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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

The Comic Book Moby-Dick

I have realized that some of the students signed up for my May Melville class, do not read my blog on Herman. The thought that words compete poorly with images these days, brought back a scene from 1966. Fifty-five years ago, I was observing in secondary schools as part of my San Francisco State education program. And the day I recall, a friend and I had visited a junior high in Colma, close to San Francisco. The eighth grade English class I observed was reading a comic book version of Moby-Dick.

The tired-looking female teacher looked apologetic and said, "Anything to get them reading." My friend Mary who had driven me to the school, expressed dismay as we headed back to SF State that late morning. Five years of studying literature, both of us ardent readers since childhood, and using comic books in classes?

I wonder if Mary remembers what we did after our required observation that morning. Before our afternoon seminar at SF State, we went to a bar near the campus. In those days I barely had money for rent. No matter. I ordered an expensive specialty drink: thick cream blended with vodka and galliano, made into a frothing alcoholic sea. A White Whale! I choose it instead of a Brandy Alexander, which I learned to love after seeing The Days of Wine and Roses.

That day my drink required symbolism!

This memory also made me recall something relevant from my student teaching the fall of 1966 at Jefferson High School in Daly City. (Mary student taught there, too.) One of my master teachers was a pot head and did not visit my class once after the first day when he introduced me to the students in junior English. How I pulled off using One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in the class amazes me now. But after the morning at Colma Junior High, one of my favorite passages in Ken Kesey's outrageous novel is one I will quote today. Anyone who has not read the novel, might have seen the movie. For the following passage, think of the wacky Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) and the novel's narrator, Chief Bromden.

"He (McMurphy) goes to getting ready for bed, pulling off his clothes. The shorts under his work pants are coal black satin covered with big white whales with red eyes. He grins when he sees I'm looking at the shorts. "From a co-ed at Oregon State, Chief, a Literary major." He snaps the elastic with his thumb. "She gave them to me because she said I was a symbol."


NEXT WEEK: Hello, world. Melville Warned Us…


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