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My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun: Adolescents at the
“That,” announced Slash, a student in Theo Padnos’ literature class, “is the most boringest shit I’ve ever read.” This appraisal—of a Raymond Carver short story—may not be a teacher’s ideal response to an assignment, but it’s far from the worst Padnos encountered. At least Slash, ostensibly, had done the assigned reading; in a class where students were known to rip the syllabus into shreds that resembled palm fronds, and ignore the teacher in favor of trading homicide how-tos, the comment could reasonably be regarded as a triumph. After all, as Slash later reminded Padnos, “You didn’t come down to the country club, you know.” Padnos had come down, rather, to Vermont’s Woodstock Regional Correctional facility, and My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun: Adolescents at the Apocalypse: A Teacher’s Notes is the engrossing account of the year he spent teaching there.
As a disenchanted
comparative-literature grad student in Massachusetts, Padnos was tired of lectures on “the power of the gaze, the thematics of looking…the relationality of sight and seeing, and the erotics of being seen…I remember directing the power of my gaze out the window at April in Amherst.” His dissertation unfinished, he left school in the spring of 1999 for his home state, where he fruitlessly disseminated his résumé to universities, then beat out the decidedly less cutthroat competition (“I got a haircut. I passed the interview”) for a part-time teaching job at the local jail.
Padnos has a sissy’s fascination with the wayward badasses he encounters in the classroom. Frenchie kidnapped a homeless girl. Slash is accused of repeatedly raping his girlfriend while holding a gun in her mouth. Laird fired a shotgun at his father and missed; his mother wasn’t so lucky. The book’s title, taken from an Emily Dickinson poem, summons the explosiveness of these “adolescents at the apocalypse,” in the words of the slightly melodramatic and dated-sounding subtitle. (Not all of Padnos’ students were young, but many of them—and all of the ones who intrigued him—were.) The sub-subtitle, “A Teacher’s Notes,” is really the more apt name for this memoir, whose great strength is the author’s relation of his pedagogical experience: his unsentimental portrayals of his students; an honest, self-deprecating characterization of himself; and his frequently hilarious, occasionally moving conjuring of classroom scenes and dynamics.
It’s not that Padnos is an especially good teacher. He’s human, and his candid acknowledgment of that fact is refreshing. In his first class, his attempt to convey the significance of a scene in Anna Karenina meets this response from an inmate named Joe, who is charged with violating a restraining order against his wife:
“Is that book there about being obsessed with your wife?” he asked. “Because I’m fuckin’ so obsessed with my wife right now.”
“Right!” I said. “I’m glad that that’s…well, it’s good that that’s something we can talk about openly….And I think my point is that many of us have come to the edge of something here. I mean, we’ve all been put in a place—”
“I’d like to read that fuckin’ book,” Joe offered again. “Not the whole thing, though. Just the part about the wife.”
Though Padnos is earnest, he can also be lazy and wimpy—or arguably, given the setting, just pragmatic. “I was permitted ten minutes of lecturing and was then basically told to shut my fucking mouth, which, after some fighting words from me, I basically did. Perhaps for this reason,” he speculates, “the course became unusually popular that January.” He quickly learns to forgo the Russian classics in favor of such Stephen King stories as “The Raft,” a twisted coming-of-age fable in which a group of college students is attacked by a blob upon returning to their high-school haunt, a swimming hole. The class meeting on that story yields a rare, deftly related rewarding moment. One student, Will, has this analysis to offer:
“If the blob is what’s coming at the kids, if it’s adulthood or whatever,” he paused, apparently having lost his train of thought, “it can only get the kids when they put their feet in the water,” he resumed, “or when their hair touches it. When they leave their sphere, know what I mean? And when they were actual kids, they swam in the water all the time. The whole lake was part of the sphere. The whole world was. So the blob respects childhood. It just doesn’t respect people who keep on trying to go back there when they’re sort of too old for it. Know what I mean?”
I understood him perfectly and said so.
