In the seventh grade, I starred in a play written by my school’s gym teacher. That year, Mr. Whitley had bullied the school board into letting him teach a section of drama so that they would be forced to raise his salary on a technicality. Whitley told those of us in his fourth period Theater Arts class that he had written the play because drama was in his goddamned blood. But we all knew that he had only slapped it together over the Columbus Day weekend in order to assuage accusations made by the PTA that he was unqualified to teach drama.
For those of us in his class, participation in the play was mandatory. Titled Death Mansion, the flyers made by Whitley had promoted it as “a story of international intrigue”—whereas the script itself had my classmates and I attempting to solve a murder mystery while unwittingly espousing Whitley’s shockingly intolerant worldview.
My character was named Louis the Frenchman. My costume consisted of a pencil thin moustache, candy cigarette, loud pink scarf, and matching beret. Whenever there was talk of the murderer striking again, the script had me duck behind Jerome the Former Slave and shout “I surren-dare!” At other times, I was to leer dramatically at Consuela el Tapas, the fiery Spanish maiden. I was to grab at her waist and pretend to drool. In what was intended to be the first big laugh of the night, when Fräulein Deutchstrudel asked her guests whether she could get them anything, the script had me leap up and shout, “I want more wiiiiiiiiiiiine!” Instead of laughter, this line was greeted with the sound of the parents in the audience shifting in their seats, fidgeting in collective discomfort.
In the public outrage that followed our class’s one and only performance of Death Mansion, the front page of The Hancock Evening News featured a picture of me at that very moment. In the photograph, I’m standing at center stage with my arms thrown out like a French Al Jolson. My beret is pushed back at a jaunty angle on my head, and my face is contorted in such a way as to telegraph to the viewer that the accent I am affecting is the product of a joyful ignorance. Next to me in the picture is a girl in a conical hat, who is looking off uncertainly into the audience. The headline reads: Sacrebleu! Teacher Fired Over Hate Play.
Tony Goldman’s family ended up filing a lawsuit against the school district. Tony had played the part of Jerome, and his appearance in black face had been one of the lightning rod issues surrounding the play. Susan Wilson’s family filed a similar suit. She was the girl standing next to me on the front page of The Hancock Evening News. Drawing on Whitley’s confused understanding of the Far East, Susan had been given the costume of a Cambodian farmer, and yet her character was referred to in the script several times as “but a lowly geisha.” After both the Goldmans and the Wilsons won their suits, the parents of almost every student involved in the play began meeting with attorneys regarding the psychological damage that had been done to their children by being forced to take part in it.
However, my parents were among the few not to do so. They found my participation in DeathMansionto be so humiliating that it never occurred to them to pursue the issue publicly. All of us in Whitley’s play were too young and too uninformed to know how offensive any of it was. In rehearsals, we had all been equally amused by the play. But while we were on stage, the other students began to notice the stony reception that we were receiving. After awhile, they gradually toned their performances down and began to deliver their lines in an embarrassed, perfunctory fashion. There was an untaught decency in them which allowed them to understand that something about what was happening on stage was unacceptable. I, on the other hand, remained completely oblivious, and spent the duration of DeathMansionchewing the scenery. Due to my adlibbing alone, the play overshot the runtime estimated in the program by twenty minutes. Apropos of nothing, I would announce to the other characters on stage, “Een Pair-ee we dance like zis!” Then I would launch into a paroxysm of dance that, in the infinite silence of that auditorium, must have seemed to last forever.
I was so caught up in the ecstasy of my ridiculous performance that I failed to notice that there was no applause during the curtain call. As the event broke up and parents began to escort their children home, I noticed Susan Wilson crying in the arms of her mother. At the time, I assumed that this was a response to Susan feeling the same overwhelming sensation of catharsis that I felt after having given so much of myself on the stage.
As I searched for my parents in the school’s auditorium, it was difficult for me to imagine the amount of praise that my performance would inspire in them. They were notoriously easy to please. When I was nine-years-old, I wore jean shorts to a family function and accidentally had explosive diarrhea on my Aunt Rebecca’s kitchen floor. Later that day, my parents had complimented me—in earnest—on having had the presence of mind to do it in a room with a linoleum floor. But when I found my parents in the crowd after Whitley’s play, they didn’t say a word. My mother threw her coat over me while my father lifted me over his shoulder and carried me out to the parking lot in a nervous half run. As we drove off, my mother regarded the school as if it were on fire.
Once we were home, my father told me that I was to never bring up Whitley’s play again under pain of being disowned. He made me throw out my Louis the Frenchman costume, and for at least that first night I fought back tears over the bitter knowledge that my parents were insane. It wasn’t until Whitley was fired that I began to realize just how universal their reaction was.
