No One Knows You're a Dog

Ben Austen

Spring 2019

1


On Facebook not too long ago, I saw that my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Lanier, had died, and for an hour, maybe more, I read on as former classmates reminisced on the site. Mrs. Lanier had worn her hair—back in the 1980s, at least—in an immaculate caramel-tinted perm. A career Chicago Public Schools teacher, she was already in middle age by the time we had her. Birthmarks of dark dashes extended from her cheeks to her neck, like the trail on a treasure map. She had a voice honeyed by the South, and a manner that could be both stern and tender. She brought a welcome equanimity to our crowded classroom—a good thirty-five-plus kids. I mentioned her death to a childhood friend who had also been a student of hers. We were drinking outside, on my porch, on a summer night, bourbon until it ran out and then beers. My friend said he’d sort of blackmailed Mrs. Lanier: he told her he wouldn’t report to the principal that she’d graded very few of the class’s assignments if she didn’t burden him with homework for the rest of the year. According to him, she took the deal. But I don’t trust my friend’s memory. Or it at least doesn’t eclipse my own. That’s the thing about competing recollections. The friend is now one of the country’s leading economists, and I choose to believe Mrs. Lanier played a part in that.

Someone on the same Facebook thread posted our 1984 or ’85 class photo. This was a public school on Chicago’s South Side, in the Hyde Park neighborhood, a couple of blocks from the University of Chicago, where my father was a professor. As a class, we were mostly black, white, and some combination of the two that at the time was called “mixed.” I was one of three Jewish kids. The photo showed me wearing an untucked long-sleeve Polo and an expression as blank as a newly painted wall. On Facebook, a classmate pointed out that the boy standing in the row behind me to my left grew up and murdered his ex-girlfriend and her lover. Someone else mentioned the nut job who taught us in eighth grade. Mr. Leon, a white man with protruding eyes and shoots of hair jutting out above his collar, had burst into the classroom on day one and bellowed, “I’m not a racist, I hate everybody!” I guess in Chicago with its stark racial divides, we offered him the rare frontier to practice his democratic enmity. Mr. Leon claimed to possess the power to speed-read at a superhuman clip. That’s the picture that came back to me as I scrolled through the online discussion—the anger I felt as I watched his index finger swiping down the center of each page, a pantomime of grading our essays. He would have all thirty-five papers scored and stacked faster than you could make a sandwich.

While I owed these memories to Facebook, I’d been late to join the site and remained a wary user. I wasn’t especially worried about the way Facebook was letting other companies have their way with my personal data, although I know I should have been. Mrs. Lanier’s death was still a couple of years before political misinformation and hate speech suffused the platform, but I edged away even then from what I thought of as the fakeness of its news, its superficiality—experiences jotted as if in a diary but for all to see, relationships restored and maintained with so little effort, let alone actual human contact. It mattered, too, that I wasn’t much good at the social aspect of the medium. I lack an exclamation mark personality. I’m not fanciful enough to assume an identity online that is a bolder, brighter version of myself. So what I did on Facebook was hedge. I adopted a personal terms of use agreement that no one else but me knew existed. I would accept “friend” requests but make none myself. I would participate, but just sort of.

When I read the posts from my middle-school classmates, however, I was powerless before the riptide of nostalgia. I friended everyone on the thread, the hell with my ridiculous rule. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t seen these people in the flesh in decades. They were one of my first peer groups, after all. Their real-life stories had helped shape the person I became. I mean, there was Chaka. When we were kids, his temper was explosive. Topple into him in gym class, induce too many laughs while playing at trash talk, and he’d declare: “After school!” He was heavyset and threw roundhouse punches that were as slow as they were powerful. He was also gentle at his core, and with his fury ebbing by the final bell he would often be talked out of a brawl. I sent him a friend request, and one to Malcolm, who with his numerous siblings, each of them equally imposing, seemed to tower over the school. He was now living alternately in West Africa, India, and London. I friended Allana, too, who became an actress. After school once, a group of us ended up at her house. Her parents, greeting one another upon their returns from work, movie kissed as their daily hello, full-on, on the mouth, as if quenching a punishing thirst. Nothing else seemed to exist beyond their embrace, not even the gaggle of thirteen-year-olds who were gaping with wonder from their couch.

Ben Austen is the author of High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing. He is a writer for the New York Times Magazine and many other publications. He lives in Chicago.

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