Interspersed with the classroom scenes is Padnos’ own literary criticism, which offers an implicit contrast to the jargony theory that corroded his love of literature in grad school. For example, he invokes Huck Finn’s relationship to time—an “unschedule-like schedule” that was “the moral opposite of the world’s routine”—to suggest a way for his students to approach their unstructured time in jail. When the class reads about Denis Johnson’s wondrously lost souls, Padnos wants them to see that “[t]heir lives have been rich in sorrow and strangeness; they’re wealthy at least in these departments.” Although these passages can come across as preachy, their more lasting impression is of sincere exegesis with a refreshingly direct application to the students.
Padnos also applies his interpretive skills to the inmates. He is particularly drawn to Laird, a privileged prep-school kid who instinctively sucks up to the teacher, his new status as a convicted murderer notwithstanding. The conversations between teacher and student—with Padnos as the ironic, skeptical listener as Laird talks himself into knots—are especially illuminating of Laird’s naiveté and see-through dissimulations.
“I didn’t do it, I swear, Theo,” he says. “I don’t know who did it but I swear to god. I swear to god. I didn’t do it.” He’s said this over and over again, and by now…he’s getting used to hurrying past the thesis sentence and lurching toward the tangled evidence itself. There are, unsurprisingly, dozens of strands to the story of how he came to be accused of this crime.
Next thing we know, Laird is saying, “I didn’t think I would get caught….I thought the police we’re [sic] like going to pat me on the back and say, ‘There, there, kid.’” Laird seems unlikely to find redemption in prison: By the book’s end, he has become an institutionalized creature, disturbingly unreflective and complacent, whose habits and desires have shrunk to accommodate his new home.
Padnos’ attitude toward his students—he views them with neither contempt nor unearned respect, but with a mix of curiosity and empathy, plus dashes of repulsion and affection—is one of the book’s saving graces. And some of his insights on these doomed kids, while not entirely original, are persuasive. In Laird’s case, Padnos made special efforts to understand the situation, comprising conversations with the widowed father and close readings of angsty adolescent poems. Laird’s obsession with a depresseder-than-thou girl at school appeared to have played a role in his crime, prompting him to seek some sort of morbid cred. “His unhappiness, such as it was, was too subtle a thing, too uncaused and invisible to win anyone’s sympathy. He needed to make his unhappiness real.” The generalizations Padnos ventures, however, can sound pat and even presumptuous: “Their murders and careless, purposeless, hopeless robberies are an effort to hasten the end, which, they assume, probably isn’t all that far off anyway.”
Aside from a few such stabs at
collective psychoanalysis, Padnos doesn’t explore sociological questions in much depth. Nor does he address, for the most part, contemporary questions about crime or about the efficacy and humaneness of the U.S. prison system. And he was right to leave those angles to other authors. My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun is a memoir, a teacher’s notes. Padnos isn’t a sociology professor or a criminologist, and he doesn’t make assertions that are beyond his scope. That’s good for the book, which feels conspicuously pre-9/11 in its evocation of Columbine-esque teen violence on the millennium’s eve. But the period-piece aspect is subordinate to the book’s main thrust—vivid, nuanced depictions of real people—which lends it a degree of timelessness in place of the timeliness it can’t achieve.
It’s a common adage to say that a teacher learns more from the students than vice versa—one that Padnos, mercifully, avoids. But although he doesn’t say it, it’s obviously the case. There were some good times in class, and the inmates liked him—but no one got saved or even converted into a lover of literature. Padnos’ students, on the other hand, changed his life, by re-activating his own love of literature (he has since received his doctorate), and, of course, by giving him material for a book. As part of his straightforward narrative strategy, Padnos includes descriptions of the book’s genesis and progress, as well as his students’ thoughts on the matter. “Make sure you put in how little we learn in jail school,” Will suggested. “Make sure to put in how fucking bored we are in here. Will you put that in?” Padnos agreed to put that in. CP