One of the hardest things about teaching is running into those students who just won’t get out of their own way. It isn’t a question of ability or intelligence; those things are, relatively speaking, easy to get a handle on. No, it’s the students who possess all the necessary tools and then opt, for whatever reason, not to engage at all. To let the work go unfinished, to half-ass the paper, to fake their way through the reading rather than attempt to make sense of it.
This was true when I taught high school, and, amazingly, it’s still true now that I’m working with preservice English teachers. These are adult students one or two years out from teaching in their own classrooms, but there are always a couple each semester who apparently decide, “I know there are certain habits that all successful teachers begin to adopt during their time as students, but I’m going to do things my own way.” They can do the work; they just won’t.
The reasons are manifold. Sometimes it’s boredom or the irrelevance of the material. In those cases it’s on me – I have to figure out what’s not working and fix it. There are also those cases of good old-fashioned laziness, and those are sort of on me, too. I remember what I was like at 16 and 21, and I have a hard time faulting students for adopting the same behaviors I had when I was their age – and which I still battle, if I’m going to be completely honest.
But there are other instances when the roots of student behavior are deeper and more troubling. These can often be traced back to trauma – abuse or neglect, for instance, or things as unfortunately commonplace as divorce or death – and when we’re talking about teenagers, we have to remember that they’re ill-equipped to deal with these things. As adults we have to be sensitive to this. We are all products of our past, and the way we act in the present is often dictated by how we’ve responded to things beyond our control.
So it is with Anais Hendricks, the fiercely intelligent narrator of The Panopticon, who, at 15-years-old, has racked up charges for over 100 juvenile offenses and is now being monitored at a group home for troubled youth. Most of these offenses are minor (petty theft and drug issues, mostly); some are major (vandalizing half a dozen police cars). But now Anais is under suspicion of beating a female police officer into a coma, and she’s been remanded to the Panopticon until her case works its way through the courts.
At the start Anais comes off like just another variation of the addicts who people Irvine Welsh’s novels: she’s surly and sarcastic, she’s usually under the influence of something, and her language is peppered with profanity and Scottish slang. I resisted this at first because I felt like I’d seen it before. But as author Jenni Fagan unspools Anais’ story, we come to see there’s much more going on here than we first realize. Like some of those students who resisted my best intentions to educate them, Anais at 15 is the product of a past most of us would likely never survive.
She’s been orphaned since birth and has bounced through 51 foster homes by the time we meet her. She’s been abused, she’s been a drug courier for various friends and family members, and her most fondly remembered foster mother is a murdered prostitute. We don’t know exactly why she has such a destructive streak – unless we’re willing to generally chalk it up to “poor childhood,” which might be fair – but the Panopticon also fits into Anais’ self-constructed origin story: she wasn’t born so much as created in a lab, and she’s under constant surveillance by something she calls only “the experiment.”
I was decidedly lukewarm on The Panopticon throughout its early chapters. Like I mentioned above, at first there’s a little too much Welsh for comfort, and Anais initially seemed like just another in a long line of nihilistic teenage protagonists who didn’t have much to bring to the table other than drug problems and a piss-poor attitude. To the author’s credit, however, it becomes clear pretty quickly that she’s not just rubbing our noses in the darkness of the world. Anais has a wicked sense of humor, and its her exchanges with the other characters in the Panopticon that’s partially due to my turnaround. It’s all bleak – Tash is a teenage prostitute; Isla is an HIV-positive cutter who gave the disease to her twins – but there’s a pseudo-philosophical gallows humor that cuts through material that could be tediously morose in other hands. Take this reflection on our origins:
Maybe God’s just a scientist. This is all an experiment gone wrong, every single one of us, just wonky as fuck because of some chemical cock-up that was meant to produce something less faulty.
The other thing working in the book’s favor is how sensitively Fagan paints Anais’ inner life. Despite her (self) destructive tendencies, she lives by a strict moral code – no bullying, no hurting animals, respecting children and the elderly – and she struggles mightily with her regular realization that most of the adults she encounters live intellectually and emotionally bankrupt lives. For me, the key passage comes in a hearing to determine how she should be punished for charges she received before falling under suspicion of beating the police officer. The court officer – condescending and imperious – asks Anais if she has anything to say before being sentenced. She doesn’t respond, but this is her internal monologue:
Aye. Aye, I do. It’s this: here is what you don’t know – I’d lie down and die for someone I loved; I’d fuck up anyone who abused a kid, or messed with an old person. Sometimes I deal, or I trash things, or I get in fights, but I am honest as fuck and you’ll never understand that. I’ve read books you’ll never look at, danced to music you couldnae appreciate, and I’ve more class, guts and soul in my wee finger than you will ever, ever have in your entire, miserable fucking life.
Taken in the context of the way I started this review, it should be clear why I find Anais such a relatable, heartbreaking character. Adults too often jump to conclusions about teenagers. This is true of teachers, too; I worked with them and wasn’t immune to such judgments myself. We evaluate them based on the standards we set for them, assuming all along those standards are worth meeting. But how often do we really stop to find out why they act as they do, or to try and learn more about their rich inner lives? We think they’re lazy, they’re mean, they don’t care.
Sometimes they are and they don’t. But I’ve been involved in education long enough to realize this is dangerous thinking. It’s dismissive, and it too often ignores the very real hurt at the core of their behavior. Even though The Panopticon is obviously fiction, Anais is such a vividly drawn character that I see her in many of the students I’ve taught over the years, and it makes me wish I’d tried harder to reach those I too casually wrote off.
In the end, The Panopticon can’t quite deliver on all its promises. Plot threads go unresolved and conflicts are dropped in aid of a (non)resolution that is certainly hopeful but strikes me as a little too easy. But if I’m at all dissatisfied with the way Fagan ends things, it’s only because I was so enthralled with the rest of it. It’s a first-rate story, true, but there are important lessons here for those willing to heed them.
The New Pornographers – Electric Version (2003)