A new talk by faculty member Steven Schwartz appears online:

Your first public performance.  Second grade.  A talent show, or a show and tell, you’re not sure which.  All you remember is that you do not just like Elvis Presley, you are Elvis.  You go around the house singing “Don’t be Cruel” and “Hound Dog.”  It’s 1958 and your parents are busy doing 1958 things like seriously discussing the possibility of building a bomb shelter and forbidding you to hula hoop in the house.

You’re convinced your version of “Hound Dog” will do Elvis proud.  Forget Elvis’s gold lame suit or pompadour with the killer stray lock down the forehead.  For your performance, you have only a starched white shirt that you wear to Hebrew school and hair so insistently curly it would survive a nuclear bomb, speaking of mutual assured destruction.

You unbutton the shirt to your breast bone, do the best you can with the curls so they look windswept and not like the orator Cicero with a laurel wreath on his head, and you belt it out.  The crowd, you have to admit, is rockin’  Or smiling encouragingly.  Or relieved not to be taking a spelling test.  No matter.  You’re in the zone, and yes, your eyes become heavy lidded like Elvis when you come to the second verse: “Yeah, you ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine.”  And then.  Then.  It happens.  You look right at Irene Milligan.  She is a rather big-boned girl for second grade, formidable and blunt; her favorite expression is Stuff it, moron!  None of the boys dare tease or challenge her because she has a track record of compromising their masculinity by twisting their arms behind their backs until they cry “Master!” which she prefers to “Uncle.”

Irene is staring right at you; she is not entertained; she is not amused; she is not rockin’ or clapping her hands and swaying her head back and forth like your best friend, Warren, as if he is Ray Charles and blind.  In fact, her eyes are slitted, her arms crossed over her chest, her lips pursed with what you would have to say is unmistakable dissatisfaction.  You freeze; you stop right in the middle of your unaccompanied performance.  You return to your seat.  People are confused.  So are you.  You don’t know exactly what has happened to you but years later you will understand.  You have met her.  Or him.  Or they.  You have met The Critic.

Continue reading online. 

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