Chris Kerr, 2/8/2010

Current Occupation: Teacher
Former Occupation: Desk Assistant, Class III
Contact Information: Chris Kerr was born in Vista, CA, his fiction debuted in The New Review of Literature, and his poetry first appeared in Eleven Eleven. He now lives in Oakland, teaches in San Lorenzo, and edits Projector, a magazine of creative responses to film ( He has chaired the Literary Arts department at Oakland School for the Arts and programmed film showcases for Postcrypt Art Gallery and Zooprax Film Society in NYC. He is writing a novel about an unplanned midlife pregnancy in the desert border city of El Centro.
Sober on Power

So before you tell me how little respect teachers get and how much you admire me, let me first speak truth to power. My power. The rosy dawn of my corruption, here it is.

They made me head of the English department after only one year teaching. You may be thinking, “Impressive meteoric rise,” but really they all took a step backward and there I was, holding the reigns of literacy at a giant high school in a district of low socioeconomic status. Everyone had seniority over me, so I was stuck being in charge. Still, it rocks to be in charge. You learn tons about yourself and people in general.

First thing I did after my little ascendancy was go online to order free sample copies of textbooks. I saw one anthology publisher also had a decked-out edition of Madame Bovary translated by Paul de Man. Had to have it. Thus, I reeled off an email asking for a copy because our AP instructor was considering the purchase of a class set. I said that we needed it soon, with NEED in all caps. No way around it, these were boldfaced lies.

I was up all night, sweating with guilt. Man alive, I hadn’t felt so terrible since The Margaritaville Riots. Remember the uprising at a stadium one fateful, fitful evening when Jimmy Buffett refused to play “Margaritaville?” Well, mea culpa, I led the thing. When he finished his encore and all the lights came on, when it sank in that he really wasn’t going to play “Margaritaville,” many shouted and screamed, but I was the first to take action. I bum-rushed the stage, dodging a massive security guard Jerry Rice-style, and hoisted myself up before Buffett could scurry away. I cried, “Why? Why? Why?” as I grabbed his kukui nut necklace, which broke across the stage. The parrot on his shoulder screeched at my grip on its master’s neck. Jimmy yelled, “Because I can!” trying to shake away from me. “Power-tripper! Judas!” I fumed! Security flew in from the wings, slipped and fell on the nut beads. In anguish, I snatched Jimmy’s rainbow bird, let my fallen music idol flee, and chewed off the parrot’s head. I smeared its blood onto my forehead and chest; security tackled me. But more furious fans took the stage, swinging back-up instruments at weaponless guards. Women on the field ripped huge holes into the Astroturf, bewailing our lost shaker of salt. Someone set fire to a thatched hut prop, flames spread up the sunset backdrop, and we all leaped off while a police helicopter dropped cans of teargas. Another helicopter appeared, and Jimmy reached for its dangling rope ladder. As he was lifted away, a woman in a burning grass skirt jumped, ululating, nabbing hold of his legs. Then a teargas canister smacked my head, knocking me out cold.

During my year in prison, with the crack in my crown slowly healing, I was blessed by my cellmate with a copy of Immanuel Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. It truly saved my life. It showed me how to forgive Jimmy Buffett. The categorical imperative says, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Get it?

I decided every man deserves at least one night off from playing the same old song, however soul-stirring and canonical the composition. Said man should have just let the public know before we bought $200 tickets. Moreover, Immanuel Kant got me in touch with the beauty of “Margaritaville”’s message: “But I know it’s my own damn fault.” The song always spoke to me, but Kant revealed exactly what it was saying. God, I felt crappy for going berserk and chewing up that parrot. So crappy that I knew once I got out of the pen, I’d take up teaching disadvantaged kids. But there I was again, the night after requesting Madame Bovary, back in the slammer of my moral wretchedness. Immanuel spoke in my heart: no choice but to confess.

At our first meeting with me as boss, I told my colleagues how I had abused the power entrusted in me and that, in laying bare my transgression, I was making a commitment to diligently excise any tyrannical, pork-barreling tendencies from this tiny building block of humanity. That’s me, by the way: the building block. They said it was no big deal. I still asked their pardon. They said, “Sure, whatever, guy.” We moved on to the next agenda item—scheduling our next meeting.

But I don’t think they were being totally honest. Maybe you agree with them that my ethical breach was no biggie, but I bet they simply wanted me to hush up about it, so it wouldn’t undermine their newfound image of me as an authority figure. I’m sure it must have shaken them somewhat. That’s just human nature.

You know, though, middle management should hold itself to a higher standard than that. Madame Bovary may have been worth only twenty bucks, but it was wrong what I did. It’s wrong, plain and clear.

Here’s what I think: power’s like this dazzling parrot flying across a pure sky. But the parrot shits and squawks all over people and it fails to speak real words. Words with conviction. With true referents! I believe I’ll go and buy a stuffed parrot, sunset-hued. I’m talking taxidermy, not a plush toy. I’ll love that it’s stuffed. I’ll sit it on my desk at school, a categorical memento. Come on class, repeat after me, “I know it’s my own damned fault.”

Hey, at least the publisher never sent me that book. Thank goodness.

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