Photo courtesy of Paulo Ziemer
By Emily Brisse
I liked him, but I didn’t respect him—not really. He struck me as kind of a doofus. A few years shy of retirement, Mr. E’s white hair and pink cheeks made me think of a jester from an old English court, an impression probably bolstered by the way he moved, like a puppet, scooting around across the front of the classroom on his swivel chair, arms akimbo, an unpredictable assortment of wild expressions splashed across his face.
“Gre-gor!” he said, his mouth and eyebrows animated. “We’re going to create Gre-gor!”
This was AP English. Literature and language were my twin delights. Just that week I’d spent my free periods copying down beloved passages from Cyrano de Bergerac. Why? Because beauty. Because truth. Because purpose. My future held more ideas like these, I knew, and I wanted them now, wanted to understand—to be better at understanding—and I was hungry to be taught how. We had just read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, though, and I didn’t know what to think. It was strange in all the ways Bergerac was lovely. The story eluded and worried me, like an untamed thing scurrying across the ceiling. I wanted to pin it down, as I’d been able to do in the past—through assigned and guided writing, even poetry. But instead of any formal assessment, Mr. E declared that, as a class, we would make a life-size “monstrous vermin” out of paper mâché.
Ridiculous, I thought.
Sure, it was fun for five minutes—the glue, the sticky ribbons of paper, the novelty—but exasperation soon wore me thin. I looked around, the ground littered with scraps, and it felt like squander. Days, and eventually an entire week passed, where our class did nothing but form plastic tubing into the insect’s eight-foot frame, and then cover it, strip by strip, with that wet, pliant pulp.
I remember washing my hands in the bathroom after class, digging the dried glue out from under my fingernails, stewing about each pointless placement of paper. This was spring. The AP test was looming. Why couldn’t the man just teach?
Finally, when its shell was hard and crusty to the touch, Mr. E declared our insect complete. It’s possible my classmates and I grabbed permanent markers and wrote out favorite lines from the novella on its husk: What’s happened to me? It is no dream. But all I recall is our teacher bounding from his chair, declaring, “It’s time! All of you—inside!” We stared at him in disbelief. But he was clamorous, insistent. So groups of six or seven of us hefted the insect’s bulky form over our heads and shoulders, like an upside down canoe, and followed our teacher out of the classroom into the hall. “Now, chant!” he commanded. And though our voices were laced with awkwardness and incredulity and all the ironic comedy we could muster, we did.
Around our heads, his name echoed and ricocheted. Soon the legs of other teachers and students appeared from classroom doors, witnesses to our weird and inscrutable march. I can still picture the way the hallway light rushing by my feet contrasted with the dark underbelly of our creature, still remember feeling unexpectedly protected, almost invincible: transformed.
Later, after shrugging the thing off, it thudding against the floor in the back of the classroom, I’m sure I rolled my eyes, muttering, “So ridiculous.” In Kafka’s story, Gregor dies. His family is relieved of his preposterous existence. Though depressing, this felt understandable to me. I mean, I too was glad to be done with something as insignificant as an insect.
I was eighteen. Truth and Beauty were waiting. I didn’t want to waste my time.
But, almost twenty years later, out of all the classroom hours I remember from high school, it is those I spent with that insect that linger most. My recollection of its details, its connection to Kafka’s story, its weirdness, its frustration, its sorrow—and the project’s champion, Mr. E—far exceed my memory of whatever poetry I read or wrote, whatever passages I at one time loved, whatever I believed I needed to know for the life I imagined as more unswerving than it’s turned out to be.
I’m not sure I ever did pin down the point of The Metamorphosis. I certainly never wrote a poem about it. But that turned out not to matter. Whatever Mr. E’s purpose, Gregor, that monstrous unnecessary thing, stuck to me, its shell deflecting the erroneous belief that learning is in any way at odds with wildness, with ridiculousness, with letting imagination run down the hall with little more than a name.
Emily Brisse's essays have appeared in publications including the Washington Post, Creative Nonfiction's True Story, Ninth Letter, Lumina, and december magazine. A graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, She's a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, a Curt Johnson Prose Award finalist, and a 2018 recipient of a Minnesota Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant. She teaches English at Breck School, and lives just outside of Minneapolis with her family.