Photograph by guest arts editor, Jamie Shombert.
Read about the art selection process for this piece here.
In recent years, people have been trying to blow up Paris, my adopted city. Call me intolerant, but frankly it’s pissing me off. I guess the schoolgirls who skip past my building twice a day have turned into someone’s idea of the enemy. Maybe our Portuguese concierge has too, as he rolls out the trash bins, or my Algerian barber, who leans in the doorway of his shop, wiping his hands on a towel. Even the bakery ladies probably stand for all that’s gone wrong in the gooey éclair of western society. The terrorists plan to take them all out.
Mind you, I get it: we’re all guilty of something. But maybe not quite at the level of assault rifles or suicide vests. At least, not yet.
It’s hard to know how or when to talk about disasters, because there are so many ways to get it wrong. Years ago, back when I was in college, I watched the Challenger space shuttle explode. A bunch of us had huddled around a TV on campus. Launches had become as routine as grocery shopping, but this time was a big deal because they had a teacher on board. Mission control counted down, the engines fired, and smoke began to churn. A rocket the size of a twenty-story building lifted from the ground, leaving the embrace of scaffolding. As it arced toward the clouds, the great cylinder rotated in a lazy pirouette. If you’d wanted to draw a picture of hope, ambition, this was it!
Then came that stunning burst of yellow. The bundle split, and plumes of exhaust forked. The booster swerved like a bottle rocket, and debris rained into the ocean. There were no parachutes. The room went so quiet we could hear each other breathing.
That’s when one of our profs piped up from the back. It was old Arnie, a bit of a gadfly. “Oh well,” he cracked. “Shows what happens when teachers get mixed up in things.”
Too soon? Just a bit.
And yet, how much time has to pass? When I was thirteen I wrapped a piece of string around the tummy of a rubber tarantula and tied the other end to the ceiling light in the bathroom. Then I balanced the creature on top of a cupboard door by the sink. It took some finessing, but soon that spider would dive-bomb anyone messing with the knob. When my little brother toddled in there that morning, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, the shriek he produced could have shattered glass. Even better, because he was always groggy in the morning, I managed to reproduce the performance several days in a row. To this day, despite all my attempts to convince him how hilarious it was, all I get is a glower. I understand: it’s still too soon. I need to wait a few more years before he fully appreciates it.
Time is the best anesthetic. That’s why people here can make jokes about the French Revolution or Napoleon. World War I is mostly fair game too, but WWII is iffy. The Algerian War? Uh, no, maybe don’t go there. Humor at the wrong moment is like a root canal without Novocain. Maybe that’s why in Paris the terrorists started by going after the cartoonists—the ones doing spoofs of the prophet Muhammad, joking about stuff from fourteen-hundred years ago. The problem? Simple. It was still too soon.
So we’ve had a series of “events.” At such times, the city hunkers down, flinching every time a car backfires. When entering my local shopping center I have to open my bags for inspection, and I unbutton my coat to show I’m not carrying. The metro grinds to a stop whenever an umbrella is left unattended, and military threesomes stroll through the parks, armed with machine guns. It’s all part of vigipirate—the security alert system that we try to take seriously despite their naming it like a cartoon buccaneer.
Luckily, my neighborhood is a low priority for terrorists. We don’t have many museums or government buildings—places that might as well have targets painted on them. And while there’s not much of a police presence, we have a natural defense system: parking is nearly impossible. Terrorists would have to cruise through the streets for hours before they unloaded. Most of the meters don’t even work. And if they ended up dueling for a parking spot with a mother whose Renault was loaded with kids and groceries, well, let’s just say I think we all know how that would end.
I’d like to believe I still have a heart rattling around somewhere in my chest, but it’s weird how distance affects it. I’m able to watch horrors on the evening news—bad stuff going down in Africa or the Middle East—but after shaking my head in sorrow, I wander to the kitchen to whip up some pasta.
It’s eerier when shit goes down close to home. One night on TV I watched a terrorist shootout unfold in another part of Paris. A bunch of masked men had stormed a concert hall, while some of their pals picked off patrons at terrace cafés. TV is that box that usually transports me to distant lands and times, but tonight the show was here and now, only a couple of miles away. I opened my window and leaned over the railing, listening for gunfire. But no, all I could hear was traffic. On the sidewalk below me an old man walked a fat dog. A bus roared by. When I closed the window, I didn’t even pull the curtains. Why bother? There was no danger here.
Then the text messages started to fly. Everyone in my circle was checking to make sure no one had taken a bullet.
But it turned out that one of them had. And that’s when it started to feel personal.
