The new boy had longish hair and long, slightly skeletal fingers. That was all she noticed before she put the folders on her desk and turned to write the lines on the board.
Only the characters that we love to hate exist outside the story. Their strength allows them to breach the walls of their text and enter our world. Write about a character, persona, or speaker who is hateful.
There was a muffled groan from the room. She took a breath, resisted the urge to rest her forehead on the board, and turned to face the inevitable clarifying questions. Half the class couldn’t fathom the risks involved in attempting the question alone. The other half simply couldn’t fathom the question.
The new boy’s hand went up. From compassion for being fifteen and new, she did not draw attention to his newness. ‘Do you mean hateful in the sense that we dislike them, or hateful in the sense that they’re full of hatred for us?’
His voice was low and calm, and she found it both impressive and irritating to be addressed like this by so unprepossessing a boy. ‘The statement says ‘the characters we love to hate’,’ she said, ‘so it’s the former – hateful in the sense that we dislike them.’ Then, in nervousness – where did that come from? she thought – she said, ‘Not that there’s much difference, don’t you think?’
‘I think there’s a difference,’ he said levelly.
She was aware of a frisson of surprise among the others. He had already said more in two minutes than most of them had said in four years. To voice a difference of opinion from hers was distinctly new. She had taught in this school for ten years and realized that her job was to be the provider of opinions, structures, and vocabulary, which could be assembled on the factory-line of Saturday tutoring and group-created responses, and then returned for checking against a school-approved template. Once, she dimly remembered, English classrooms had as many opinions as there were bodies, and every essay was different. Now it seemed to be like making a car: the closer to identical the units were, the more harmonious everyone was. Quality, she had realized long, long ago, did not scale up.
She felt the way you feel when you muddle your right and left. ‘What do you mean?’
New boy gave a small shrug. ‘Well, we naturally hate people who hate us. Look at Iago. We don’t hate him because he’s a liar and a plotter and a murder. We hate him because he hates us and everyone around him, and loves only himself.’
She leaned against the edge of the desk. They had done Othello the previous term – done in the way that tourists ‘do’ European cities: a zip through the plot, a cursory look at the language, and the production of a neatly-formed list of acceptable opinions which were shoe-horned into paragraphs of more or less elegance. ‘You don’t hate him because he lies about a good man and causes the death of two good women?’
He looked at the desk. ‘You could argue that Othello asks for it. He’s set himself up as the Big Man, a good judge of character, the chief – but he’s not ready to have that claim tested. Desdemona’s married someone she barely knows, which Iago’s manipulation just proves. If anything, we’re likely to hate Iago because he reveals the lie of true love – or their true love, anyway. But we really hate him because he tells us right from the off that he hates everyone, and he’s just done with the world.’
It was funny, she thought, looking at him explaining this, at once so calm and so vehement, how we think we can read people. Had he been hurt by a girl, or was this just the cynicism of mid-adolescence which infatuation would sweep away? Was it the first flash of a poorly-disguised sociopathy, or was he just playing the devil’s advocate in a way completely foreign to her compliance-obsessed classroom? Why, she suddenly thought, did she assume that he fell into any of these neat categories just because he lacked years?
Still, he had a point. Iago comes easily to mind – the very name conjures up a twisted, creeping poison, puts it slap in the middle of a classroom. Iago could make most students, the ones who thought in any real sense, react because he was always half outside the play. Like the devil, always dancing about evilly, embracing the possibilities of this world.
‘I’m not sure that’s right,’ she said carefully. Immediately she wished she could retract the final world. She cursed ten years of teaching people whose cultural predilection was to boil everything down to right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, marks-gaining and marks-losing. ‘There are some things, some behaviours, that are just hateful. And intelligent readers see that.’
‘I think we judge the hatefulness of a character on their attitude to us, to the kind of power they give us – rather than what they actually do to others. Look at Humbert Humbert.’
She stilled. Nabokov’s novel was a teacher’s version of Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies. This was the point at which she was supposed to stop the argument and brightly redirect efforts to the task. But some thrawn part of her, desperate to engage with another reader’s mind, said ‘What do you mean?’
‘Humbert Humbert? What a stupid name.’ There was a snigger from somewhere in the room. Evidently Lolita didn’t figure in the Saturday tutoring repertoire, as it very properly shouldn’t.
He spread his hands. ‘He’s a pedophile who drugs his wife, marries her to get close to her teenage daughter, whom he then…’ he made a throwaway gesture. ‘You know.’
‘And we don’t hate him for that?’ she allowed a shrill note to enter her voice. No doubts could remain about a teacher’s disgust and ire at Humbert. Not if the teacher wanted to keep working.
‘Not really. The wife was as much of a fantasist as Humbert. And Lolita’s, what, sixteen? Fifteen? It’s not as if she’s five or six. And he loves her, by the end of it. Not her age, or her teenage body – which she’s lost by then. He loves her. We should probably hate him for being weak and pathetic, but we don’t. We like Humbert. We even laugh with him. We don’t hate him because he calls us his jury, and he’s pleading with us. We all get off on the power of judging someone. If you hate someone who pleads with you, what kind of monster are you?’
He raise his eyebrows and a shrug that implied What are we to make of all this? She became aware of multiple pens flick-spinning on multiple fingers. There was the sudden angsty recognition that material was being discussed which might affect marks, and thus standing, and thus happiness.
‘Should we bring up stuff like that?’
‘Should we read the Humbert book?
‘Should we make up characters if we can’t think of any?’
‘Will we get marked down if we write about, you know, pedophiles and stuff like that?’
‘Does this count?’
The new boy picked up his pen and started writing while the waterline of angst rose and threatened to spill over from the other seats. He wrote peacefully through the rest of the period until the bell rang and she collected the papers in. She stayed at her desk and found his paper in the pile. ‘Love those who hate you and turn the other cheek to those who smite you,’ he had written. ‘And then try putting Iago back in the box.’
She looked up thoughtfully. Outside the crowds were filling the grounds for lunchtime. She saw the new boy settle under a tree, alone, and pull out a sandwich. She returned to his paper. What, she thought, was she to make of all this?