Jake Gelfand teaches English at the International School of Minnesota
Jake Gelfand’s story “Peepshow” was featured in Issue 30 of The Puritan. Here he talks about teaching English to high schoolers, and some background behind “Peepshow.”
I learned the word “axillism” at the NYU library. I was planning on a productive afternoon of research for my graduate school courses and my job as a high school debate coach, but someone had left a book about unusual sexual practices on the carrel next to mine and I was too curious not to leaf through it.
This was when Urban Dictionary started becoming popular. Being around teenagers, I was flooded with a barrage of sexual terminology which I assumed—and still assume—has no relation to actual sexual practices, unusual or not.
Five years after I left New York, I started a new job as a high school English teacher and quickly realized that, unlike the people I interacted with in debate, my students assumed I had grown up in some sort of remote, isolated community without popular culture or the internet.
I still remember a student in my ninth grade class using the term “milf” and being amazed that I knew what he meant. I have many similar anecdotes, but my favourite happened last year: my supervisor walked into one of my AP classes to give out a pass or form (something minor like that) just as a student loudly asked, “What does it mean to toss someone’s salad?”
I appropriated my answer from Cards Against Humanity: “Exactly what you’d expect.”
As a teacher, I was lucky to have some leeway on the books I assigned, and one year my senior class read Snow White by Donald Barthelme. In that book, one of the characters laments how sexuality has crept into our language. In some ways that sentiment seems forward-thinking, but I assume astute readers of Chaucer realized it centuries ago— although they might not have been able to articulate it in the same way Barthelme did (for better or worse).
The narrator of “Peepshow” finds armpits to be confrontational rather than alluring. I think the resurgent popularity of tank tops must make life either much more problematic or more exciting, depending on one’s axillary preferences. Add in a New York City subway (or a Philadelphia bus, as I discovered last month), and the potential for panic, chaos, or self-consciousness escalates.
I am grateful to my former students Ramis Khan and Aadil Naumaan for helping me ensure the story’s teenage voice is more realistic than it otherwise would have been; my friend Erin Smith for her feedback, her willingness to travel to bizarre roadside attractions, and her oppressively cute cat; and Doretta Lau for helping me edit and publish the story.
Jake Gelfand is a teacher and writer living in Minneapolis. His past work ranges from concert reviews for MTV’s website to a chapter in a book on international environmental law. “Peepshow” is his first published short story.