Thursday, February 19, 2009

Franz Kafka vs. 8th Grade Algebra

The BBC’s list of 100 books has reminded me of my experience involving yet another author, and book, missing from the list.

Somehow, when I was about 13 years old, I heard about author Franz Kafka and his most famous work, The Metamorphosis, in which the protagonist wakes up one morning to find he’s somehow turned into a giant insect (some say cockroach). Never mind that the story is supposed to be a metaphor for the human condition and human suffering; my 13-year-old self decided she just HAD to read it because, hey, stories about people turning into giant bugs are COOL. However, the fact that the book was also considered a classic certainly wasn’t lost on me.

My dad, fortunately, had a battered paperback of the story among his stacks of books. I eagerly grabbed it and stuffed it into my backpack one morning on my way to school. I hated quite a few of my classes, and I was sure the book would make the time pass faster until I could get to the classes that I DID like.

It was common practice for kids to hide things they WANTED to read in their textbooks. The bigger and thicker the textbook, the easier it was to hide things like comic books, joke books, and small novels inside of it. All one had to do was prop up the textbook so that it was open and facing the reader, with the contraband reading material also propped up and open, and hidden inside. Employing this method, my preferred reading material was a comic book. Comic books were so thin that all I had to do was turn a textbook page when the teacher walked by in order to hide my comics. However, I just HAD to read The Metamorphosis despite the fact that it would be harder to hide.

By the time I got to my Algebra class that afternoon, I was halfway through The Metamorphosis, and I was enthralled. I couldn’t wait to sit down at my desk and prop open the book inside my math textbook. I hated math, anyway. Even though, at that point, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life (still don’t, actually), I just KNEW it wasn’t going to involve math. As far as I was concerned, math was going to be out of my life forever once I graduated from school.

My math teacher, Mr. George, was normally a very pleasant man. I liked him even though he taught the hated subject of Algebra. It’s probably why I let my guard down and didn’t really notice when he walked by my desk and saw me reading what definitely wasn’t math text. Devouring every horrific word in front of me, I was completely oblivious to Mr. George’s presence –- until he snatched The Metamorphosis out of my math book, marched to the front of the class, and chucked it into the wastebasket.

Now, in my family, books were sacred. It was okay to give them away and even sell them, but one NEVER threw away or deliberately damaged books. Besides, it was Kafka, and Kafka was classic!

Filled with righteous indignation, I stood up in the middle of class and very loudly yelled, “Do you realize you just threw away KAFKA?!?!”

I was handed a pink slip and shoved out the door, with instructions to march my smart-ass self to the principal’s office. I’d never been to the principal’s office before. Oh, I was by no means a perfect child. It’s just that I either usually didn’t get caught, or when I DID get caught, it was over minor annoyances that didn’t merit attention from a higher authority. So, I should have been scared to death about being sent to the principal’s office. Instead, I was just mad. He threw my book away! How could anyone DO something like that?!

Upon arriving at the principal’s office, I handed my pink slip to the secretary, who then marched me in to see the big guy. He asked me what happened.

“Mr. George threw my book away!” I said.

“Was it a book you were supposed to be reading?” he asked.

“No,” I admitted, “but he threw it in the trash! It wasn’t trash!”

“What were you reading?” the principal then asked.

The poor man probably expected me to say something like “Teen Beat” or “Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane.” Instead, of course, he heard, “Franz Kafka. Metamorphosis.”

For a moment, the principal looked VERY surprised, and he just stared at me. I can still see the expression on his face -- an expression that more or less said, “I know she’s supposed to be paying attention to her Algebra lessons –- but, DAMN, she’s reading Kafka!”

“Are you reading this for another class, or for the fun of it?” he finally asked me.

I considered lying and saying it was for a class, but I admitted it was for fun.

He then asked me to sit in a chair outside his door and wait. I did so, watching the office clock until it ticked to about five minutes past the official end of my Algebra class. Then the principal came out of his office and asked me to follow him. We walked all the way back to my Algebra class, which was now completely deserted. The principal then walked up to the wastebasket and pulled my book out of it.

“Is this your book?” he asked, handing it to me.

“Yes!” I replied, very happy that the trash hadn’t yet been emptied. I muttered a "thank you" and stuffed the book safely into my backpack.

“Just make sure that from now on, you read what you’re SUPPOSED to read in this class,” the principal said.

I promised I would and thanked him again -– silently vowing to hide only comic books in my math textbook from then on.

Thirty-one years later, I’m a book editor -– who edits math books. ARGH!


TF said...

I remember you mentioning this adventure over on my blog once.
I find it truly adorable.
Fortunately I have a couple of hours each week in which my classmates do english and I can pretty much anything I want.
My english teacher is an italian lady who is a few sandwiches short of a picnic.
When I showed her I was reading 'War of the Worlds' by H.G.Wells, she said
'Ah yeah yeah, yeah... verne, yes!'

You confuse Wells with some french idiot who thought that by shooting yourself out of a cannon you could get to the moon?
Ignorant swine.

FoldedSoup said...

Hee hee... Thanks for sharing that!

I think something similar has happened to all us geeks during that age.

MetFanMac said...

The irony is staggering. :-D

My preferred method of reading during class was simply to hold the book in my lap. Often my head was bent so low it touched the desk. Most teachers never even noticed...

Duskdog said...

I never read books in class, but I wrote all the time. I'd have my notebook out, scribbling away, and I rarely got in trouble for it because they always just assumed I was taking notes. (I did take a few notes. Scribbled in the margins, heh.)

I sympathize with you about the books are sacred thing, though. We had a puppy once that chewed the cover off of The Death of Ivan Ilyich and I literally cried because it just seemed like a wrong, horrible thing even though the book itself was still perfectly readable and undamaged in any other way.

Speaking of which, I saw from your last post that you haven't really gotten to/through much by the Russian realists, but I think you might enjoy them if you enjoy Kafka.

SallyP said...

You NEVER throw out books! You may read them, spill sauce on them or tea, drop them in the bathtub, mangle their bindings till the pages fall out, but You Never Throw Out A Book.

I remember when we moved to our present house, we had to figure out a way to move all the books, because the mover refused. We had more than 80 boxes. That was ten years ago, and I'm sure that I've double the number of books that I own. I live in a big old Victorian, that actually has a library, and I STILL don't have enough shelves.

I've never read Metamorphosis, but I did read English History books for fun...and still do.

RAB said...

You are my hero.

googum said...

Nice. I've read my Kafka, but the stories that really stuck with me were versions of some of his short ones from Epic Illustrated. Man, wish I could find those again.

Sea_of_Green said...

I admit, this was kind of a defining moment in my reading history. :-)

I WILL succeed in finishing Dostoyevsky someday. I think part of the problem is I have yet to find a translation that isn't a pain in the %Y#*&% to slog through.

I should probably clarify: I don't edit JUST math books. If I did, I don't think I would have survived in the publishing industry this long! I'm actually working on a puzzle book right now -- which is kinda fun. :-)

Saranga said...

SallyP: You have a library? In your house? Wow. I'm waiting and praying for the day I can get a house big enough for a library.

SallyP said...

Yup. Floor to ceiling bookshelves, and they are all pretty much full. It's awfully handy to have.