The way he talked, the way he moved around the room, the guy was either a fantastic actor or he believed what he was saying. You just don’t see that very often. Teachers in movies are always leaping onto tables and sacrificing their lives for their students and their love of literature but the truth is that you rarely, rarely take a class from a teacher who cares. It’s just unrealistic. How many people could walk into a classroom year after year and weep for “Ode to a Grecian Urn”? That’s why the ones who stay are so often some of the most depressing people you’ve met in your life. It has nothing to do with their age. They’ve stayed because of their disposition- bitter, bored, lacking in ambition, lonely and mildly insane. With a few exceptions these are the people who are capable of staying in a school. This is what it takes to teach for half a life-time. The ones who care, who love the subjects, who love their students, who love, above all, teaching- they rarely hang around.
You Deserve Nothing- Alexander Maksik
A debut novel, You Deserve Nothing explores influence, obsession and idealism from the perspective of a teacher and two pupils at an international school in Paris. A charismatic young English teacher avoiding his past in Paris, William Silver starts the year with rock star status amongst the staff and pupils of ISF. Over the next few months, he rapidly falls from grace, closely watched by Marie, his teenage lover, and Gilad, an intense young man with a difficult family life.
I was impressed by the subtlety with which Maksik created his characters. Each narrator has distinctive voice which allows you to feel their desperate loneliness and empathise with the characters despite their attitudes and actions . Fierce Gilad with his desperation for approval and identity, who heaps upon others the expectations he wishes he could live up to himself; lonely Marie who craves warmth and affection; idealistic but empty and broken Will who embarks on an impossible love affair to avoid intimacy. Each is credible and profoundly human. Each feeling undeserving.
An intelligent and considered debut, the novel invites you to walk around the lives of others, seeing the darker sights of their psyche against the backdrop of the city of lights without prompting judgement or indicating blame. A truly outstanding debut.
For me, it felt as if You Deserve Nothing made its way to me as if by destiny. I hadn’t expected to receive a copy of it, so was very excited when I did. A few lines in and it felt strangely familiar, a few chapters in and whole passages were resonating so deeply that it felt as if the ideas had been plucked from my head. In fact, there was even a line half way through the novel which described exactly the way I was feeling:
I read the way you read when you’re young. I believed that everything had been written for me, that what I saw, felt, learned was a discovery all of my own.
You Deserve Nothing- Alexander Maksik
Huh. I may have said before that before I got my current job I was an English teacher in a secondary school, which I loved, but I couldn’t carry on with because I was totally burned out. This was partly because of a physical problem, but also because the job is so emotionally and spiritually demanding and for me, that was something that came across really clearly in the novel. As a teacher there is a suffocating pressure to be friend, parent and priest; to guide your students, nurture them and help to widen their horizons and think for themselves while not getting too close or involved. There’s also, or was for me, the fear of failing them somehow, of not giving each individual the attention and support they need, not to mention that you get some students who will always need more than you can give. You have to be able to build a mental wall or it can eat you up. The scenario that Will finds himself in is wildly different to anything most teachers will get involved in (though you do hear about it) but despite that much of it was all too recognisable.
I found myself dreaming about teaching for the first time in months after reading this book, strangely cathartic. My (possible) psychiatric issues aside, I would recommend this to anyone as it really is a fantastic read. I don’t give stars, but if I did this would have five.