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Friday, December 24, 2010

In Memory of a Late Teacher: Thesis and Antithesis

To enter that high school European History classroom was to enter a sanctuary. You were being inducted into something much greater than you could access, you a freshman, he a teacher with consonants exploding klieg-fast and with a certainty you could never hope to muster. Let's have a summary, he'd splutter, and you would try to recover from your careful notes -- taken before in the marble notebook he demanded -- some simulacrum of the prospect view and theory of history on which he had lectured the day before. Years later, you revisit his syllabus, his careful crafting of European history, and marvel at how gracefully opinionated his ideas were, how much history he happily elided, and the absolute respect he extended to mostly American students by proffering them, on a filigreed silver platter, the absolutisms of his Europe.

The defenestration of Prague. Thesis (splutter) and antithesis (double splutter).

To this writer, having been schooled in Oakland-Berkeley public school with not much more to show for it than an acquaintance with Japanese kite songs, the Pate-Pate, and the best methods for incubating chicks, becoming a person who would never truly master which states border Minnesota, Mr. Crome's specificity and transcendence knocked away walls and created a vaulted intellectual cathedral. One could master history and form a thesis; even Herodotus was a kind of fiction writer; historiography already an imperiled pursuit. Come to history with some creativity, he seemed to imply, a stance which might have been a result of his brief past as a kid in the Hitler Youth, a student-borne "fact" which might have had no legs. A bad historian, I still don't know.

His head shone under fluorescence so brightly it seemed spit-polished, as was, perhaps, the careful curl of his forelock. In his being, he retained something of the blue-eyed boyish roue (accent over the e, but can't put it in here!) about him: I would always see him at Au Coquelet, the Berkeley cafe on University and Milvia, savoring with great nostalgia some pastry with layers of whipped cream which just about screamed opening night at the Bavarian opera house. In short, he was exactly the particular enigma students remember and savor, everyone held in the loving esteem which the school -- note "school" as a breathing, corporeal being -- showed its faculty as well as its students.

I remember Mister Crome talking to me on a walkway at what we still thought of as the new campus, telling me a term paper I had written on Descartes was a noble failure, and the phrase stuck: he offered me the epiphany of realizing ideas would forever be embedded in words as a kind of holy vestment, and that there would never be a way to sunder an idea from its representation in language. I could almost say my entire career (as a writer who seems unwillingly drawn, again and again, back to the idiosyncratic byways of history) could have come from the moment of realizing both the failure of my attempt and the nobility of the pursuit.

To the memory of Mister Hans Crome, therefore, to spit-curls and klieg-consonants, in gratitude, I raise the above cup of nostalgic froth.