Risking Our Cool

Honors American Literature shares a short story in the Student Center.

“Who’ll read Uncle Paul? You have to read with a voice ‘like hard cheese being grated.’ Anyone?”

A student’s hand shoots up instantly, and he snatches the highlighted short story out of the air, scanning his part seriously.

The last class on Friday is gathered in a rectangle of couches in the Student Center, whose floor-to-ceiling windows reveal the icy Black Forest and our frozen-over Kander River. It can’t be much above 20˚ F outside, so we’re glad to crowd together on couches to read a story. With the basketball and wrestling teams traveling to Northern Germany and Northern Italy, respectively, my classes have been somewhat depleted today. Sometimes we barrel ahead even with sparse classes, leaving the harried athletes to catch up when they return. Lately, though, I’ve loved Fridays for the opportunity to relocate my smaller classes and share something interesting. Last week, it was Brueghel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” which inspired two modernist poets to reflect on the self-centered ambivalence of the human race. We looked, we wrote, we read, we discussed. It was a marvelous tiny class.

Today, we’re reading a story. More specifically, we’re reading Harry Mark Petrakis’s “The Wooing of Ariadne,” a short story about a Spartan wrestler and his passionate pursuit of an aloof and high-spirited beauty, the eponymous Ariadne. I first read this story in tenth grade, when I laughed aloud and resolved to teach it, someday, in an English class of my own. And I have.

The bold, confident narrative of the hero, Marko Palamas, carries us through the afternoon. I’ve highlighted a few “parts” in the story, wanting students to experience reading aloud the richly flavorful dialogue of these vivid characters. I’d given them all a sentence or two of description as I assigned the roles, describing this character as “a timid man,” and another as having “a really squeaky voice.” At best, I hoped that the introduction would prepare them to wake up a little, at the end of a long week, and read loud enough for us to hear across the circle.

I laugh aloud, then, when the first student reads, pouring energy and personality into his character’s speech. A girl responds, the haughty Ariadne, her voice dripping with scorn. Later, Squeaky Voice enters, sounding sometimes like a Muppet, at other times like Gollum. Hard Cheese could have come straight from The Godfather, while Timid Man’s comments melt into the background like butter on pancakes. Each new reader enters to the giggles of their peers, but they never break character.

Sitting on the edge of this chorus of comic voices, my own radio theater, I think fleetingly of how “uncool” this might look, a bunch of teenagers sitting around reading a story with funny voices. I’ve known people so scornful of teenagers, so quickly critical of the way that young people guard and hone their images, trying to fit into pop culture molds at any cost. They’re not always wrong, I know, but so often I want to tell them to look again, or to stick around. This class didn’t always know one another well enough to gather on a Friday afternoon and read a story with all the voices. It’s taken time and energy, their investment in each other and mine in them. They wouldn’t do it in every context, of course, but neither would the average adult. We’re all a little afraid of looking weird or different, of doing something that turns heads or raises eyebrows.

I’ve written before about the risks we all–students, teachers, everyone–will take when we know we are safe and loved. I think of Upward Bound, of the literal risks of climbing walls and crossing glaciers, the trust placed in strong ropes and confident guides. Here, the risks are identity, personality, uniqueness. The risk of failing or–sometimes more terrifying–looking foolish. I think about the places and people where I feel comfortable taking that risk, and hope that, as I’ve prayed at the beginning of every school year, my classroom is such a place for my students.

But it’s larger than the classroom. The places God has called me, the work He has given me, have often been a comical surprises on the edge of familiarity, a funny voice reading a story. I may not know how to do this, I’ve thought, but I’ll try. I’ve always known that His love doesn’t depend on whether I win or lose, or how silly I look on the journey. His love is in the asking, mine in the obeying.

The bell rings when we still have a paragraph or so left to read, but no one moves. Gathered around, they listen and read through to the end, even as their schoolmates come filtering through from other classes at the end of the day. And I’m thankful, again, for the trust and love they show one another. Sometimes this trust appears in dramatic ways, in long-awaited prayers or late-night confidences. Often though, I see it here in the classroom, this space where my students, laughing and learning and forgetting what’s cool, share so freely of themselves.

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2 thoughts on “Risking Our Cool

  1. It’s a profound irony that the context of safety is perhaps the very best place to become people of risk, courage, adventure. Thanks for the providing the map, compass, rope, and guidance for your literary mountaineers to become free thinkers. Have a great week

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