What Is Love?

Period 5 throws passionate effort into debating the sincerity of Gatsby's love for Daisy.

“He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy… One autumn night, five years before, they had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight. They stopped here and turned toward each other…”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

“So, we’re going to have to prove that what looks like love from Gatsby isn’t actually love. And that’s going to take some reading.”

The serious declaration floats across the classroom to me, from where one half of a debate team prepares their argument for tomorrow’s debate. I’m briefly amused by the novel discovery, that preparing a literary argument “takes some reading.” This is our second debate regarding literature, and in my opinion the more interesting of the two.

Resolution: Jay Gatsby loves Daisy Buchanan.

For those unfamiliar with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, this won’t make much sense. Suffice it to say that these two characters pursue relationship after a long separation, and all that results is jarring disappointment, a reflection on the American Dream of wealth and happiness that manages both cynicism and pity in the same breath. Today, laying aside all questions of the viability of the Dream or moral relativism–both topics that have occupied much of our time lately–we return to  a more basic question. Did he really love her at all?

I hear snatches of interesting discussion from both sides. The pros consider Gatsby’s sacrifices, the extent to which everything he becomes is with Daisy in mind. I hear them wonder aloud if it will be strong or weak evidence to point out the many times he says he loves her in the book, before concluding that it’s weak. Talk is cheap, but look at what he does! From the cons across the room, I hear “He’s just in love with the idea of her, the past her. He doesn’t even know her now” or, the most striking, “He’s just obsessed with her. He’s romantic, but romance doesn’t always mean love.”

This makes me smile, given the romantic excitability of our students in general, these kids who plan elaborate, proposal-strength “askings” to the Christmas Banquet and gamely buy one another candy grams and singing valentines every February 14th. They are the ones who arrived in my classroom on Valentine’s Day, found it full of flowers, and prodded me with teasing giggles until they learned where all the flowers came from. They like romance.

And yet they aren’t captured by it. In their discussions, I hear a healthy critical note, an eagerness to test these emotions for truth. I think of the proverbial admonition to “guard your hearts,” hear them guarding against the too-easy sweetness they read here. Oh, it’s romantic, they admit, that moment when Gatsby stretches out his arms to the faintly glowing light across the water, lit by the woman of his dreams. It’s lovely, but we’ll settle for nothing less than truth.

This impresses me. When I was sixteen, I read The Great Gatsby with teenaged giddiness, rather guiltily aware that I’d been tricked into siding with an adulterous relationship. I thought the story was tragic, but tragic like Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed, it’s-not-anyone’s-fault kind of tragedy. It took me until adulthood to see the fatal flaws, the hamartia that draws all the characters to their fated ends. I’m impressed to see, already, the serious readiness of my students to squint past the shows of love and look for the heart of it, the substance that is, in the end, what matters.

In their confidence and maturity, they reflect the great security of growing up knowing God, the source of love, and testing all feeling against His great standard. We know sacrificial love, the love of a Creator towards his masterpieces, the saving love of Christ.

Then does Gatsby love Daisy? Probably not.

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.

The Use of Stories

Honors students enjoy one another's stories in class.

“What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?”

Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories

Snow is falling hesitantly, halfheartedly over Kandern this Sunday afternoon. Our living room is the picture of calm, complete with soft Christmas music and my sister, Holly, cutting out snowflakes while Emily’s brother, David, writes emails. I compare Finals Week at BFA to running down the stairs in the dark; I always run out of stairs before I run out of momentum, bringing me to a sudden, almost unsettling halt. Three days later, I’ve caught my breath, slowed to the quieter pace of a Christmas break in Kandern.

With the luxurious prospect of reading books for fun looming large ahead of me (The Guernsey Literary and Potatoe Peel Pie Society, and finishing Gilead) stories are on my mind today. Stories also colored the last month of school, as each of my students spent considerable time and energy crafting short stories of their own. As both regular and Honors classes have just finished reading different Mark Twain novels (Pudd’nhead Wilson and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, respectively), it seemed like a good time for them to jump into the grand tradition of American storytelling.

With charming alacrity, my students plotted and characterized, building tales out of mystery stock characters and literary archetypes, filling drafts with estranged families, chilling disappearances, blood-stirring quests and moving resolutions. Then they turned them in, these masterpieces, where they formed a great tower of fiction on my desk, over 500 pages of it. For a week I carried them around, puddle-jumping gleefully into these wells of imagination.

The joy they took in writing the stories didn’t surprise me–I’ve both experienced and observed teenagers’ remarkable capacity for telling truth by making up worlds of their own. What surprised me, I suppose, was how much they loved hearing one another’s stories.

