Marion Copeland
When I lived in the decaying part of mid-city many years ago, my friend Jeremy showed me how cook without a stove. He'd fry up things like wieners by wiring them up. "It's as simple as a lamp," he said. "Just plug it into the wall. That's all there is to it."

He'd take your regular 120-volt wall plug with a short wire attached, strip the wires away from each other, clean the ends and stick a nail on each of them. Then he'd jam the nails into the opposing ends of a hot-dog and plug the whole contraption into a socket.

After a minute or so, the wiener would be snapping and popping and sizzling, filling the room with a heavenly scent and dripping fat on my best second-hand carpet. It may not have been California Cuisine but more Missouri Barbecue; but whatever it was, it was divine.

His way of dealing with animal life involved the same technique. Since we were in St. Louis, our roaches were the German variety. They must have been German Catholic as well, because they produced huge noisy insatiable families in the condos in the narrow space underneath the refrigerator.

They not only produced thousands and thousands of ugly six-legged babies, they gave picnics and dances, be-ins and had acid parties (this was the sixties after all), and, in general, drove us crazy.

What Jeremy did was to string two of the same cables that he had used for his hot-dog flambé about 1/10th of an inch apart across the narrow exit of roach condo. When Mr. & Ms. Roach and their 900 babies decided to go out for a stroll, they had to pass across the two cables. Their little bodies completed the electrical circuit: there'd be a flash, a puff of smoke, the house lights would dim, a ghastly smell --- and that was all she wrote..

I suspect that Marion Copeland. author of Cockroach, would not approve. Her volume is not necessarily a paean of praise to Blattaria but she does admire their sheer staying power.

They evidently evolved 300,000,000 years ago and their ugly little bodies show up in all manner of amber drips left over from ages past. There are, at this very moment, some 4,000 living species. They breed like, well, like roaches. It is estimated that if you took all the roaches now living on earth and put them in one giant vat, not only would the vat extend over 25 or 30 miles in diameter, you and I would probably pass out at the sheer ugly slippery slithering sheening gag-power of all those ghastly bugs bunched up together.

§     §     §

Unlike butterflies and birds, most scientific research is spent on figuring out ways to murder their asses. But Cockroach is less of a how-to-do-in-the-bastards handbook and more of a jokey look at the literary and artistic manifestations of Blattariamania. Ms. Copeland seems to have tracked down every cockroach joke, story, fable, art, fact, apocrypha, and roach recipe: from the movies (Twilight of the Cockroaches, Doctor Cockroach, Mimic) to the double pun on the name of a character on Bill Cosby's TV show (cock is you-know-what; roach is the tail-end of a joint); from Kafka's Gregor to archy of archy and mehitabel; from the University of Nebraska's Cockroach Picture Gallery to Pliny's cure for "itching, scabbing and ulcers" (ground cockroach); from "La Cucaracha" to cockroach feasts, "best when fresh, beheaded, and delegged and then boiled, sautéed, grilled, dried or diced for sauces as they are both in Thailand and Mexico."

She reveals that

    The New York Entomological Society holds annual insect food festivals aimed at encouraging the general public to acquire a taste for nutritious, protein-rich insects like mealworms, grasshoppers, and Thai waterbugs (cockroaches) which connoisseurs claim have the flavor of lettuce, seaweed or Gorgonzola cheese.

When I was growing up in Florida, we were besieged with a particularly gruesome roach in-law called palmetto bugs. These suckers are cockroaches with the girth of Falstaff and the general personality of Iago. They make a particularly noxious stink when disturbed, and a googy mess when stepped on --- one of those "Oh NOOOO" moments of truth when you accidentally turn around see what you have mulched into your new carpet.

The thought of even the august New York Entomological Society having these suckers for hors-d'oeuvres makes me more queasy than you'd want to know, even though Copeland advises us "how sound eating cockroaches is since it takes only a quarter as much feed to raise a pound of roach meat as it does to raise a pound of beef." Yes but cows don't hide in the bathroom sink and scamper up at you just when you turn on the light to brush your teeth.

There is a rare mint that cockroaches don't care for, but our writer, unfortunately, doesn't reveal where we can go to get it. I'll have a standing order for a bushel, please. The only place I found where roaches cease being a bother is where I live in Mexico. Our biggest home invader is what they call "barrenderas," a local variation of the army ant. When they appear on your doorstep, you don't fight them: you get the hell out.

But there is one advantage to be garnered from their call. They --- all 2,000,000 of them --- usually spend a day or so cleaning house for you. When you return, all other creatures are gone: geckoes, lizards, rats, mice, other species of ants, roaches, and any and all freeloading visitors from the North who happened to have moved in with you.

--- Carlos Amantea

She didn't think anything about it when they told her the previous teachers had "gotten sick" --- so Ms. Gold, in the late winter of 2000, bravely entered the brave new world of the New Millennium School at Jackson Heights in the Queens. There, she was expected to handle three classes daily --- 9a, 9b, and 9c --- with some of the hardest and most guileful kids to be found anywhere, much less in New York City.

And what did she find? The students on the typical days, "enjoying the usual amusements:"

    groping, chewing, listening to music, throwing things on the floor, banging the desks around, howling, playing on the computers, ululating a HOMO or two...

Mind you, this isn't a special day, or a holiday, or even a rainy day --- this is the day-in-day-out nonstop noise that goes on in Room 313 from beginning of the day until they hang it up at 3:30 in the afternoon.

