Dutch author, Herman Koch, serves up a multi-course meal of mental manipulation in The Dinner – a novel that became an instant international best seller after its publication in the Netherlands in 2009. The setting is a trendy and very expensive Amsterdam cafe, where ordinary people have to wait months for a table, but not when the reservation is for Serge Lohman, a diplomat presumably on the way to becoming the Prime Minister. On the evening that encompasses the entire plot present of the novel, he is dining with his wife, Babette, and his brother, Paul, and his wife, Claire. The evening, and the novel itself, is divided into five courses – Apertif, Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert and Digestif. With each new course a bit more of the story is served through flashbacks narrated by Paul. Paul is a classic unreliable narrator and my patience with him was thin even before the main course when the tragic event involving the teenage sons – cousins – of the two couples is revealed. Their boys have committed a heartless crime – but plot digression reveals that the heartlessness in this family may be thicker than a little heap of “lasagna slices with eggplant and ricotta held together with a toothpick” on Paul’s plate. This family’s moral fiber has unravelled long before this dinner. If this book is a five course meal, I have to admit it left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. All of the characters are flawed, the stealthy and riveting plot twists that the cover blurbs promise are unfulfilled. At best, the book is a dark satire about the inhumanity society is capable of accepting as palatable.
I read this book after seeing a full page ad for it in The New York Times Book Review and looking at the corresponding book trailer on YouTube. The main character, 10 year old August Pullman, is born with a facial deformity that makes people look away in horror and keeps him out of public schools until the beginning of 5th grade, when the book begins. He opens the narration of the book and says, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” His parents decide he is ready to face the stresses of Beecher Prep School. His entrance into the mainstream is supposed to be softened by his introduction to Jack, Julian and Charlotte, young “leaders” chosen by the principal to show Auggie around the school before the year begins. Of course, children don’t become friends simply because adults want them to, and kids are cruel – a lesson Auggie must learn time and time again. Wonder has won many “best book” accolades and been described as one that will make children and adults treat others better. I loved Auggie and wanted to cheer him on in the truthful, sad sections of the book that he narrates. I thought the narrative structure was weakened by the alternative voices used by the author – various friends, and Auggie’s sister, Olivia. I felt these other narrators did little more than re-narrate the same events rather than advancing the plot. But there are so many other positives about the book, one of which is the Choose Kind pledge on a Tumblr site advocating the book’s anti-bullying mission. Also, I really loved the Precepts used by one of the teachers to frame his instruction for the year –
“When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” —Dr. Wayne Dyer
“Your deeds are your monuments.” —Inscription on ancient Egyptian tomb
“Have no friends not equal to yourself.” —Confucius
“Fortune favors the bold.” —Virgil
“No man is an island, entire of itself.” —John Donne
“It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.” —James Thurber
“Kind words do not cost much. Yet they accomplish much.” —Blaise Pascal
“What is beautiful is good, and who is good will soon be beautiful.” —Sappho
“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.” —John Wesley
“Just follow the day and reach for the sun.” —The Polyphonic Spree
“Everyone deserves a standing ovation because we all overcometh the world.” —Auggie Pullman
Taylor Mali is a teacher advocate and performance poet famous for a poem he wrote called “What Teachers Make”. The poem – and video that by now all my teaching friends have seen – grew into a crusade and now an inspiring book about the intrinsic rewards of teaching.
The poem began as a response to a lawyer who insulted Mali and the entire teaching profession at a dinner party in 1997. In the introduction to the book, Mali explains – “For the lawyer, it really came down to how poorly compensated teachers are — no intelligent person would take a job that paid less than what he was making as a lawyer. At the party that night I was so furious inside that I couldn’t come up with a clever comeback, so I bit my tongue and laughed politely. But the next day, January 1, 1998, I wrote a poem that was the forceful response I wish I had delivered that night. The poem was called “What Teachers Make.”
Last year, when I heard Mali had written a book expanding the sentiments of this poem, I preordered it and read it cover to cover when it arrived. I wanted to wave it in the face of every co-worker I knew who needed encouragement. In the suburban school district where I taught high school English for 30 years, the last several have been really difficult for teachers. Mali sounds a battle cry for continued professionalism in a doubting age with chapter titles including “Making Kids Work Hard”, “Your Child is My Student”, and “Lightbulb Moments and Happy Accidents”. These chapters elaborate on the tough work teachers do and how difficult it is to continue to be rigorous with children in a society that has become lazy. One where parents are micro-managing the school lives of their children, but have no idea what they are really doing with the cell phones they have given them. The happy accidents Mali refers to occur most often when effective teaching influences the desire for life-long learning by providing students with relevant assignments, alternative assessments, risk-rewarding learning environments, and engagement with the narrative of the learner’s life.
Mali also has a chapter called “Fighting Back Against the Attack on Teachers”. In it he recognizes the greed and excess that permeates so much of society. He understands that “Profit in the short term has come to trump sustainable and equitable long term growth,” and acknowledges this voracious machine has finally set its sight on teachers. What he does not understand – and frankly neither do we who have devoted our lives to teaching – is the recent characterization of teachers as lazy and greedy. He writes, “Only someone with very little understanding of what teaching requires would say such a thing.” He suggests putting anyone who doubts the commitment it takes to succeed into a classroom for a year. He finally illuminates the truth – “All of the teachers I have known need one hour outside the classroom for every hour they spend in the classroom. So next time you hear someone talk about the paltry number of hours teachers put in every day, double it.” He also discusses teacher burn out and cites the statistic that fifty percent of teachers quit by the fifth year of teaching. It is just too much work for too little pay.
I love this book. I was reminded of it this week when a guidance counsellor friend posted the video on her Facebook page (thank you, Tara). Last year before my husband, English department chair, and I retired, we entertained the thought of buying one for everyone in our department to take out and read on dark weekends like this one. Instead we played the video at our last department meeting and entrusted one copy to the department library.
Today, I would place this book in the lap of every one of my friends in the profession as a reminder of why you were called to teaching in the first place. The greatest profession in the world has never been great because of what you make. You are worth so, so, so much more.