Monday, October 5, 2015

Calvin and Culley

I happened to read Tavis Hugh Culley's book A Comedy & a Tragedy: A Memoir of Learning How to Read and Write at the same time I was reading Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes collection Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons. Sometimes it seemed they were one and the same book.

What these two books, one a memoir and the other a collection of comic strips, have in common, other than their long titles, is that they are both about a boy who defiantly refuses to learn anything in school, even to the point of  developing a detailed fantasy life to insulate himself from anything his teacher might be trying to teach.

Here's what Calvin says to his teacher in one panel: "Sorry! I'm here against my will. I refuse to cooperate. They can transport my body to school, but they can't chain my spirit! My spirit roams free! Walls can't confine it! Authority has no power over it!"

"Calvin," replies his teacher, "if you'd put half the energy of your protests into your school work ..."

The boy goes on, "You can try to leave a message, but my spirit screens its calls."

And here is a passage from Culley's book: "In the coming weeks, I found that I could say I did not know the answer to a question, even when I did. I didn't want my teacher to sense what I had become aware of. I didn't want her to know what was on my mind. I wouldn't think. Why think? Instead, I stepped aside and imagined other possibilities. I refused any attempt at reading or writing -- and my rejection was final and radical ..."

Of course, Culley did eventually learn to read and write. He wrote this book, after all. Unlike the comic-strip Calvin, Culley had a dysfunctional family, including a bullying older brother and a mother who pushed drugs on him and kicked him out of the house while he was still in high school. There's so much tragedy in A Comedy & a Tragedy that it's a little hard to see the comedy. Yet there is a happy ending. A bright boy, he essentially taught himself to read, and by keeping a detailed daily journal, to write, and write well.

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