I’d concocted an elaborate scheme of nominations and voting to turn it into the kind of contest that high school students like. For the last week before exams, we spent the first 15-20 minutes of each class hearing one story, then at the end of the week voted on the best in each class. In the end, the voting and winners didn’t matter; what they wanted to know was who wrote each story. They filled the air with guesses, diving into the truths they knew about their classmates to conjecture who would have imagined what. When I told them, there were sighs of understanding, squeals of surprise.

I’m impressed, once again, by the willingness of our students to know and be known. Whether it means venturing a guess aloud, defending a controversial opinion, competing in a debate or sharing a mystery story, English class this semester has been a parade of risk-taking by my bold students. I never pretend that it’s easy, what we do. Between the dark truth of the American literary canon and the soul-searching topics they elicit, we’re all asked to think in class, to bring our whole hearts and minds into the endeavor. My students challenge me with their courage, the way they are willing to invest love and imagination as they develop mind and soul. It’s an honor to be involved, even just as the voice reading the stories from the front of the room.

“After this, the stories aren’t so clear,” I told one of them a few days ago, “They don’t resolve the way we want them to. Sometimes the hero doesn’t make it back in the end, or the crime doesn’t get solved. It’s not so easy in the 20th century.”

The questions will grow trickier, closer to home as we bring our literary studies up to the present in the second half of the year. I’m excited for the journey, praying for the wisdom and the courage to meet my students in their adventurous intellectual curiosity, thankful always for the God that directs all of our steps.

A Merry Christmas to all from Kandern!

In the Forest

In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

It is grey November, a Thursday afternoon, and to my great fortune I’m sitting on dry leaves by a meadow, watching a stream gurgle by with extreme laziness. We call it “the river,” the Kander river from whom our town gets its name, but it is simply a brook, muddy and indolent and good-humored.

Around me, scattered across a strip of adjacent land that BFA recently purchased, are my students. Some are sitting, like me, on the leafy grass and rocks. Others lean against trees, looking up into the golden ends of autumn, and a few choose to wander, keeping their feet and minds moving as they examine all corners of the field. I’ve sent them out here armed only with coats to ward off the insipid non-chill of a mild November day and two slips of paper, one bearing a quote from Emerson’s “Nature” and the other a passage of Scripture concerning God’s creation. Those, and the instruction to “Be in nature. Just to be.”

We’ve been studying the transcendentalism this week, with Emerson and Thoreau, that bizarre amalgam of philosophy, religion and art that has produced nature-loving, interior-gazing Americans for the last 150 years. My lesson for today sounded more than a bit silly when I wrote it down a week ago. Thursday: Transcendentalist Walk. And the students, they felt the oddity of it this morning, when I first brought them outside, giving strange directions as we walked to the creek.

“You’re seeking solitude! Don’t talk to one another. Avoid each other! Try not to see any buildings!”

For a while they drifted aimlessly, blown like the leaves from the trees, resting in one place for only a second before moving on, seeking better inspiration. But once they stopped, really stopped, they put down roots. This class of students is dressed in the muted colors of autumn, the maroon of dying leaves and the grey of cloudy skies, and after a few minutes their unmoving figures blend into the surroundings. They are still, my students, for one quiet minute at rest.

We’re tired these days, students and teachers, stretched by projects and commitments, worn out by late nights, long rehearsals and tournaments. It sounded whimsical last week to spend part of a class “being transcendental” outside; today it feels almost necessary. We all need to slow down a little. Or quite a lot.

After a while, I gather them back again, as gently as I can pulling them up from the solitary rest they’ve found for a while. Back inside the classroom, I play Sigur Ros while they write about their time outside. I don’t know what I expect to hear. I never get the impression that our kids–or any kids, really–love the outdoors as much as I did when I was their age. I’ve accepted that I wasn’t the norm, even then, but still I wish I could share it, this solace I find in the uncomplicated routines of the natural world.

At the end of class, we share our reflections. Students speak of rest, forgetting for just a short time the stresses of past, present and future that weigh heavily on teenagers. They confess to never having spent time outside, and wonder why. They marvel at the originality of their Creator, the artist of autumn. They wish they could have spent longer.

And I remember, again, the deep loveliness in which we’re invited to take part. I’m thankful to share it with these people I love, and glad that, if only for a moment, we found in the forest quiet and rest.

Gifts, Poems, Accidents

Furthermore, as for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, He has also empowered him to eat from them and to receive his reward and rejoice in his labor; this is the gift of God. For he will not often consider the years of his life, because God keeps him occupied with the gladness of his heart.

