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Me and Norman Bates

Hey, I’m no purist.  Maybe I should be–after all, I’ve been a classroom teacher for my whole life, an English teacher too.  I’ve every right to be schoolmarmish.  Come to think of it, maybe I should shudder when some idiot, like talks like an idiot. Maybe I should wince at lie/lay indiscretions, or when, in a perfectly public way, someone’s participles dangle shamelessly. After all these years of teaching writing, I should be a grammar Nazi, but I’m not. So there.

What gets my frickin’ goat these days is not bad grammar, but that I’m the guy who walks into class with no trousers.  It happens far too often when you’re forty years older than your students. What tees me off is not knowing what’s going on when everybody else and the horse they rode in on seem to get it and I don’t.  What I can’t stand is being clueless when it comes to language, and, doggone it!–I’m the writer.

I know what a creep is–it’s some disdainful person, someone who leers or smells or won’t leave, someone with just enough meat on his shoulders to be, well, scary.  A creep is not an idiot or a buffoon because he’s scarier than that.  A creep is someone whose smile is too hungry, or whose eyes don’t stay at home.  Creeps violate personal space–and with seeming impunity.  A creep is rarely female.  I can’t think of a female creep, in fact.  I’ll even go this far–women see creeps far easier than men do–am I right?  There’s a less-than-hidden danger factor in a creep, or at least the fear that this guy is not going to go away. Hannibal Lector goes way beyond creepiness, but Norman Bates? well, look at him–now there’s the king of creeps.

Webster says “an unpleasant or obnoxious person,” but kids know better.

The thing is, my students’ generation has turned the noun into a verb, as in “Norman Bates creeps me out.”  I get that.  That creep has nothing to do with what a crab does across the floor, and everything to do with what Bates does to the skin on the back of your neck.  That usage has become standard, and it works.  In some ways it turns the noun into instant metaphor. “Percy stands there with that awful smile across his chops–sheesh! creeps me out.”  Okay, it makes sense, and it’s even sort of cute. So what if Webster doesn’t have it?  I get that.

But my students’ generation insists on messing with creep even more by institutionalizing that metaphorical usage.  So last night, in a script, some kid is writing about a classroom where some college prof (at Dordt College in fact!) gets all snarky because some girl hasn’t finished her homework.  Really irritated, he says to her: “Maybe if you would spend a little more time with your homework and a little less time creeping on your fellow student. . .” 

I read the script.  It’s my job to critique it, I’m the prof, and I have no idea what the prof in the screenplay means when he says “creeping on.”  I am lost.

So I go to class, and like a holy fool I confess the truth to a room full of kids almost two full generations younger than I am, a colossal mistake:  “I have no idea what that prof means,” I tell them.

Huge frolicsome laughter.  Painful laughter.  Pitiful laughter.  Condescending laughter.

What’s more, they seem to agree that the kid who wrote it has it wrong, really, because no college prof would say something like that to a student, whatever it means.  Some high school teacher?–maybe; but no college prof and certainly not a Dordt College prof.

Now I’m even more lost.

What I see is this young student laying her(!) body on the guy who’s beside her–she’s creeping on him.  Weird. Well, creepy.  

But that’s nuts, I learn from the experts.

The usage, you see, is still Norman Bates.  So they’ve taken a noun, made it a verb, then extended it into whole new realms so that it’s possible for someone to creep on someone else–not to creep up on or to stalk someone, which would be creepy, but to Norman Bates them, if that makes sense.  Here’s the way I understand it:  if you creep on someone, it means, I think, that you become like a creep to someone who doesn’t necessarily see you as Norman Bates, as in “Geez, Harlan, don’t get all Norman Bates on me.” I think that’s it. And it’s got some kind of Facebook dimension, too.  I guess you can creep on people on Facebook. At least that’s what I’m told.

I admit it.  What really tested my soul last night is becoming the village idiot, not knowing what every other human being in the room–all of them ridiculously young–thought everyone on earth understood.

So here’s what I said:  “Okay, okay. Listen, you don’t have sweat it–after all, this is my last class ever.”

To which, the bright young lady, sweet kid, right beside me says, “Sure, Dr. Schaap, that’s what you said last year.

“Right about then, I was the one feeling really creepy.  No italics.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

One Comment

  • fPaul Janssen says:

    Sorry but this totally skeeved me. Lol
    Btw check out for any and all of these odd locutions.

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