I was on my own for a stretch, so at least I didn’t have to worry about the safety of my family. But through somebody’s mistake in judgment I’d been put in charge of a group of students. They were all Americans, coming to study in Paris while the country was in a state of emergency. For a few months, I was expected to play the grownup, helping them fix their verb conjugations and go to the theater. It was OK at first, but current events kept creeping in. There were more terrorist attacks—this time in Brussels. A manhunt in Paris ended in gunfire. Not long after, a guy with a knife carved up a police captain in the name of—well, it wasn’t very clear in the name of what—and then he did the same to the guy’s wife. The students looked to me for answers, but who was I to weigh in? When they asked what the hell was going on, I’d say, “That’s a good question. Why don’t we see what Molière had to say about it?” It was so much easier to turn to books, to hole up in the there and then. Here and now I’d probably make things worse. It would be the space shuttle all over again—a teacher messing things up.
Profs everywhere were having trouble. My friend Sabine, a teacher on the outskirts of Paris, had a breakdown. What was the matter? Some of her students supported the terrorists.
The crazy thing was, the same kind of stuff was happening in the US: nightclub shootings, machete hackings, you name it. The difference was, in Paris people got depressed, while in the US they got angry. Americans were buying guns in record numbers. Sales went through the roof. In the States people don’t like to sit on their hands. They’d rather sit on a crate of ammunition. It makes you feel like you’re doing something.
That kind of thing would never happen in Paris. Or so I thought.
One day in I ran into Cyril, the president of our building association. He was coming down the stairs, led by two cops. Cyril works as a theater director, and he does rather avant-garde productions, but I had to wonder: was that sufficient grounds for arresting him? If the Comédie Française had its own police force, I knew they’d throw the book at him—he’d get twenty or thirty years in the slammer for daring to do something interesting.
He wasn’t wearing handcuffs, but Cyril is so skinny I assumed they’d just slipped off. But no, it turned out he was a free man. When he stopped to chat, the officers continued their descent.
“They knocked at my door,” he told me, his eyebrows rising to where his hairline used to be.
“You have a minute?”
He invited himself into the living room and waved me over to the window, pointing at the building across the street. A couple floors up, there was a sliding door going out to a balcony. Strips of masking tape speckled the glass, each one next to a dark pimple.
“Bullet holes,” he said. “The police say they came from this direction.”
I pictured Cyril in his apartment, a sniper rifle at his shoulder, his eye pressed to the scope, lining up the sights.
No, no, it wasn’t him, he protested, half-offended, half-flattered. He’d been cleared. The angle wasn’t right.
“But then, who…?” My mind reeled. Maybe the crazy woman on the fifth floor—the hoarder whose dog left gifts for us on the landings. Probably she’d finally cracked.
Still, what could we do about it? If our neighbor had taken to eliminating us one by one, it would just go on the agenda for next year’s general assembly of the building association. After all, rules were rules. And by next year, she might be a majority all by herself.
We never got to the bottom of that particular episode. The glass across the street was replaced one day, and it felt like we’d gone back to normal.
On the news they kept talking about French kids leaving the banlieues to go and join ISIS, where I guess they trained to return to Paris and creep up on customers sipping hot chocolate in cafés. At the same time, I was doing my own training, helping my students read French poetry and learn new words. I spent a lot of time hammering on language, trying to flatten the bumps out of my students’ grammar. It made me feel safe—like there was one thing I might still be able to control.
But I was wrong. I couldn’t control it. Not much. I had this one student, Maxine, whose French was pretty good because she’d learned it early. Great accent. Fluid. Huge vocabulary. But there were still screwball errors that popped and crackled. For instance, she had a problem with helping verbs. In French sometimes you’re supposed to use to have, but at other times you trot out to be. For instance, if you say that you’ve eaten something, it’s j’ai mangé. But if you’ve just arrived or departed, avoir becomes être, and you say je suis arrivé or je suis parti. Maxine kept saying j’ai parti, as if the verb être didn’t even exist for her. I offered corrections, but it was like working with Silly Putty: I’d stretch her language the way I wanted it to go, but a few minutes later it snapped back to its original state. Weeks went by, and soon students who’d been much weaker at the start were passing Maxine up. She was stuck.
“Why can’t I learn this!” she wailed.
I didn’t know. She was a smart kid, and she handled all sorts of other things without trouble. In fact, learning didn’t present a problem for Maxine. It was unlearning that was so hard. Years ago she must have been sick the day they covered être, and after that her teacher had never called her on it. Maybe he’d been grateful to get any past tense at all out of the students. Maybe he was lazy. Maybe Maxine was the star of his class, and he was so busy whipping the others forward that didn’t have time for spit and polish. Whatever the reason, she’d been saying it wrong for so long that nothing else felt right.