Ecclesiastes 5:19-20

I’ve never been the first to assign group work. I know it is important. I’ve taken enough education classes to know its worth from a developmental and interpersonal perspective. I’ve worked long enough to appreciate the necessity of teaching students teamwork that will doubtless prepare them for healthy, successful lives in the vocations they pursue. And I’ve been out of high school long enough now to have forgotten the hours I spent typing up “group” essays and gluing together “group” posters in resentful solitude. That’s all gone now; I’m quite convinced group work is great.

But the good that I want to do, I don’t do. How, I ask, can four students productively work on one assignment? Won’t one student inevitably be staring out the window, while two others direct a hardworking, left-handed girl with glasses?

Wednesday morning, I try group work again, retrieving it like a seldom-worn dress from the back of the closet. Maybe this time. I print off three pieces of literature that I’ll be giving to my students to analyze. Two of them are poems written by Puritan Anne Bradstreet, whose credentials I spent all of yesterday outlining as, “subversive, contradictory acts of worship, like Christian rap for Puritans.”

Stopping by the copier on the way to class, I decide to enlarge the poems slightly for ease of gathering around. To my mild amusement, giant blue A3 paper comes out of the machine. Fine, whatever. They’re blue and huge, these poems.

“We’re analyzing poetry today!” I declare as my Period 3 honors class files in.

“Yay,” they shrug. (Teaching teenagers is truly the best way to learn the difference between tone and meaning.)

“So… I have a vision. Push the desks together into tables, then gather around a big poem.”

More murmurs follow the introduction of the “big poems.” We don’t like them big, they sigh; poems should be small and clear, like raindrops or diamonds. They sit down with trepidation, then see the blue paper and laugh.

“Oh, they’re big!”

“Right. Not long, yes? Oh, and everyone needs markers. Lots of markers.”

“How many markers?” My precise students want to know.

“A handful. Each.”

Each?”

And with that, they sit down, huddled around “big poems” on blue paper, merrily marking metaphor, simile, and imagery with squiggly Crayola lines. They discuss the meanings of these pieces, and I pester them until they can tie those meanings back to the language that created them, back to the rainbow lines on their blue papers.

It’s true what they say. My students are learning far better in these groups, huddled around their shared poems, than they would have in solitary reflection. I’m equally convinced, however, that the accident of the giant blue paper and the whim of the markers “made” the lesson, that the same group project with a normal-sized white paper and pens would have fallen a bit flat. I used to wonder when the best moments in the classroom would stop happening by surprise; now I’m thankful that these happy accidents outnumber the derailed plans, content to be flexible.

After a few minutes, I hand out new poems and ask them to repeat the exercise without speaking. The room fills with giggles and gestures, as students try out nonverbal communication to divide the tasks of observation and analysis. Markers wave, notes fly onto paper, and students nearly burst with unsaid commentary, bouncing in their seats like balloons on strings.

And as I watch them I realize that I’m starting to love them, my new students. It doesn’t surprise me the way it used to, when the changing of classes left me forlorn and lonely, but I’m learning more and more that loving students can’t be forced or willed. It just comes, really a gift from God, inextricably linked to a passion for what I do. Someone asked me yesterday why I love teaching, and this is it: long hours spent investing in the same people, day after day, one group project and accidentally blue poem at a time.

Knowledge of Good and Evil

The epilogue of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible hangs in silence in the last minutes of class, images of haunted farms and wrongly-executed non-witches dispersing like smoke into the sunny Friday afternoon.

I congratulate my students on finishing the first book of the year, and ask them what they think. The reply is nearly unanimous: We don’t like this.

“You don’t have to like what happens to like the end of a book,” I remind them. “No one likes what happens. You shouldn’t like it.  But there are good things, too. What’s good about it?”

One girl, an artist in the back of the room, raises her hand. She’s sharp and thoughtful, so I have high expectations for her answer. Artist, however, can’t be bothered with my question. She has one of her own.

“Do you think that the Devil was actually working in Salem? I mean, in the girls?”

It’s been a week of odd questions. This last one reminds me of the most common inquiry:

“So… wait. Who is actually doing witchcraft in Salem?”

It’s in this “actually” that I realize that I’m reading The Crucible through new eyes. As a student and later a teacher in Seattle Public Schools, it never occurred to me to ask whether or not there were real witches in Salem. And while I still rather doubt there were, the question reveals an advantage my students have in their interactions with the world. They can discern–and name–good and evil.

“What is evil?” my AP English teacher asked us on September 11, 2001, that patchwork Tuesday on which my six teachers tried, each in his or her own way, to walk us through global-scale tragedy. In English class, we discussed evil in the abstract, none of us eager to point out the obvious answers offered on television. Eventually, our conversation ground to a horrified halt. The only ones who could come to any conclusions, regarding evil or good, were those who felt brave enough to reference God as the origin of good, evil’s antithesis. We were the only ones sure, that day.

