My crime was caring too much about Ryan Hardin. My punishment was for every person that compliments me and encourages my writing, now I’m haunted by Ryan Hardin’s unimpressed expression.
When I was 17, my dream was to win over Ryan Hardin. Brusque, well-read, Arian blonde — he was the man I loved to hate, even as his influence kept me engrossed. I wanted to be him — get into his brain — …
No matter how well-spoken, original, or rhetorically reasoned I thought I sounded, Hardin didn’t buy it. The intuitive feeling I got that he was uncomfortable around me — that he could sense my need to please — colored every interaction we had.
On the last day of class, he shook my hand. “Best of luck with everything,” he flashed his pearly whites at me. I rolled my eyes on my way out the door. That would be the worst case of unrequited interest I’d run into, I muttered to myself.
He was my AP Literature teacher. My obsession with him centered on his identity as the first person who told me I wasn’t as good at writing as I thought.
The grading scale was out of 9, but the first papers I got all were 6’s. Once, even a 5 on a Crime and Punishment paper. I couldn’t believe it. Insult my looks, my personality, my intelligence — but insult my writing, and I will never let it go. Besides, I understood main character Raskolnikov well enough! Right??
While others lauded Hardin for his fun, sassy, teaching style, I sat there in brewing resentment, wishing he’d call on me and hear what I had to say. But every idea I had didn’t manage to stick. I got an “Uh, huh.. Maybe..” and promptly ignored. If I were lucky, wouldn’t have my theory torn to shreds in front of the class. Once, he softly smiled, and said, “Nice.” I walked on Cloud 9 for hours.
When I visited him during office hours, he tied his criticisms together with an air of ‘you’ll learn’; not saying “you try too hard” meant as an insult, but as a way of saying, “toughen up, kid.” I thought I was able to deal with bluntness. Not from Hardin. He remains in my memory as the hardest man to please, whose respect I fought the most to get, whose approval meant the utmost to me. I obsessed over his opinion more than that of any lover, as I combed those books we read for more meaning to hint at, more details to throw out in essays, more ways I could obtain my end goal of proving myself.
I almost got a B first semester, the first B I’d ever get in an English class — and failure was new to me. My ego became fragile — baseless — for up until now, I’d considered myself the Superman of English lit. Like Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov, I believed myself above the moral law that governed good writing. I’d always been able to get points for being interesting, and honest, and genuine. There was a rhyme and reason for effective exposition, though. I wasn’t meeting the mark, and fearing criticism even if it meant improvement, I tried to repress the weight of Hardin’s words.
“Writing isn’t about how it literally sounds,” he prompted me, “It’s about what you have to say.”
Now, mind you, maybe none of this matters now. For now Mr. Hardin is already 2.5 months gone by his own hand.
We reminisced about him briefly in the dimly lit Buffalo Wild Wings, me and my old friend who’d sat next to me in literature class, him musing that he’d seemed happy.
Mr. Hardin did. He had a fiance of a few years, when he said years ago that he’d never get married; he had a job at Nike that seemed vastly more fulfilling than teaching a bunch of clueless high schoolers how to think; and he had been smiling in every profile picture.
The smile had seemed unnatural to me. In my memory, the expression that burns is Mr. Hardin’s cold, vacant stare. He had seemed full of life, animating and smirking when the time came for him to speak, but sometimes I’d see a shadow fall over his face. His brow furrowed in concentration.
With Mr. Hardin, it seems both fitting and mysterious that he’d meet his end this way.
Crime and Punishment was my foray into the world of nihilistic thinking. Men are flawed, and there’s no point to life. Not novel concepts, but ones I found myself struggling to understand as I focused more on Hardin’s approval.
I find myself thinking about the novel and that class more these past few months. As I watched more Internet fights break out, more political despair fill the air, carrying with it a tinge of hopelessness… I understand Raskolnikov’s world.
Predestination was Raskolnikov’s rationalization for murdering a woman. Predestination became my struggle as I wondered how much control we really had. If fate meant you to lose, would it make a difference to put up a fight anyhow? If fate meant you to do something, would it make a difference to not do it?
As I shuffled my way through hard conversation after hard conversation the past semester, this intersection of resigned cynicism was hard to navigate.
When I heard the news, I wondered if Mr. Hardin was putting up a fight against fate, if it meant him to live. Or if he was putting up a fate against death, if it meant to take him some other way. Depending on how you sliced it, Mr. Hardin was like Raskolnikov in doing something terribly predestined. Or he was the anti-Raskolnikov, fighting what was ordained to be.
Contrasting myself to the girl who fought for Mr. Hardin’s approval and all those years, I realized now how dark I’d become.
I’d all but condemned my old way of optimistic thinking and simultaneously undermined my current way of behaving with a sunny disposition. For didn’t I go around trying to plant inspiration, wanting desperately for the seeds to bloom?
I would probably get 9s on my essays now.
And I’d also care less, for Mr. Hardin clearly was not some kind of god.
After a couple of topics, post-graduation plans came up. I explained my torment over trying to find what would make me happy.
“It sounds like you don’t know what you want,” my friend said to me.
And of course, Mr. Hardin’s face flashed before me.
Did he know what he wanted? Or was he acting because he was unsure?
Was the absence of knowing what you want the same as knowing what you don’t want?
Was the absence of wanting to live the same as wanting to die?
I don’t want to end up like Mr. Hardin. More importantly — I want to not end up like Mr. Hardin.
Recently, my editor had even told me he considered me a better reporter than a writer.
I’d always considered myself a writer.
That made me start wondering about newspapers. I love being a journalist… but I’m not sure anymore if I care about what things sound like, in this era of post-truth. I wonder now if what I have to say matters more.