Once you learn to read you will be forever free - Frederick Douglass

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Rocky, Bullwinkle, Dostoevsky and Me

The Obsessive Reader just saw a hilarious post by Jimmy Chen called "Raskolnikov's Inbox" which I have pasted at the end of this blog post, below.  And it got me to thinking.  I don't know when you first sampled the novels of Dostoevsky, but references to his masterwork, Crime and Punishment, and that novel's doomed protagonist, Raskolnikov, remind me of two incidents from my teenage years; one still resonates with sadness, the other makes me laugh even now.

Sadness first.
A 19th century Obsessive Reader
The Obsessive Reader had a 10th grade AP English teacher, Mrs. Protter.  English, not surprisingly, was my favorite subject.  I loved it so much that nearly every week I read additional plays and novels and submitted reports on them for extra credit.  (Toward the end of the semester The Obsessive Reader's grade in this class was about an A+++!)  BUT, no matter how well I performed, Mrs. Protter refrained from praising me, and, worse, displayed such hostility toward me in class that my classmates often were compelled to come to my defense.  The unfortunate climax arrived when Mrs. Protter refused to believe The Obsessive Reader was the author of one of her many extra-credit book reports, this one on Crime and Punishment.  Pointing to a line in my book report, "the dry business of murder," Mrs. Protter said to me after class one day, "Fifteen year olds don't write like that." She insisted that I bring in my copy of the book so she could check its covers and determine whether I plagiarized my report. Hurt, confused and humiliated by the false accusation, I reported this incident to my parents.  
It was 1969 and my high school in the hills had only that semester opened its segregated white campus to African American students from the flats due to the district's court-ordered integration program.  There were so few of us; I was the lone black student in many of my classes. I interpreted Mrs. Protter's negativity toward me as a sign of inexplicable personal animus; she was picking on me, and I didn't know why.  My wiser parents believed that forces of ingrained racism, personal and institutional, were at work.  They demanded a meeting at my school with the teacher, dean and school principal. After the heated session, I think everyone believed, however subtly, that Mrs. Protter's animus toward me was the result of a disturbed shake-up in her distorted racial views.  But, I wonder. Both my brother and sister behind me had classes with Mrs. Protter, and experienced no such conflicts. And, in my senior year, as my independent study advisor, she gave me an A on an ambitious but garbled paper on D.H. Lawrence that showed, I know now, that I was too young to tackle his challenging world view.  Perhaps what I experienced in the 10th grade was what people call a personality clash.  Or, could she have been transformed by the cauldron of events? Did her confrontations with me change her? I don't know the answer, but I am more sensitive regarding what it may take to be an adult charged with teaching young people the wide-ranging humanist and aesthetic concerns that are the enterprise of literature. 

As it says in Psalms, "weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning." So, on to the funnies.

Not long after this protracted event, I was as usual engrossed in watching the sophisticated cartoon, Rocky and Bullwinkle after school one day.  This activity was shared among my multiracial, college-bound, Advanced-Placement-course-taking friends.  We loved being newly aware of the literary and political in-jokes on the show, its knowing, sometimes obscure references to history and culture.  Between the innocence and ignorance of childhood and unknowable adulthood, we were skeptical observers of a society ravaged by the Vietnam War, and thus the perfect audience for the comic mayhem of the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.  With show titles such as "The Fin Diver or The Sharkshank Redemption," and "Cruise Control or Lord of the Spies," you can see how the silly, but sharp-edged educated humor appealed to us, burgeoning snobs and novice dissidents.  So, this afternoon, I was lounging in front of the TV in the hours before my parents arrived home from work, in between starting up dinner and ignoring my younger brother and sister as best I could.  The show commenced.

Narrator: Our story begins in Pottsylvania, the home of that terrible trio, Boris Badenov, Natasha Fatale, and Fearless Leader. Since it is overrun by spies and a villain who wants to take over the world, the place is very dark and dreary. Which explains the lush plant life, wildlife, bright sunlight, and... wait a minute, what is this?

Natasha: We are in a jungle, narrator dollink.

Narrator: Okay, but what are you doing in a jungle?

Boris: Our boss told us that one of his spies found a secret formula here. It is so top secret that we are not supposed to tell anyone.
Narrator: You just told me about it.

Boris: Raskolnikov!

Fearless Leader: Badenov, you numbskull! What have I told you about secret formulas?

Boris: Uh, telling someone about them doesn't make them secrets anymore?

Fearless Leader: Exactly.

Raskolnikov! Boris Badenov (whose name is another joke, of course, on a real life tsar from Russia's misty past immortalized by Pushkin and Mussogorsky) had just uttered the word as if it was an oath, a curse. Raskolnikov! I knew who that was! The reluctant, impoverished, 
spiritually desperate murderer created by Dostoevsky. I had just read "Crime and Punishment," one of the masterpieces of literature. In front of the TV set in 1969, The Obsessive Reader laughed with recognition at the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon, filled with a delight Mrs. Protter could never take away from me. 

*(Disclaimer: Rocky and Bullwinkle are owned by Jay Ward Productions)

As promised at the top of this post, enjoy this post found at one of my favorite literary blogs, HTML GIANT

Jimmy Chen

Raskolnikov’s inbox

[Best if read bottom up for chronological order.]


luisadg said...

It's Sunday morning, 7:00 a.m. and here I am reading your wonderful new blog and scrolling down to the blogs I've missed over these busy, unusually busy, weeks. Great writing Susan! And poignant childhood memories, and thoughtful reflection on life and readings. We had a Miss Protter in our elementary school days, my sisters and I, in Miss Zaegar's, English teacher/school marm's class... She hated the new waves of Italians coming to Toronto and was relentless with all three of us (although my oldest sister bore the brunt of the situation). But as you say, it's complex and can't always be explained away with one, seemingly apparent, motive. You must have been quite a handful for poor Ms. Protter!

OK, on to the NY Times

The Obsessive Reader said...


I love your story. Why would a teacher be so discouraging? It's a question I'm still living with.

The Obsessive Reader

John Vagabond said...

Amongst so much archivally wet drivel in the blogosphere, this blog stood fresh, dry and proud - a find indeed, and thank you. It might be of interest hear how I came upon it. A semantic argument over the difference between a moose and an elk led me and some Canadian friends to "Rocky and Bullwinkle" which in turn, via Raskolnikov's Inbox, to you. Do glance at these two links plus comment threads if it amuses you...

The Obsessive Reader said...

So glad to receive your comment!! And good to make your acquaintance.