Hamartia

September 11, 2009
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"1. Alliteration: the repetition of usually initial consonant sounds in two or more neighboring words or syllables. 2. Anaphora: repetition of a word or expression at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, sentences, or verses especially for rhetorical or poetic effect. 3. Assonance: the relatively close juxtaposition of similar..."
The definitions marched on in a toneless procession. The boy sat with his pen at the ready but made no mark on the notebook that sat before him. He knew these words; note-taking was, as usual, a pointless exercise. His palm was hot beneath his cheek, and the boy reflected that if his father were there he would yell at the boy for the hundredth time not to touch his face, lest it worsen his acne. The boy did not care about his acne and wondered how it could so aggravate his parents when it never bothered him.
"6. Hamartia: the downfall of an otherwise noble hero through a defect of character," said Mrs. Walter loudly. She looked up from her vocabulary list with its two pristine columns and tidy little bullets and glanced quickly around the classroom to find that the boy in seat D-5 was staring into space yet again. Being careful not to hesitate, she began reciting the definition of the next word—hubris—from her list, and as she did so she pushed the list aside to expose the seating chart she kept taped at all times to the desk beneath. Fourth period, row D, seat 5, and there he was: Michael Cothran, her first dissident of the year. Another quick glance reassured her that he had not been alerted; his eyes remained fixed on the vacant wall before him, and now his lips were moving, probably sounding out the words to some inane punk rock song, Mrs. Walter thought as she cleared her throat.
The boy leaned back, as he often did when there was nothing else to do, and let his eyes drift aimlessly across the classroom, taking in the familiar sight of moving pencils. Every student wrote differently, he noticed: some in quick, erratic spurts of frenzied scratching, others in a slow and constant stream of loops and swirls. In fact there was only one other student who wasn't writing at all, a moderately pretty Hispanic girl whose name he did not know or couldn't remember. He thought of ways to ask her, jokes to tell—"Sorry, I've probably asked you before and forgotten that, too"—and as he thought he turned back toward the front of the class and moved his lips silently, playing out their imagined conversation from beginning to end. He was just revising his final quip when Mrs. Walter cleared her throat loudly, and his carefully orchestrated small-talk fled from his memory like a startled deer. The boy looked over to Mrs. Walter's desk in the far corner and saw that she was, predictably, trying to scare him with what she probably thought was a cold and stony gaze.
Sitting behind her desk, Mrs. Walter struggled to suppress a chuckle as the boy surfaced from the lyrics of his rock song and found himself helplessly transfixed by her cold and stony gaze.
"Having a good time there, Mr. Cothran?" she asked him casually.
The boy wondered briefly why so few teachers were able to make the distinction between speaking casually and speaking in falsetto, then gave her his most polished, "model student" smile.
"Uh, I guess so," he said aloud, and the rest of the class snickered as Mrs. Walter's cold and stony gaze intensified.
"Then I don't suppose you would mind telling us the definition of that last vocabulary word?"
Quickly the boy weighed his options, then took a gamble. "Not at all," he replied cheerfully. "What was the last vocabulary word?"
As he had hoped, the nobly suppressed chuckling of the class now erupted into undisguised laughter. Mrs. Walter, who knew better than to take on a whole class at once, waited for it to subside, then rose like a breaching whale from her desk and strode majestically to the center of the room.
"Very funny, Mr. Cothran. Very funny indeed. Unfortunately there's nothing funny about the disregard you show for your education. If you can't pay attention long enough to know the meaning of the word 'hubris,' you will never stand a chance against the rigorous environment of college."
As the sound of the word "hubris" entered the boy's ears, the muscles surrounding his eyes suddenly tightened, and he felt as though his vision was being compressed, compacted, hardened into an implacable diamond lens whose gaze cut through his fog-shrouded memory like the beam of a lighthouse. He straightened, looked his teacher in the eye, and before she could even begin another sentence, recited:
"Hubris: a word derived from the Greek root hybris for unnecessary force, meaning exaggerated pride or self-confidence which, in literature, usually causes the downfall of the character whose ethos it inhabits."
No one said a word.
Finally Mrs. Walter stated, "Detention. After school in the library for ten minutes." Then she returned to her desk, sat down, and pronounced, "8. Hyperbole: extravagant exaggeration.
9. Juxtaposition: the act or instance of positioning..."
She went on at a breakneck pace, and the class was forced to pick up its pencils once again. The boy sat silently at his desk and stared at the blank page before him. On that one blank sheet of paper, as though through a crystal ball, he could see all the remaining events of the day unfolding. It was a familiar routine: Detention. Another ten minutes spent sitting by himself, not speaking to anyone. The triumphant look on the teacher's face as she watched. His mother, waiting to pick him up, the look on her face as he explained why he was late. Those two words—her first response, it was always the same: "Oh, Mike." His father's crisp, white shirt as he came home from work in the evening, his face as the boy's mother told him the news, and then the hammering stream of questions, ‘Why can't you do this, you're smart, why don't you just listen, it's the very first day for God's sake…’
Slowly, the boy picked up his pen and wrote a single word—the only one he could remember—across the top of his page. He looked at it for a moment and thought that it sounded very much like the name of a girl.





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