To the crane operator who lowered the small boy’s casket into the ground

To the crane operator who lowered the small boy’s casket into the ground

and who filled the hole properly;

and to whomever will mow the grass and plow the snow

and keep the flowers from dying so soon;

I honor you.

 

Like the man who bends maple into violins

or rips marble from hell with his great hands,

so dainty hammers may chisel sculptures

for the delight of morons.

Lesson Six: The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Lesson: Don’t live in the past.

Of the “lessons” thus far, this may be the most true to what the author intended, but it’s important. I can’t for the life of me find it, but I read a fantastic article written by a veteran who implored other veterans to not make their deployment(s) the most significant thing they ever do in their life. Don’t be that guy who sneaks “When I was in Iraq/Afghanistan/the military” into every…single…conversation. The “thank me for my service” guys.

Her husband, among various physical accomplishments, had been one of the most powerful ends that ever
played football at New Haven – a national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute limited
excellence at twenty−one that everything afterward savors of anti−climax.

Same goes for any other wonderful accomplishment from your youth. You got into a great college. You played a sport at a competitive level. You were published. You saved an orphan from a burning bus. You toured with Weezer. Et cetera. I don’t mean to be dismissive of service and success. I mean to say, by canonizing things that have already happened, then you live in a space that no longer exists. It’s all make-believe. For better or worse, you’re not that person anymore. It’s a part of what formed you, but it’s not you.

For the record, I enjoyed The Great Gatsby the first time I read it, and loathed reading it every time since, primarily because just about every character is a slave to their past. It’s gross. Don’t be that person.

Lesson Five: You were probably taught “Of Mice and Men” incorrectly

Of Mice and Men

by John Steinbeck

Lesson: Control your destiny.

“The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” James Truslow Adams

Sparknotes cites “The Impossibility of the American Dream” as one of the central themes of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men; and, without googling it, I’m fairly certain that was what Steinbeck himself said he was going for when he wrote the book. I happen to be one of those people who believe the author is dead once the piece is published – that is, Steinbeck has a right to comment on the work, but his comments ought not be weighed any more or less than anyone else with a reasonable interpretation. And I believe Steinbeck is wrong, and that his own work may not  demonstrate how the American Dream is alive and well, but it does demonstrate that our choices matter.

Curley’s wife, for instance, has resigned herself to an unfulfilling marriage.

Curley’s wife, at some point in her life, chose to marry the narcissistic, Napoleon-complexed son of the wealthy plantation owner. She chose not to chase her dreams as a movie star. She chose to flirt with the farmhands, instead of redirecting her energy towards building or repairing her marriage. She chose to stay in a marriage in which she was miserable (divorce was not simple back then, nor was it impossible). She chose to resign herself to being unfulfilled. She chose the easy-wrong over the courageous-right at every step. Her life was not the failure of the American Dream. She had more opportunity than most, and she chose not to take advantage of those opportunities.

George and Lennie’s dream of owning a farm, which would enable them to sustain themselves, and, most important, offer them protection from an inhospitable world, represents a prototypically American ideal. Their journey, which awakens George to the impossibility of this dream, sadly proves that the bitter Crooks is right: such paradises of freedom, contentment, and safety are not to be found in this world.

If Steinbeck’s argument is that the American Dream is impossible, then my counterpoint is that our choices matter. George is capable of making decisions, and Lennie is at the mercy of the decisions George makes. That’s because George is a human and Lennie is, basically, an animal (Steinbeck uses animal imagery throughout to describe Lennie). People can make decisions, for example, they can eschew immediate gratification in exchange for achieving long-term goals. Animals cannot. George was in a terrible situation. We don’t know if he simply lost the lottery of birth, or if he made a bunch of bad life-choices, but he was broke and transient. Then, an amazing opportunity fell into his lap. George knows of a small farm for a fair price. He is employed, and several of the other hardest-luck cases (Candy and Crooks) agree to go in on it with him. They do the math, and figure that after one month of work, they’d be able to put a down payment on the farm.

They have one month to save their money, and independence, self-reliance, home, and community could be theirs. A chapter later, George is spending all of his money in the cat house, along with the rest of the farmhands. His decision not only self-sabotages, he is also letting down men who depend on him – men who actually didn’t have much access to the American Dream, at least not without help. How in the world is this the fault of The American Dream? George had a shot and he blew it.

