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>If We Could Reshelve Ourselves

>School’s starting up again, and I’ve got many new names and faces to learn. Since Korean names all have a similar pattern and there’s a lot of repetition, this plays hell with my chances of retention. Every now and again I get lucky — sometimes I’ll have a girl student named An-na, which sounds like Anna or Se-ra, which sounds like Sarah. Last semester I had two students named A-Ra which is Veronica’s given name. Occasionally, I’ll remember a student’s name for very wrong, very unprofessional reasons — for example, if their names are something that is a funny combination of sounds in English like Young-ho or Bum-suk, or my all-time favorite, Oh Pak-Kyu. But of course, these are just a handful out of hundreds of students each semester.

Because of this ongoing struggle with names, I wish the students would sit according to the way my roster is made out. The student in the class who has been at the university the longest is listed first, followed by the second longest and so on until the most recently enrolled. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work to seat classes that way, because if they are seated in order, they might not be seated next to their friend. Feeling isolated bothers my students keenly. It’s always a challenge to get them to drop their reserve and speak in class, but if they feel alone, they’ll clam up and act so lifeless that my ears hurt from their stony silence and from hearing my own flat, Midwest American accent over and over in the still room. It’s ultimately more productive to let friends sit with friends or let all the different majors clump together.

Too bad students aren’t books. If they were, I could shelve them any way I liked. Take my biography/memoir shelf at home, for example. Everyone is shelved in alphabetical order:

Simone De Beauvoir — Johnny Cash — Raymond Chandler — Julia Child — Anderson Cooper — Roald Dahl — Princess Diana — Bob Dylan — M.F.K. Fisher — Benjamin Franklin — Ghandi — Audrey Hepburn — Shirley Jackson — Ken Jennings — Joan of Arc — Margery Kempe — Florence King — Harper Lee — Abraham Lincoln — Mary Tyler Moore — Haruki Murakami — Barack Obama — Elvis Presley — Nigel Slater — Elizabeth Smart — David Taylor — James Thurber — James Tiptree, Jr. — Harry S Truman — Dare Wright

If these were individuals grouped together instead of books, would they like who they were next to? Would they want to be next to someone else, or enjoy the prospect of mingling? I see it going like this:

Beauvoir and Cash are cordial to one another, but Beauvoir prefers being in a clump with other writers and Johnny Cash is more comfortable standing next to his old pals, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley, but he and Raymond Chandler mutually appreciate how the other is able to convey darkness through their chosen art form.

Since Anderson Cooper is a journalist, he’s all right wherever he is because he’ll get a good interview out of it. He is pleased to be next to Roald Dahl, since he read Dahl’s juvenile fiction when he was a kid. Princess Diana and Dahl are both from England, so they chat about the queen and soccer and fish and chips and Eastenders. James Thurber, Shirley Jackson and Roald Dahl want a meet-up so they can give each other fist bumps for kicking ass with the short story form.
M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child gravitate towards each other because of food and wave Nigel Slater over to join their clique. Fisher is having some trouble extricating herself from Benjamin Franklin because he still has an eye for the ladies and M.F.K. Fisher is a dish (pun intended). Eventually, Ben’s intellectual curiosity gets the better of him, and he and Gandhi get into a long, involved discussion about shaking off the yoke of colonial rule. Audrey Hepburn joins in and Gandhi admires Hepburn’s observations about her trips to various countries around the world on behalf of UNICEF, while Ben polishes the bifocals he invented so that he might ogle Audrey more clearly.

Shirley Jackson tries to head up a writer’s group, but Ken Jennings, the ex-English major and perennial trivia geek is trying to impress her by naming off all of her works in order and all the different ways The Lottery has figured in popular culture. Joan of Arc and Margery Kempe are perfectly matched since Joan hears voices and Kempe sees visions. Florence King, the failed southern lady is happy to be next to Harper Lee, one of the greatest writers the American South ever produced. Harper Lee is thrilled to find herself next to Abraham Lincoln, who enjoys hearing about Atticus Finch, a man after his own heart.

Mary Tyler Moore pops over and says hello to Elvis Presley since they co-starred in a 1970 movie called Change Of Habit. Haruki Murakami and Barack Obama both seem very open to multiculturalism and both are avid readers, but Obama wants to spend a few moments with Harry Truman so they can talk shop. Before Nigel Slater runs off to join the foodies, Elvis asks Nigel if he has any tasty variations on the peanut butter and banana sandwich.

Elizabeth Smart feels a little adrift, being the only Canadian in the bunch, but she finds a kindred spirit in Simone De Beauvoir. Both of them were involved with men that were an infuriating mixture of constant and flighty. James Thurber is fascinated with zoo doctor David Taylor’s animal stories. Thurber does one of his zany signature drawings of Taylor working on some exotic animal like a tiger or a python while getting a brainstorm for another story.

James Tiptree, Jr. and Shirley Jackson are drawn together because Jackson is intrigued by Tiptree’s stories of alternate worlds, her dual identity and she’s also gleefully delighted at how Tiptree was able to fool her readers for so many years. Both are enchanted with Dare Wright’s fey good looks and her strangely evocative talent of telling a story using quaintly dressed dolls and photographs.

Harry Truman read and reread Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, quoted from it often and urged other people to put it on their ’10 Most Important Books’ list, so the man from Missouri is trying to be polite, but make no mistake, he’s seriously jockeying for a position next to the printer and patriot from Philadelphia.

If I could shelve myself in this group, I’d have Simone De Beauvoir and Johnny Cash on either side of me. That would suit me right down to the ground, but with a group like this, how could I refrain from mingling? What about your biography shelf — strange bedfellows or kindred spirits?


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