If you're lucky, you had a teacher in high school who pulled Dead Poets Society-esque stunts like taking your whole English class to the park to read Walt Whitman, or making you write an essay on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (Invariably, this teacher arranges their classroom's chairs in a circle.) The methods may vary—and may seem a little ridiculous in retrospect—but an engaged, challenging teacher can seem downright heroic against a bland high-school backdrop.
Alexander Maksik's excellent You Deserve Nothing investigates the mystique of just such a teacher. Thirtysomething Will is an American teaching at an international high school in Paris; his students are army brats, bi- and tri-lingual children of diplomats, and the spoiled offspring of American businesspeople living abroad. Will takes teaching seriously, loves the performance of it, the worship of his students, and the rare sense of really connecting with a classroom, of turning a room full of strangers into "a family. A kind of love affair." Despite a lonely home life characterized by the echoing absence of his estranged wife, he's a popular teacher, a favorite at the school. In an early chapter, a comment by one of his fellow teachers proves prescient: "They love you," she says. "You're a cult leader."
And he's not the first cult leader to get into trouble with sex: Against his better judgment, Will becomes involved with a student, 17-year-old Marie. Meanwhile, another student, Gilad, is cultivating his own hero worship of Will. These three perspectives make up You Deserve Nothing—Marie and Gilad, young and yearning, and Will, increasingly aware of the vast gap between the things he teaches and the way he's living his life. While he delights in opening his students' mind to the teenaged catnip that is Existentialism, a philosophy predicated on individual responsibility, his own decisions are more reaction than action, lacking the fierce moral clarity he wants his students to believe he has. The resulting novel is intelligent, engaged, and closely observed, at once a window into the oddly specific world of an international high school, and a philosophical interrogation of the decisions we make, and how deciding nothing is the worst decision of all.