Monday, October 10, 2011
I have not written in close to a month. In part this is due to letters that I’ve been writing to each of my students – in larger degree there has been my confrontation with growing up, which has proven difficult to put into words. The geography of grown up world is full of stereotypes, and as we know, I am not the first to make the transition.
In encountering the epidemic of absent fathers among my students I have come to face more with my own familiarity with subject. When teaching it becomes more important to see that aside from teaching content you are also teaching people skills. The conflict that arises again and again is the immediacy of emotion and its effect on reputation, and the ideas that literature often holds us to. As a quick aside I am not calling for some kind of moral idealism or the creation of so called “moral life”, but rather the simple pursuit of options instead of instant gratification found in feuds and drugs.
The thematic structures of the texts I’ve been teaching are, by necessity, reduced to a sentence or word. These are used to push students into higher thinking e.g. to think of the text as in conversation with the reader and the world, instead of just a plot. In several of my texts this past nine weeks the message was to “speak out against injustice.” I have realized since leaving college the difficulty of making texts both applicable and relevant to everyday life – especially to reluctant readers (what a unique problem!). The dilemma in teaching them is to continually realize what a challenging path that much of literature calls us to walk, or at the very least calls us to see.
There is a scene in Fellini’s “Amarcord” where the main character’s uncle is on a day trip visit from his time in an insane asylum. The uncle climbs into a tree and continuously shouts, “I want a woman!” He refuses to come down, the characters try throwing rocks at him and he still clings to the branches. Eventually a nun and an orderly arrive on the scene. They reprimand him and take him back to the asylum. We are all faced with the temptation of the mad uncle: to remove ourselves and say, “No more today. Give me what I want now or I’m just not coming down.” The power of that moment in the film is not in its resolution, but in the people who gather of that base of that weathered trunk and try and coax him (us) down – and how quickly those individuals will resort to throwing stones. When the uncle leaves the main character says, “We are all mad at times.” The climbing into trees and refusing to participate and give to the world what it wants is not a an action unique to madmen, teenagers or students, but the urge we must all deal with from time to time.
Integrity. A Jesuit word if there ever was one. Integrity, and its accompanying virtuous indicating brethren, do not capture the reality of experience, how isolating it can be to live with them. We are constantly faced with choices: to report to work prepared, to speak honestly etc. What is more is that we also able to break away from those values and make decisions that betray our purpose. When these choices occur there is no great chasm that opens up to swallow us or great illness that strikes us down – we can in fact live in hypocrisy and all the while delude and rationalize our actions to coincide with the belief structure we live under. These realities have illuminated themselves since I’ve left college. The Mississippi Delta forces one to climb into the tree and refuse to come down, or to keep one’s feet on the ground with constant temptation of those high branches. I cannot imagine living in that tree. Its promise is empty and I thankful for the figurative grass under my shoes.
In the next nine weeks we’ll be doing a comprehensive multi-genre unit on “The Crucible.” A drama that focuses on the Salem Witch Trials, but in reality is conversation about McCarthyism and Arthur Miller’s experience being black listed. In re-reading it I am struck by the character of John Proctor. Despite his flaws he appeals to reason and tires to be honest, fair and blunt in his dealings. The world my students and I have inherited is one where we will be tested not unlike John. What I take comfort in – even as I hear the world implode further each morning on NPR- is that we are not the first to encounter such problems. Each person we remember great or small has faced challenges in making the narrative of their lives. Many of those challenges have softened with time. In our retrospectives what is right becomes clear with the story we create for that individual. When one looks closer at the wilderness of options each character in history faced all the dilemmas that lurk in each choice become apparent. Struggle is not new or a novelty, but at times we hope as much.