You Deserve Nothing – Alexander Maksik

youdeservenothingAlmost everyone has had The One Professor, the one who “made a difference,” who taught you how think critically, who made you question your faith, your values, your fundamental morals.

Did you take the class from The One Professor and move on to other classes, feeling a little bit smarter, a little less naïve? Or, like me, and like the students in You Deserve Nothing, was the curtain lifted and you discovered that The One Professor wasn’t the guru you imagined, was not the enlightened philosopher you thought he was, that maybe he was a just an average guy with his own failings?

The cracks in the professor/student hero-worship foundation are exposed in You Deserve Nothing. Maksik delves into the moral ambiguity that stems from professors craving their students’ adoration and the students longing for praise. The novel presents several characters’ interpretations of events through the veil of their perspectives: the mentor, the idealistic student, the insecure ingénue. Overlying it all are the philosophies of great existentialists, Sartre and Camus, which filled me with nostalgia over those past afternoons in senior seminars with my peers, navel-gazing about  the meaning of life. I remember bright classes with thrilling discussion, leaving the class on a cloud, or storming out, passionately angry from a heated argument. A good teacher knows how to foster this type of discourse and can direct it and challenge his students. He also wields power in his encouragement, which must be kept in check lest it overinflate his ego.

Mr. Silver, The One Professor in You Deserve Nothing, is a great teacher. He’s engaging, he’s genuinely interested in the literature, and he treats his students with respect, believes their opinions are valid. As a high school student, teachers like Mr. Silver gave me self-worth, and I yearned to make them proud. The question then arises, what responsibility does he have to his students, knowing that they see him as an example of moral goodness, a result of the examined life?

Things begin to fall apart when Mr. Silver succumbs to a sexual relationship with a student. Surprisingly, this is not the usual trope of someone in power abusing their authority. Mr. Silver is just as much the seducer as he is the seduced. Many readers may be disgusted, but I appreciated the even-handedness of the relationship, as devastating as it was for both of them.

THE BIG REVEAL (*not a spoiler):  Maksik was a professor who was fired after having an affair with a student, and many of his former students were outraged when this novel was published, asserting that some of the discussions and comments were taken directly from their classrooms. They felt betrayed and exploited.

This outrage made me wonder, however, if perhaps they already felt betrayed and exploited when they discovered when they were students that Maksik isn’t the pinnacle of courage he professed to be through Sartre and Camus, that he is just a regular guy who doesn’t always do the brave thing, or have the courage of his convictions.

This book raised many questions for me, and, like all great literature, made me feel less alone in my experiences.

Highly recommended, if you can overlook the fictionalization-of-memoir aspect. Especially recommended to English lit nerds everywhere, even more so for those who took AP at prep schools.

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