And how does Gold handle it? She doesn't. She can't figure out how. Other teachers have nice quiet classes, where students speak respectfully and do their lessons and shut up. Ms. Gold not only gets a constant full-throttle racket, she has a multitude of personal crosses to bear, gifts from her hundred or so 14-, 15-, 16-, and 17-year olds.

There is Alan who draws exquisite pictures of guns and has the face of an old, old Black man. There's Peter Garcia who has a messy notebook, and Zuelieka who is snippish, but whose eyes fill, at times, inexplicably, with tears.

There's Samantha who tells Elizabeth, regularly, that she hates her. There is Nadia who moves about with "ancient modesty." There is Sammy who gropes, Charles and his hip-hop magazines, Randolph who one day pops up, to everyone's great amusement, and says, "Yo, Miss, yo a hot girl?"

There are the Three Weird Sisters --- Cindy, Marcy, Lucille --- who say, regularly, "Elizabeth, you are SOOOOO boring." There is Sarah Petel who gets hate letters and is harassed by the other girls and one day is chased through the streets and into the subway where she gets her beautiful nose broken.

And as if this wasn't enough, there are the other teachers, who don't seem to have her troubles at all, Leon the principal. This school is "truly like a family," she thinks,

    one of those sitcom families where the inept dad intones something and the kids humor him and then go off and do whatever they want, or at least, what they can get away with.

Leon wants Elizabeth to teach Call of the Wild. She is determined to teach The Glass Menagerie. She wins. Or do the wild calls of her classeses win out in the end?

Any of us who ever itched to teach would probably abandon that idea at once after reading some of the hideously funny, knock-you-over rampages described in Brief Intervals of Horrible Sanity. This is the real --- although certainly not the right --- stuff.

Gold starts off by telling us that only thirty-five percent of the students in New York City are reading at their grade level. That means that sixty-five percent are not. Twenty percent of students will drop out of high school, and of the remainder, only half will graduate.

These are the figures that she gives us on page two, and by the time we reach page 329, we understand all too well. And, too, long before page 329, we begin to suspect Gold isn't a very good teacher She doesn't much care for discipline and since most of the students seem to be there just to keep them off the streets of the Queens, they didn't have much motivation to try.

She isn't the Miss Field I had in the eighth grade who sucked me into literature (with, I am ashamed to confess, The Call of the Wild). Or that Ichabod Crane look-alike, Mr. Wilkie, in the tenth grade, who made math come alive for me.

But Gold has done something else as spectacular. Whether she's a sterling teacher or not is, at this point, moot --- she left New Millennium at the end of the school year. What she has done is to write a book about teaching that is howlingly funny, not a little tragic, and impossible to put down.

We not only get to know Alan and Sarah and Cindy and all the rest, we get to know, all too well, the reprehensible failures of the public school system. At the same time we get to know (and to love) this woman who can stop the narrative, as she does, and says, "look at me: shabby clothes, bad moods, dark circles under my eyes from night after night of insomnia." This is one who wants to do nothing more than write poetry and win poetry contests and be invited to travel and to do readings, but who through chance and circumstance ends up in an impossible job in a ridiculous excuse for a place of learning in a grim part of the city.

Gold can write like an old master, when she, for instance, refers to clouds "that turn themselves in a moment from frying pans into rhinoceroses;" or, when she sees Peter Garcia, thinks herself back to the Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, seeing him as "my parfit gentil knight" --- a boy who has a notebook, a messy notebook, a very messy notebook whose papers slither out and go all over the floor and seeing this, at that Fellini or Proustian moment she remembers a kid who had notebook just like that in the eighth grade and when it fell and went all over the floor

    she had to get on her hands and knees and crawl after those papers, while the teacher gave her a lecture on neatness and her classmates cackled their heads off.

"But I wasn't laughing, Peter. How could I laugh? I was the one on my hands and knees."

Perhaps this is the rub for her. Gold is just a little too much like these kids --- just too much like them with their not-too-well disguised foibles and sensitivities. She's just too much like them to be the authority they need, to be the perfect master who gets them to shut up their stupid Walk-Mans and their bad-mouthing her and bellowing HOMO HOMO HOMO or lying around on the desks or the floors, to just sit down and shut up and start to work.

As Gold is about to wind up the year, to leave and begone forever, we find ourselves thinking that it isn't a complete loss, this time of hers at Millennium. One or two students have picked up something she laid down despite the uproar. And she's picked up a thing or two herself. How to lie, to get what she wants, how to work around the system. How to put up with the noise and, even, at one point, contribute some noise of her own. For after Tiffany comes right out and tells Gold to "kiss my ass," she confesses, "I do not know what I am saying," for

    Everything extraneous --- hair, anklebone, thumbnail, my upcoming visit to Leon's office -- is burnt away and the only things that remain are mouth, heart, lungs, fury, June, June which is setting me free, but for what, I don't know, I am tired of imagining, but no matter. For these minutes, even imagination is extra. Why imagine when you are utterly in the moment, and the moment is complete? In the beginning was the Word. It needed me, and I needed it, and the only thing I can see is that smug smile dying on Tiffany's face.

And then when she is done, "I sag, exhausted, spent."

And then?


    9A is applauding.

    9A is applauding ... me.

    All of them...

    Wave after wave, it comes, applause, and I don't know how long it goes on for. I am too far away to either stop them or egg them on.

--- Lolita Lark
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