There were several other photographs on page six of The Hancock Evening News in which I was shown cowering in an exaggeratedly comic fashion behind Tony Goldman in black-face. Another showed me addressing Susan Wilson’s Asian character while pulling at my eyes in imitation of an epicanthic fold. In yet another, I was goose-stepping behind Fräulein Deutchstrudel. The other students looked frightened in the photo-graphs, whereas I looked completely at ease with everything I was doing. Looking at those pictures, it was as if the entire play had been my idea.
Though my parents refused to take part in the legal circus that followed the play, my father did place a few angry phone calls to the editor of The Hancock Evening News warning him not to print any more photographs of me. But by then the damage had been done. Everyone involved agreed that it was unreasonable to blame a child for the faults of forty-seven-year-old gym teacher. Nevertheless, the idiotic verve with which I had carried out my role had been hard to ignore. In the faces of my teachers and classmates, I saw that the ignorance I had inadvertently expressed on stage was now being regarded as an immutable part of who I was.
After Whitley’s play, even the younger, more willfully optimistic teachers were reluctant to call on me. Even the students who enjoyed telling racist jokes in the cafeteria understood that, because they had never had an example of their bigotry published in a newspaper, they therefore occupied the moral high ground. The memory of the play itself faded within a few weeks, but the stigma of it remained attached to me for years. From that point on, my life became defined by a stubborn and overwhelming sense of shame.
My father eventually lifted his prohibition against mentioning the play. Throughout high school, it was even a running joke between us . Whenever I did something particularly thoughtless he would call me Louis, at which point I would laugh and apologize for whatever offense had revived the old joke. There was no way for him to know how much it actually bothered me to be reminded of Louis the Frenchman, or how much I wished that we had stayed true to his original decree that we never mention Whitley’s play again.
Even now, I am often afraid that those photographs from The Hancock Evening News will somehow re-surface in my adult life, and I will be forced to answer for them. Of course, this fear is irrational. Those pictures are now almost two decades old. No one would even be able recognize me as that twelve-year-old boy, dressed as a flamboyant Frenchman. But the small chance that someone could recognize me is enough to keep that fear alive.
Perhaps my biggest concern is that my wife would find out about it. She’s originally from the Netherlands, and though the entirety of Dutch culture somehow managed to remain safely off of Whitley’s radar during the writing of DeathMansion, I would still be humiliated to have her learn about my participation in a play that so willfully misunderstood other peoples.
After all, I’ve seen waiters furrow their brows at my wife’s accent, as if they’re owed an explanation. I’ve seen grocery store clerks make her feel stupid on the rare occasion that she flubs her English. I’ve seen television commercials and children’s shows portray the country where her grandparents are buried as a cartoon landscape of windmills and wooden shoes. And while she is too even-tempered and reflexively happy to let these images bother her for long, I can still recognize that for a moment they do, that it frustrates her to see that place—filled with all the indescribable memories of her youth—reduced to something offensively cute.
There are times when these different forms of insensitivity pile up one after the other, so that by the end of the day it is clear that she is struggling with a deep sense of exclusion. On such nights, I’ll often hear her talk in her sleep. These are short episodes—memories of when she first began to live in the states—in which she is attempting to remember a word in English that is constantly eluding her. In these episodes, she is addressing dry cleaners and asking strangers for directions—all those nerve-racking first interactions. Her voice is always apologetic and full of unease. If I can anticipate one of these episodes coming on, I will wake her in order to spare her the anxiety. But if I don’t pay attention, I might be startled by the sudden sound of my wife trying to remember how to say dinner roll in English, as she relives some incident in a restaurant seven years ago.
Hearing her like this, I tend to think back on Louis the Frenchman and feel the pangs of that old shame. The notion that anyone would make a person as intelligent and kind and generous of spirit as my wife feel unwelcome or out of place fills me with an outrage that is directed only at myself.
Though, there are also certain moments of grace. When I wake her, she always knows that she has been talking in her sleep. She will ask me what it was this time, and I will explain that she was trying to get the waiter to bring her more rolls. Then she will say the word triumphantly—rolls!—before promptly falling back to sleep.
In moments like that—my wife having been comforted by the knowledge that she is in bed with her husband—I ask myself: When did I start to know better? When did I start to become the man who deserves her? When did the massive shortcomings of my youth become a door that I walked through? In my mind, I see that photograph on the front page of The Hancock Evening News, my arms outspread in the full flower of my stupidity. I try to tell myself that it was happening in that instant, even before I understood.
© Seth Fried
This electronic version of "The Frenchman” appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the publisher. It appears in the author's collection The Great Frustration published by Counterpoint, 2011. Book ordering available through amazon.com and amazon.co.uk
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Seth Fried is 29 years old. His stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Tin House, One Story, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, and Vice. He has also been anthologized in The Better of McSweeney's, Volume 2 and The Pushcart Prize XXXV: The Best of the Small Presses. His short story collection, The Great Frustration, was released last year by Soft Skull Press.
Visit his website: http://www.sethfried.com
photo: © Sheilah Grogen