Frivolity: The Basic Eight vs. Lowell High School

The Basic Eight is a coming-of-age novel set in Roewer High School. Here, different teachers represent different aspects of the human condition as they affect the narrator, the nurturing, sophisticated humanities teachers are overshadowed by the biology teacher, a serial rapist, presaging the hormone-soaked violence... Oh good grief, let me start over.

The dual nature of the protagonist explores our duelling instincts to retreat from and/or confront advsersity. We know that we should "choose our battles", but when a young student finds herself in a situation... Oh, sorry, what was the question?

Look, I don't read novels anymore where the whole point is that the people represent things and the things represent ideas. Yet I read The Basic Eight. The author, Daniel Handler, found a way to make this novel relevant, yea even in this age of pomo absurdity: He wrote a roman a clef set in my high school, Lowell.

I had to read this novel to make sure that the author wasn't talking @^*% about me behind my back. That is, I was making sure that people analyzing this novel didn't say anything like "The character Nerdlinger Poindexter obviously represents Larry Hosken at an early age." But there wasn't anything like that. This makes sense. I was a year ahead of Mr Handler, didn't know him then, don't know him now.

So who does get mentioned in this book? Note that Mr. Handler was in the class of 1988 and this book was published in 1999. I recognized a couple of English teachers, a few institutions, and that was about it.

If you can fill in some of these Roewer/Lowell parallels, please let me know.

(You might also be interested in the book's review in the school newspaper.)

Carr, James
?Carmack? I didn't catch this one. I never had Mister Carmack. Someone in an Amazon.com review caught it. I hope it wasn't a close parallel; in the book, Mister Carr is a serial rapist. Always has a curvaceous female grad student as a teaching assistant. "'He's a shit,' she said again. 'A perverted shit.'"
Festival Internationale
Kermesse. School festival of language clubs. Language clubs sell unhealthy snacks in the courtyard. I was in the Latin Club, we sold gelato. In the novel, the Grand Opera Breakfast club sells crepes and the Spanish class sells aqua frescas.
Lewis, Hattie
Lewis, Flossie. A well-regarded English teacher. "Hattie Lewis likes to tell her students stories from when she was young, but I can't quite believe those stories because it seems that she must have been born a wise old woman."

Judy Yim Robertson writes:

I didn't have any of Ms. Lewis's classes, but I was on the editorial board of the lit magazine Myriad, which she guided. I have a great deal of affection for her, as do all of the Lowell students who were fortunate enough to have contact with her.

Mills, Miss
Stewart, Miss. "an English teacher rumored to be an ex-nun". I do not know that Miss Stewart was an ex-nun. But I am certain that she was a rumored ex-nun. I am also certain that she was an English teacher--she was my English teacher, and a good one.

Joy Wang writes:

Yes, Ms. JoAnn Stewart was rumored to be a nun. I had her for my English teacher for two semesters...tough grader, but I loved her. She's still my favorite English teacher / professor to-date...the way she dissected symbolism / allegories in literature was amazing!!! She was soft-spoken, and had a quiet sort of strength that told you not to mess with her. Once, she found a few students sleeping in an afternoon class and just ended the class mid-session by walking out for that day.

Myriad, The
Myriad, The. School literary magazine. How could he not change the name? Lawsuit waiting to happen.
Roewer High School
Lowell High School. Lowell is a magnet high school, but Roewer is not. Why weren't more students at Roewer beat up? The main thing I noticed when I came to Lowell is that most of the students who had beat me up in previous schools never got in; they went to other schools. Maybe if the students in this story had beat each other up more and murdered each other less, the story would have been less tragic.

Christina B. Castro noted:

Especially with an overwhelming Chinese-speaking student body (with many non-native speaker parents) ... Roewer is Lowell with a heavy accent.


I have no idea who/what if anyone/anything would be the Lowell equivalents of the following Roewer people/things:

Baker, Michael
Calculus teacher who gives over-simple advice ("Do something. Never just stare at a problem you can't solve.") that leads to tragedy. In my day, Mister Bettencourt was the Calculus teacher. There was a math teacher who gave trite, harmful life advice, Mister McMains. There was a math teacher named Donald Baker who didn't teach calculus nor give dangerous advice (at least, not to me).

Joy Wang writes:

Yes, Baker was a math teacher. He taught accelerated algebra in my freshman year. The calculus teachers were Mr. Bettencourt (sarcastic, a bit fiery personality) and Mrs. Morehen when I was in my senior year. Although I had Mrs. Delfino for math, one of my friends in his class told me more than once that Baker would tell the class, "Don't just stare at the problem. Do something."

Bodin, Jean
Principal. Ex-football coach. "as large as a truck and half as smart." My principal was Dr. Alan Fibish. He didn't seem very football-coach-ish, though he was pretty big. One of my readers writes:

Dr. Fibish was a science teacher at Washington in my days there. I think he taught physics. I never had him. I never took that subject. There is a picture of him in my yearbook. He may have looked like a coach but wasn't one when I knew about him.