 

Candy, Crooks, and Lennie didn’t have much, if any, access to the American Dream. If you were born black, or severely mentally retarded, or crippled, in the 1930s, then your options were extremely limited. I’m not arguing that everyone is born with equal levels of privilege. Some of us are born into absolute tragedy, and then our lives get worse from there. Some of us have absolutely no hope for a normalcy or traditional success. That’s not the same thing as saying “The American Dream is dead” and success and contentment cannot be found in this world by anybody. What a strange argument. Because if the dream of meritocracy – a fuller, more successful life, for those who are capable and industrious – is dead, then that means our choices have no impact on our lives.

That’s quantifiably not true. Anyone trying to sell you on the idea that you have no control over your own destiny is the devil.

 

Lesson Four: The legalization of prostitution is a necessary human rights issue that will not win anyone a Nobel Peace Prize

Sold

by Patricia McCormick

Lesson: The legalization of prostitution is a necessary human rights issue that will not win anyone a Nobel Peace Prize.

Our English department had an administrator (she has since moved on) who wanted to keep the book Sold on the curriculum but thought that teachers should teach it without the sex and rape parts. Her view was that the content was too mature for tenth graders, but that the book had literary value, and that it did a good job of exposing students to Nepali culture and so on. For those of you who haven’t read the book (I recommend that you do), it’s titled Sold because the young girl gets literally sold by her step-father to a brothel in India (it’s unclear whether he knows he’s selling her to a brothel, or into some other form of indentured servitude. It’s pretty clear that he doesn’t care, one way or the other.) So our orders were to teach a book titled Sold, about a girl who gets sold and forced into prostitution, but to leave out the rape parts.

The book Night was also on the tenth-grade curriculum, and nobody was being asked to teach it without mentioning the brutalization-and-genocide parts. I think sex is seen as more of a taboo than violence – in other words, literary scenes of brutal torture are more likely to be given a pass than scenes of brutal rape, especially of a protagonist who was about the same age as the tenth graders reading the book.

That said, Sold isn’t particularly graphic. The book doesn’t shy away from the fact that Lakshmi, and many other girls, were raped, but it was in no way a book written purely for “shock value.” Patricia McCormick wrote the book to help shed light on a very real problem, especially in Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, but also in the United States, Canada, and just about anywhere where prostitution is illegal.

When I first read this book, probably back in 2010 or so, I became obsessed with researching modern human smuggling. Turns out, it’s much less risky than smuggling drugs or guns (traffickers can claim that the girl is their niece and pay off border agents); the girls are desperately poor and uneducated; they are lied to and believe they are taking jobs as house-keepers or sometimes strippers; they are drugged and raped; if ever they were to escape, they don’t even know where their village geographically is, they would likely be arrested by local authorities on the spot, and, should they make it back to their village, they will likely be treated as a pariah for the rest of their lives. This is a very common story, but because it has to do with sex, we treat it the same way we treat people with profound physical disabilities – we just don’t look.

By legalizing prostitution, you take away the incentive for traffickers to risk kidnapping and raping girls. There will always be women willing to sell sex, just as there will always be men willing to buy it. I don’t expect the person who takes up legalizing prostitution as a passion-project to win the Nobel Peace Prize, but they should. Young, poor, village girls are having their lives destroyed in the most brutal and uncaring ways imaginable. It would take fairly simple legislative action to eliminate much of it.

Lesson Three: Nobody Likes a Liar

The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

Lesson: Nobody likes a liar.

The first time I read this book it was 2003. I was at Ft. Drum, training for Iraq. I didn’t particularly like it – I thought the main character, who may or may not be O’Brien himself, was cowardly. My thinking was he had to “man up” – either stand by your beliefs and be arrested for draft-dodging, or else go to war and stand shoulder to shoulder with all the other poor souls who were conscripted against their will. The choice between fleeing to Canada and half-hearted compliance with the (albeit unjust) law was a profoundly anti-climatic conflict on which to build the story. And as someone who was on the precipice of taking his place amongst generations of American war-fighters, I couldn’t understand O’Brien’s inability to summon his courage, one way or another.

I appreciated the book much more when I returned from Iraq, and even more when I started teaching it. It acted as a springboard to discuss my own experiences, which many students appreciated, and I better understood the whole story-truth vs. truth-truth that O’Brien pushes throughout the novel (collection of short stories…whatever it is). It’s almost as if the truth of war can only be taught through fiction…strangely, I’d make the same claim of most things divine.

