In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leaves us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
Robert Burns, from “To A Mouse”
In You, O LORD, I have taken refuge;
Let me never be ashamed.
“We’re going outside today,” I tell my seventh period Honors American Literature class as soon as they arrive.
“Why?” they demand, ever contrary.
“Because it’s a beautiful day and you’re working in groups. It would be literally ridiculous to stay inside today.”
So outside we go, my four small Book Clubs situating themselves in separate corners of the yard adjacent to the auditorium. One group chooses to perch on the retaining wall by the creek, another to splay themselves like cats on the sun-baked cement of the parking lot. Winter has been cold, and we’re glad for the respite this afternoon.
Walking around, I hear snatches of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. It’s been five years since I last taught this book–that time with Language Arts 11 at Ingraham–and this time I’ve split the students into small groups for ten days of intensive cooperative learning. They are pacing themselves, each group responsible for reading through a different literary lens as they follow the theme of belonging through the slim novel. I eavesdrop on different learning styles and readings strategies, pleased to see them approaching this responsibility from different and creative angles.
In Your righteousness deliver me and rescue me;
Incline Your ear to me and save me.
While trying to help one group brainstorm the interactive element of their presentation (“So… you can’t just bring food. The food has to mean something. What could food mean?”), I hear a wail of distress from the parking lot. Rounding the parked cars that block my view, I sit down next to the group of four girls. Two of them have their hands covering their mouths, and all eight eyes are wide in horror.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, assuming that some bee has tried to attack them.
“We… we just read what happens,” one of the girls replies, brandishing the nearly-finished book at me reproachfully. “It’s horrible.”
I nod, and glance down at the page they’re reading, noticing that they haven’t even reached the most horrible part. The worst is yet to come, but I can’t bring myself to tell them. It’s all so awful.
For You are my hope;
O Lord GOD, You are my confidence from my youth.
This has been a hard book to revisit. Last week, when we began, I tried to warn them. We read the Robert Burns poem from which Steinbeck crafted his title, and I asked them to speculate about the book’s outcome. What will this be about? If the title comes from this poem, about mouse homes getting bulldozed over and over again, what might it hold for the humans we meet in the opening chapter? They had ideas, but they forgot them, lost in the colorful dialogue between sharp George and Lennie, his giant, simple companion.
Last Friday, two students were reading the parts of George and Lennie, reading in the first chapter as the two migrant workers talk themselves to sleep with dreams of a ranch of their own someday, of living “off the fatta the lan'” and keeping pet rabbits. Such a beautiful dream, simple and poignant in a way that the Gatsbys, Carraways and Buchanans of the world would have scoffed at. As I sat on the table at the front of the classroom, this incantation of doomed dreams nearly brought tears to my eyes, hearing the hopeful words in the voices of my hopeful students, knowing the tragedies that lay ahead.
O God, do not be far from me;
O my God, hasten to my help!
I read somewhere, in preparation for teaching Of Mice and Men, that Steinbeck’s original title was Something That Happened. The original title reflected the reality of tragedy, how often there are no causes, no one to blame. This tragedy comes not from the selfish, destructive, toxic collisions of conflicting desires that brought The Great Gatsby to its grim close, but rather things inexplicable, like poverty, loneliness and disability. I’m left standing in the parking lot with these girls, without explanation or comfort. They know, we know, that it is real, if not true. It would have happened this way. We know it, and we hate it.
I’m lost, for a moment, in thoughts of suffering and hope, how they so often walk us hand in hand through our darkest and brightest moments. Of how I can’t explain the suffering of the world to my students, but can only show them the responses of others, can only stand with them as they encounter in literature what we all will (and some have already) encounter in life. I can only remind them to hope in the only solid foundation we have, to cling first and always to our Creator, our refuge in the face of life’s many tragedies. I can only tell them that the world is full of trouble, and that Christ has overcome it. In that we have hope, though plans go often askew.
But as for me, I will hope continually,
And will praise You yet more and more.