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Fighting Words

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A few years back, when I was dean of boys at a New York City high school, my most frequent customers were the kids who bashed each other over all sorts of obscure points of honor. In one case, the issue of contention was the ownership of a lollipop. Those hapless miscreants were more sensitive to real or imagined slights than the haughtiest Gascon you're likely to run into this side of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Almost all of them shared something else: They couldn't express themselves. They had immense anger and towering grievances, but they could not put such feelings into words, even crudely. In the clash of wits, these young men were armed with no linguistic weapons. Lashing out physically was their only response to confrontation. Those who ended up in my office didn't have a hope of winning a verbal duel or even explaining themselves to an opponent.

As an English teacher as well as a dean, one of the most important parts of my curriculum was to point out how some writers not only turn their anger into exquisite prose or poetry but also control rage and channel it constructively.

One of our junior year texts contained a cut version of James Baldwin's essay "Notes of a Native Son.'' Unfortunately, the editor included only the episode of young James' exposure to bigotry in a posh New Jersey restaurant during World War II. Of course, it was an incident that would have made anyone furious. But these students generally didn't need more lessons in anger or any more reason to blow their tops. What most of them needed instead were examples of how to save themselves from the rage ripping apart their own lives--which is what Baldwin's essay is really about. So I always read to my classes the ending of the essay after we discussed the abridgment in our text. Sure, says Baldwin, lots of things are wrong with the world, but the fight against injustice has to begin within yourself, which means seeing things clearly but keeping your "own heart free of hatred and despair.''

That, of course, doesn't mean that you can't zap some wise guy or gal with a nifty put-down. Eloquent muckrakers like Jacob Riis or Upton Sinclair were hardly shrinking violets and did more good with their stinging prose than all the bomb-throwers put together. I wasn't preaching mute acceptance and pacifism in class, but the kids who admired Cyrano's skill with his sword were often equally impressed by his ability to bloodlessly but mortally cut down any clown who insulted him about the size of his nose.

"Vote for you,'' said a constituent to the 18th-century English politician John Wilkes, "why, I'd rather vote for the devil.''

"But what if your friend doesn't run?'' the unflustered Wilkes replied.

After the war with France, a group of French generals made a great show of scornfully turning their backs on the Duke of Wellington at a public reception. "I've seen their backs before,'' quipped the Iron Duke, winning another battle.

"Here are two tickets to my opening night,'' wrote George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill. "Bring a friend--if you have one.''

"Can't make it to your first performance,'' Churchill replied, "but I'll come to the second--if there is one.''

I know this sounds like a mini-course in introductory venom. And I realize that it's not nice to encourage students to insult others--although the victims often were certainly asking for it. But, as a dean and teacher, I was dealing with youngsters who would beat each other up over a dirty look or a difference of opinion about the weather.

It would have made my day to hear a couple of my clients challenge each other to step outside and slug it out, not with their fists but with epigrams--at 10 paces!

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