Like so much of education, language learning is a question of habits. You repeat expressions again and again until they’re as comfortable as an old pair of shoes. And you’d better get it right the first time, because once those shoes are broken in, new ones will never feel anywhere near as good.
I told Maxine it wasn’t her fault. Something had gone haywire in her French class years ago. It was another case of teachers screwing things up. I made a joke about it, but Maxine’s eyes were welling with tears. I guess it was too soon.
All the same, she wasn’t the only one repeating things that were wrong. Plenty of folks had similar problems. During all the terrorist attacks, the National Front kept yammering on about Muslims and Arabs as if they were the same thing, nudging both groups into the hazy category of terrorists. The more they repeated it, the more it sounded right, like some crazy verb conjugation. People were trying these ideas on for size and walking around in them. After a while they fit pretty well, providing support in all the right places. What a great pair of shoes, they thought.
Moreover, some of the politicians were really good at scaring you. Even people who lived in towns that didn’t have any immigrants were jumpy. It was as if the National Front had balanced a fake tarantula on the door of the bathroom cupboard of the nation, and no matter how many times people opened it, they still shrieked.
Worse yet, my students wanted guidance. At first I thought they were looking at some capable person standing behind me, but when I turned to check, there was no one else there. Because of my age or my job or my red pen I’d been armed with something far more dangerous than a Smith & Wesson: credibility.
The problem was, students assumed I knew what I was talking about. If I went into class one day and said things like j’ai parti or je suis mangé, everyone would follow suit. Right out of the starting gate, they were inclined to believe whatever I told them, simply because someone had pinned a teacher badge on my shirt. I briefly considered putting this to the test. I was going to make up some French expressions—fun little idioms like rich enough to fatten a bird’s butt, or as mad as a Tuesday Toad. All I had to do was write these on the board, lead the class in choral repetition of their translation, and voilà: they’d be screwed up for life.
Because, after all, wasn’t that what my counterparts were doing, with something even more dangerous than grammar? And I don’t just mean the National Front. I mean the guys on the other side, too—the handful of radicalized imams who were promoting Sharia law and enforced veiling, and who promised seventy-two virgins to everyone who martyred themselves for the cause. If they said it enough, their students would begin to nod in unison. They’d start to repeat it, and after a while, even though it was totally insane, it would start to feel right, like that old pair of shoes. Then the martyrs would buckle on their suicide vests and head out.
How do you fight a thing like that? Soft-headed folks on TV started sounding like that old prof of mine, Arnie. They said it was a failure of education—that people like my friend Sabine hadn’t done enough to turn immigrants into French people. But that didn’t sound right, either. I mean, if there’s one thing French schools know how to do, it’s how make people repeat things. The problem wasn’t that immigrant kids had failed to get in the habit of thinking of themselves as French. The problem was that they’d succeeded. And it wasn’t only from the schools; it was everywhere. The laws told them they were French. So did the politicians. And their passports confirmed it.
But then, when these kids tried to elbow into the work force, people turned around and said, “Knock it off. No cutting in line.” It was the Maxine story all over again: the immigrants had learned their lesson really well; it just happened to be the wrong one.
So now they had to unlearn it, which was hard and left them feeling cheated—as mad as a Tuesday Toad. That’s where the radicalized imams came in. They had this great pitch. They could teach a whole different system without worrying too much about how right it was, because, well, by the time their students found the rewards of martyrdom a little short of what was promised, they weren’t likely to come back and complain.
I decided it was OK for Maxine to say j’ai parti. No, I wasn’t going to teach the other students to put it that way, but I didn’t have to become the National Front about it, either. We were all immigrants of a sort, those twenty kids and myself, and the shoe of Frenchness was never going to be a perfect fit. That was OK.
So far, no one has shot out the new glass on the balcony across the way. And there’s still nowhere for a terrorist to park in my neighborhood. The attacks haven’t stopped, but the recent ones are farther away, less in the realm of the here and now than the there and then. For the moment anyway, the neighborhood has returned to its rhythm.
I watch the schoolgirls skipping down my street in the afternoon, their dark braids bouncing from side to side. Some of them stop at the bakery, counting their pocket money for a pain au chocolat or an éclair. Downstairs I hold the door open for Monsieur Carvalho as he rolls out the trash bins. Soon it will be time for a haircut, and I’ll go to see my barber.
During this lull, my mind often drifts to the past, and I sigh. I consider calling up my brother to reminisce about the flying tarantula.
But deep down I know it’s still too soon.