she’s liking it here, she gives me the indubitable eyebrow. “I know my people,” she says. “I like to hang with the geeks and the antiheroes.”
1. Names changed to protect their identities, of course.