Last week, there was a news story about an uppity little closet case in Texas named Dakota Ary who, according to initial reports, had the audacity to pick a verbal fight with his teacher in the middle of class. Though Ary and the instructor, Kristopher Franks, have differing versions of what went down, it’s pretty clear that Ary was calling out Franks for being gay.
I don’t know Mr. Franks, but if I were in his shoes, I wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about the incident — specifically, the things I might’ve said to defuse Ary’s comments. In the 18th century, the French coined a term for this: “l’esprit d’escalier”, or “the wit of the staircase”.* Basically, it refers to the barbs you could’ve used to counter-attack someone who’d offended you at a party, if only you’d thought of them before you were walking away, down the front stairs.
And so, a brief dialogue for Mr. Franks, should the occasion ever arise again:
FRANKS: …and that is why Germans read the bible in German, not English.
ARY: Gays can’t be Christians. Homosexuality is wrong.
FRANKS: Uh-huh. I see. Interesting. Unfortunately, that’s not what we’re discussing at the moment. But since you brought it up, can I let you in on a little secret — I’m sorry, what’s your name again?
FRANKS: Dakota. Dakota. I’ll try to remember that. I’m sorry, some students just don’t make much of an impression. Anyway, can I let you in on a little secret, Dakota? You see, getting older is a great thing. Here in high school, you’re pretty worthless: you’re gawky and gangly and unsure of yourself. The only opinions you have are the ones handed to you by your friends, parents, or other people who intimidate you. But as you get older and make your own way in the world, you start to realize that some of the things you once accepted as fact simply aren’t true.
The only downside is that, as you mature, you’ll look back on some of the beliefs you used to espouse and wonder, “Boy, was I stupid! Why didn’t anyone tell me that I was making a total jackass of myself?” And the answer is simple: they were being kind. They knew you were wrapped up in the idiocy of adolescence, and they ignored you. In fact, by the time you’re my age, most of your high school friends will have completely forgotten you: you’ll try to friend them on Facebook, and they’ll be all, like, “Whoa, I don’t remember this guy at all. Ignore.”
But I suppose the really bad part is that as an adult, you’ll remember certain incidents from your teenage life, certain moronic things you said or did, and you will wince. Literally, your eyes will get all squinty and you’ll tilt your head a little to the side as if to say, “Ouch!” It’ll happen at the oddest times, and every so often, someone in the grocery store will see you do it and ask if you’re okay.
Congratulations, Dakota: this is one of those moments. I hope you enjoy thinking about it for the next 80 years.
Okay, so that’s not exactly “wit of the staircase”, it’s more of a monologue from a late-era John Hughes film. But you get the point.
And Mr. Franks, if you’re reading this: I’m sorry that this has turned into such a fiasco for you. (Though in fairness, Ary probably shouldn’t have been suspended.) You’re welcome to use any of the lines above should the occasion arise again, but my best advice is to do the truly cruel thing and ignore the little fucker.
* The French were obsessed with categorizing humor for the better part of the 17th and 18th century. At the bottom of the humor hierarchy was the lowly pun, since it was facile and often coarse. At the top was wit — in part because it relied on a degree of intelligence, but also because it allowed listeners to smile without laughing. Laughing was a terrible thing, since it showed off one’s teeth, which were, given French hygiene at the time, black and rotten. (Sorry, this is the sort of thing I spent my grad school years learning.)