One of your loyal readers

Chandly, Lily
Student, conspirator. Detail-oriented. "Only Lily would want to get the terminology straight before finding out who the mystery man was." "...snappy jokes aren't her style. She plans things out."
Culp, Flannery
Heroine/killer. Editor of school literary magazine.
Dodd, Lawrence
Geography teacher. "The gist of his speech was that thanks to Assertiveness Training we couldn't chew gum anymore."
Gordon, Kate
Student, conspirator. Gossip personified. "The queen bee"
Gallon, Gabriel
Student, conspirator. "the kindest boy in the world". "Gabriel is the only black guy whtin five miles of Drama Club..."
Grand Opera Breakfast Club
School club that occasionally meets to eat breakfast and listen to opera. Ms Milton is the teacher-host.
Hall of Fine Arts Sculpture Garden
Rotunda at the Palace of Fine Arts? I feel like I'm reading one of those Douglas Hoftstater articles about analogies.
Habstat, Flora
Student, bore. Occasinally quotes from The Guiness Book of World Records. "...Flora Habstat walks in, sits at my table and talks at me for the rest of the day. A whole day, wasted."
Hand, John
Choir teacher. "It's that Johnny Hand is a dim lush who wanders in and out of choir rehearsals and occasionally performs meandering show tunes from his either long-dead or entirely fictitious night-club act."

Jorge Parada writes:

The John Hand character is modeled after Mr. Johnny Land, who taught music and choir classes at Lowell. He died in 2005, you can read his obituary.
Judy Yim Robertson writes:
Mr. Land was a good voice teacher when I was at Lowell; I was sad to see his character described as a lush in the book.

Hyatt, Natasha
Not to be trifled with. Mother teaches anthro at CCSF. (Wikipedia says that Handler's own mother was a dean at CCSF. Maybe she taught anthro?)
Kayak
Keyak, as noted by Amazon.com user "Roewerite".
Milton, Jennifer Rose
Student, conspirator, daughter of French teacher Joanne Milton.
Milton, Joanne
French teacher. Judy Yim Robertson writes:
The teacher Joanne Milton is obviously based on Joan Marie Shelley. I never took any of her classes but she was quite well known in the community.
Mocha Monkey
"The Mocha Monkey is an embarassing café, but it's the only one within walking distance of Roewer. We usually end up there after school dances; it's also one of the few cafés open late. It's embarassing not only for its name but also for the monkey faces embroidered on each of the chairs."
Mokie, Mister
"...our vice principal, a fat black man who always wore plaid vests and expressions of self-righteousness. His name is Mr. Mokie--pronounced so as to rhyme with 'okey dokey.' He likes to tell people to think of him as a friend and not just a vice principal." We had a vice principal?
Nervo, Steve
Student. "Steve Nervo is this gorgeous leather-jacketed guitarist who has a permanent hold on Most Popular every year." Steve Nervo is also the name of a member of La Flavour, a disco band.
Piper, Ron
Drama teacher. "Ron Piper, our beloved drama teacher, even thinner and, incredibly enough, even more effeminate than I remember, bounced all around the stage, welcoming us to what he hoped would be a 'brilliant theatrical year,' coyly refusing to tell us what play we'd be putting on, and apologizing for not showing up last week."
Shannon
Student. "perky young soprano" "she wears sweater-vests with flowers on them." In charge of props.

Judy Yim Robertson writes:

The various student characters are quite familiar to me, because they tend to occur in the Lowell population no matter what year we're talking about. In your blog, you refer to a character named Shannon, who is the head of the prop crew for student plays. That could have been me in high school.

State, Adam
Student, prick, murder victim. One of my readers writes:

Perhaps because of the difficult personality and the poet garb, part of Adam State was based on the Adam Goldstone you knew who died recently in N.Y.C.?

I don't remember but don't think I read the book. Probably just the beginning. But I am amazed at who can manage to be the object of a crush (crushee?) by what I thought to be a sensible person. He was smart (which is a positive) and people have a way of using their imaginations over their abilities to observe. I think you have seen this plenty yourself.

One of your loyal readers

State, Rachel
Student, goth, poet. I don't remember any goths at Lowell back in 1987.
Tall, Gladys
Civics teacher. Tall: "...lives up to her name..."
Trent, Lara
Student. "such a drip"
V______
Student, conspirator. Her parents are important people and thus her name is never revealed. Mother is nicknamed "Satan".
Wallace, Mark
Student. "Drunk Mark Wallace, leaning aginst some lockers with his bloodshot eyes and a sweat-stained t-shirt that read 'Black by Popular Demand.' ... Mark Wallace is perhaps the most obnoxious person at Roewer, and when drunk he's downright belligerent." Dies in car crash.
Well-Kept Grounds
"Well-Kept Grounds is tucked into a neighborhood full of hippie preteens and bookstores dedicated to the legalization of marijuana, but the surroundings are a small price to pay for the café's collection of fabulous fifties furniture and for not charging extra if you want almond extract in your latte, which I always do." Someplace in the Haight?
Whitelaw, Frank
Student, dunderhead. "Frank Whitelaw was on the stage crew and I always suspected that some heavy prop had fallen on his head."
Wilde, Douglas
Student, conspirator. Also a student at the Conservatory (of Music, I presume). Classical musician. Homosexual, partaker of absinthe; he himself draws the parallel to Wilde, Oscar.

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