But there’s a thin line between story-truth, truth-truth, and just a load of shit. And many of my students thought O’Brien was full of shit. They didn’t trust his “story-truth.” O’Brien’s mistake, as my students saw it, was he put too much of his experiences into the book, so that it closely resembled a memoir, but then admits to lying, and justifies it in the name of “story-truth,” e.g. in the chapter “Good Form”:

It’s time to be blunt.
I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.
Almost everything else is invented.
But it’s not a game. It’s a form. Right here, now, as I invent myself, I’m thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is. For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough. I remember his face, which was not a pretty face, because his jaw was in his throat, and I remember feeling the burden of responsibility and grief. I blamed myself. And rightly so, because I was present.
But listen. Even that story is made up.

And then, the last lines of the chapter:

“Daddy, tell the truth,” Kathleen can say, “did you ever kill anybody?”
And I can say, honestly, “Of course not.”
Or I can say, honestly, “Yes.”

“Well fuck you, dude, you don’t even have a daughter,” a girl in my class had said. Which is a shame because I think O’Brien has a lot of important things to say – or maybe this is The Emperor’s New Clothes, and us English teachers just keep rattling on about how important this book is.

The “truth-truth” is many of my students consider O’Brien nothing more than a liar with the writerly penchant for pretension, and they aren’t buying his fancy-schmancy “but it’s metafiction” bullshit.

Lesson Two: Ben Franklin’s Autobiography

Autobiography

by Benjamin Franklin

Lesson: A conversation yields more than an argument.

 

There was another bookish lad in the town, John Collins by name, with whom I was intimately acquainted. We sometimes disputed, and very fond we were of argument, and very desirous of confuting one another, which disputatious turn, by the way, is apt to become a very bad habit, making people often extremely disagreeable in company by the contradiction that is necessary to bring it into practice; and thence, besides souring and spoiling the conversation, is productive of disgusts and, perhaps enmities where you may have occasion for friendship. I had caught it by reading my father’s books of dispute about religion. Persons of good sense, I have since observed, seldom fall into it, except lawyers, university men, and men of all sorts that have been bred at Edinborough.

A conversation that is oriented towards seeking the truth of something is like working a vegetable garden; an argument is like a war. There is much more utility in tomatoes than in destruction, but if war must be fought (as sometimes it must), understand that the point isn’t to discover, uncover, or create. The point is to annihilate or become annihilated.

It’s easier to argue than discuss, because it’s easy to stake out an identity and perceive any contradictory evidence or opinion as a slight against that identity. It’s also kind of fun to fight, in the same way winning a football game is fun. But winning football games is not how you get better at football. Lifting weights, eating appropriately, running, studying the game, and practicing with the team makes you better at football.

Both metaphors work, but the stakes are different. Arguing over which flavor ice cream tastes better falls along the lines of winning or losing a backyard football game. The real important stuff is subsistence farming at its purest, and world war at its most corrupt.

It’s very important for me to create an environment where conversation is valued. That isn’t the same as agreeing with everything you hear, or not speaking up when you hear something you perceive as wrong. It means having the courage, humility, discipline, and self-control to act rather than react, to be able to stand where the earth is firm, and to take the pain of death and rebirth that creating a new self entails.

Lesson One: To Kill A Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

Lesson: You can learn something about life from everyone…even mean, old, racist people.

To Kill a Mockingbird was the first book I “taught” in a public school. I had never read it. It was my second week student teaching, my cooperating teacher was working on her administrative degree, so she just smiled and left me alone with a dozen black teenagers to talk about how a black man was falsely accused of raping a white woman, and (spoiler) was eventually killed by the police.

Except I didn’t actually know that was what we’d be talking about, because I had never read the book, because when I was in high school I didn’t like teachers telling me what to read and learn. This is when I synthesized what I learned playing Texas Hold ’em (bluffing) and “invented” a teaching strategy that I still employ today: “So…what did you think of chapter one? Don’t be shy, no wrong answers.”

Of course nobody else had read the book either, so I started reading out loud to them. But the first half of TKAM is long and nobody cares about Scout running around in cabbage patches. So we watched the movie, and I learned about the Scottsboro Boys and showed a documentary on them, all the while buying time to read the book at home and plan something useful to do.

