For one long moment after I unintentionally swooned over a young man’s testicles, all 70 students in the UMD class I was teaching stayed mostly silent.
The incident happened in 2003, during an otherwise average session of Introduction to Cultural Studies. UMD’s course guide says the class, “Examines how cultural practices relate to everyday life by introducing students to each of the four core areas of the Cultural Studies minor: Identity Politics, Media Cultures, Cultures of Space & Place, and Cultures of Science, Technology, & Medicine.” My teaching contract was in Writing Studies, but the Sociology/Anthropology department faculty member in charge of Cultural Studies heard I might be into teaching something different, and my department head was cool with the idea. It’s been one of my favorite experiences in 20 years of trying to help people learn things.
I seek opportunities to participate in conversations with students and anyone else about how belief, intent, socialization, and other forces intersect to influence our actions. I approached Intro to Cultural Studies as an extended problem-posing conversation. I’d start most days by naming an example of something most of us in the room take for granted or don’t notice, then I’d ask a bunch of questions like, “Why do we do it that way? What happens if we try to do or see it differently. What if we did it for reasons different from the generally accepted ones? Who gets to decide?”
We met in a long Cina Hall classroom full of wood chair-desks. I often stood on one at the front of the room during discussions, more to see everyone in the room and keep their attention than to emulate Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. When I did my job well by raising an interesting topic and facilitating conversation instead of trying to lead it, we had raucous, mindful fun. At least that’s how I remember it.
As part of the Cultures of Space & Place section, I’d planned a day of discussing poems focused on place. I was hoping we’d wind up talking about how anyone — not just poetry people — can find or write poems that represent who they are and where they’re from.
I’d assigned my (still) favorite poem: Margaret Hasse’s “High School Boyfriend.” Its narrator’s adult sense of her (his?) years-ago boyfriend as a place impossible to leave or inhabit breaks my heart in the best way.
“You are my home town,” the poem starts. “You are all my favorite places / the last summer I grew up.” Six short lines later we’ve learned the narrator and boy irrevocably grew apart in geography and experience — wound up in different places: “Every once in a while / I write you / in my head / to ask how Viet Nam / and a big name college / came between us. ” After a few more lines we know they tried to stay in touch, he went back home and she didn’t, and when she’s there and they see each other it’s aching and awkward.
That austere, sentimental melancholy moves me every time. I’d hoped the students would feel something similar. Ugh. After teaching four or five years, I should have been beyond such a rookie expectation mistake. To be honest, though, I never really got to know what they felt about the poem. Neither did they. I didn’t give us much of a chance.
I’d posted the day’s poems on a course website so I could save paper and project them onto the room’s huge screen during class. Since “High School Boyfriend” didn’t yet exist online, I decided to re-type it instead of scanning and uploading an image.
The third stanza conjures place, time, and sensation: “And still I am stirred / by musky cigarette smoke / on a man’s brown suede jacket / Never having admitted the tenderness of your hands, / I feel them now, through my skin. / Parking on breezy nights, / in cars, floating passageways / we are tongue and tongue like warm cucumbers.”
I have no idea what some of that means, but I know exactly how it makes me feel, which is what I was thinking about as I lovingly read the words aloud. We were going to have such a good conversation. How could we not?
Then I saw it, exactly halfway through the stanza.
Turns out when I re-typed the poem I’d done something I still often do: I transposed an “a” and an “n.” I also somehow left off a letter. And I didn’t ask anyone to proofread what I’d typed. And I did it in a hurry.
So what students who were reading ahead had already seen, and what I saw way too late, not till the word was almost in my mouth, was, “Never having admitted the tenderness of your nads / I feel them now, through my skin.”
The tenderness. Of your nads.
I’d made my favorite poem — a lovely cypher of irretrievable time and place — into a nut joke.
A couple of those fast readers were red-faced and sputtering, working admirably hard not to crack all the way up. Most everyone else seemed unsure about how to respond.
“Uhhh . . . that,” I said, blushing and chuckling, “is not what the poem actually says.” And the room lost it.
I can’t remember what I said when the laughter died down. I know I owned the mistake, apologized for unintentionally creating weirdness, and did the only other thing I could do: ended class 10 or 15 minutes early.
I was decent at facilitating large-group conversations back then, but I had none of the necessary skills for using “nads” vs. “hands” as a teachable moment.
This article originally appeared in Transistor.
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