I was still student teaching, so I didn’t know much about conventional school, much less alternative education, so I approached the book pretty traditionally – that is, as Billy Collins would say, we tied it to a chair and beat it with a hose until we found out what the thing was up to. I tried to make it fun, but I can’t remember if students found my attempts successful. I think they liked me, and I liked them, but we had different opinions on TKAM – I liked it, and they thought it was too long and slow.

I especially loved the character Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, and I think I tried to explain why to the class, but I honestly can’t remember. It was a long time ago, and I was pretty sleep deprived at the time. Dubose was the racist old lady who disapproved of Atticus Finch (the narrator Scout’s father) defending a black man for allegedly raping a white woman. Dubose had an old Confederate pistol and a bad morphine addiction. Scout vandalizes Dubose’s property, so Atticus makes Scout go read to Dubose everyday, as punishment. Unbeknownst to Scout, Dubose is using that time as a distraction to little-by-little come off of the morphine, even though she knows she has a terminal illness and will be dead soon. Dubose says she wants to die beholden to nobody and nothing, so she puts herself through hell for her beliefs, and then dies.

It’s as easy to hate Dubose as it is to love Atticus. But loving Atticus means nothing. It’s like having Superman as your favorite superhero – the guy who has every amazing power imaginable, never tells a lie, has perfect hair, is always a gentleman, etc.? Really? When I was a freshman in college there was some dude who would walk around with a “I Hate Nazis” patch sewn on his backpack. Really sticking your neck out on that one, bubba.

Dubose is deeply flawed. She’s racist and besides that, generally mean. Scout is even grossed out by how she looks. But if you want to limit your exposure to only people who are as perfect as Atticus and Superman, then you’re going to be about as rough-and-tumble in your views as the “I Hate Nazis” guy. You’re going to end up understanding people the same way you understand anatomy by studying stick figures. Dubose kicked morphine for no other reason than her duty to herself. That’s a powerful lesson from a mean old racist.

 

*EDIT: It was Jem who destroyed Mrs. Dubose’s plants and had to read to her as punishment. Scout tagged along. Told you I didn’t read the book  😉

Sixteen Lessons I’ve Learned Teaching Literature

When I was in high school, I asked my English teacher, “What’s the point of English class? How is “reading stories” a subject?” Her answer was lame: we read stories to build our vocabulary and so we have something to write or speak about. This helps prepare us for college.

I wasn’t sure how to articulate the question, and I honestly didn’t know the answer; but English class seemed really out of place, and besides, I was confused how one might “teach” something as personal and subjective as literature. That isn’t to say that every answer is a right answer, or that because there may be multiple ways of receiving a story that any way of receiving a story is valid. It is to say that, as far as I can tell, the only true way to discuss and write about literature and to arrive at a single grade for students, that is perceived as fair, is to test on structural elements, such as literary terms and vocabulary, or to construct detailed writing rubrics, which necessarily narrows the diversity of thought and expression.

This is probably why English classes are gravitating towards nonfiction writing. First, it’s easier to create meaningful and fair assessments using nonfiction text (although some of the same problems exist). Second, there is a gross underestimation as to the purpose of literature. I think most people would say that reading fiction or narrative nonfiction is for entertainment, or to build the kind of vocabulary that better prepares you for the SATs. Those are both true statements, but statements that vastly understates the significance of literature.

Most learning comes from experience, but there are things that we literally can’t, or wouldn’t want to, experience. Stories act as vicarious experience. We can’t go back and experience the 17th century, and most of us don’t have the experience of being a double amputee. This we could roughly categorize as “experiences of the physical realm.” Stories, like art and performance in general, also work as apertures into the nonphysical realm. It’s the closest thing to prayer that you’ll get in a public school. Or, if the idea of prayer makes you feel icky, it’s the closest thing to drawing a personal connection to the collective consciousness of all humanity, and humanity’s place within the physical and nonphysical world, both today and for all of history. Stories are peepholes that allow you to catch a glimpse of divinity. Fiction isn’t “fake.” Stories aren’t “made up.” They get to the root of who we are and the possibilities of what we may be.

It’s also overly simplistic to reduce books to a series of “lessons learned” but I’m going to do it anyway. For one, it’s fun. For another, I’ve learned a lot by “teaching” stories – way more than I ever did reading them, which is a lesson in itself. Enjoy!

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