Now an English teacher myself, I remember it ten years later. Though I haven’t yet walked through this kind of catastrophe with my students, in some senses each year reading literature we examine the spectrum of human life. While we have the opportunity to see all sides and try to understand, I must remember that we also have the responsibility of discerning between life and death, good and evil.  We can mourn for Salem, broken and twisted by genuine evil, even as we admire those who resisted, clinging to truth in the darkest of times.

And this practice, together celebrating good and discerning evil, is possibly the most valuable lesson I can share for this real life we live and real world in which we live. It’s an honor, every day.

Real Life

Period 4 reads poetry on a sunny April day. Magic.

Hope is a thing with feathers, that perches on the soul,” she begins, swaying a little and looking down.  Her voice gains strength as she reads the familiar words.  Another student snaps a few pictures, and in only twelve lines she is done.  With a sigh of relief, amid two dozen clapping hands, she sits down.

On this sunny April day, English 11 students are enacting the year’s second poetry reading.  The last happened in chilly November, in a class lit only by the digital orange of a Youtube fire on the projector screen, as we celebrated the rhythmic glory of the Fireside Poets.

Now we’ve reached the Modernists, and in their honor are sitting under the sun, on stark stone steps, munching on the cheap bread on which these penurious poets subsisted at the beginning of last century.  Students lounge in the sun, nibbling baguettes and clutching limp photocopies of poems as they await their turn.

Oh Captain, my Captain,” chants one boy.  Two of his classmates jump up in salute.  We’re lulled by Frost’s “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” momentarily forgetting the warmth of daylight as we’re transported to a twilit snowy wonderland.  A boy dramatically reads “Phenomenal Woman,” by Maya Angelou.  “Does my sexiness upset you?” he reads, and waits for our laughter.  Words–whispered, swallowed, proclaimed or queried–fill the spaces between us.

And I think, in the sun, listening to my students each reading two poems (one published and one original), about the ways we spend our time in the classroom.  I’m often asked to justify learning certain skills or reading certain books, with the sighed question, “How will this ever help us in real life?”

Though I don’t always say it, my first thought is usually, “Why doesn’t this count as real life?”  I’ll acknowledge that some skills, like writing a resume or balancing an equation, will be more useful later than they are now.  I would also argue, though, that this particular activity–reading poetry together in the sun–is extremely relevant now and later.

For the future, I hope rather vaguely that my students will be better at public speaking because of this, that the skill it takes to read a poem in front of friends will soften the blow of interviewing for a job with strangers.

Mostly, though, I’m thinking about the present.  An English teacher I respect once compared reading literature to eating.  She would ask her students if they could remember what they have for dinner on March 7th when they were eight years old.  When they replied that they couldn’t, she would say, “But you ate something, right?”

“Probably,” they’d shrug.

“That’s what reading is.  Nourishment for your mind.  You may not remember everything you read.  You may lose it after only a few months or days.  But some of it you’ll remember forever.  And the rest strengthens your soul and your mind, makes you more whole with every word.”

She said it a long time ago, when I was still a student, discouraged that I didn’t remember everything, even writing that I loved at the time.  I’ve forgotten now why The Tempest and Fahrenhiet 451 and the poetry of Marianne Moore once made such deep impressions on me.  But they did.  And I can’t remember every line of “The Road Not Taken” now, but fragments of it still rise to the surface from time to time. (“Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”)

I look around at my students, listening and silently supportive, wondering if they see it this way.  Are they trying to remember everything?  Challenging even this moment as they search for its monetary value?  Have they yet learned to appreciate beauty that comes and goes in a moment, as quickly as snowflakes or an Emily Dickinson poem?

No man is an island, entire of itself…

And we’re linked together as we share poetry on a sunny day, learning not just the words on the page but how to hear, to feel, to question and to see.  This is real life, a life for which I’m thankful, today, tomorrow and always.

“I’m Not in the Book!”


Supplies:

  • Pen or pencil
  • Journal
  • TEXTBOOK!

“Wait, what?”

Students filter in slowly from the hall, rummage around in backpacks for pencils and journals, then do double-takes.

“What’s this textbook business about?”

“Can I go get mine? It’s at home.”

“Um… we have textbooks?”

I nod and start to pull the class set out of the cupboard, where they’ve been since we read “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” more than six weeks ago.

We open to the bricklike anthology to Hemingway’s “In Another Country.”  In some ways, it is perfect for the English 11; at every turn, we encounter a thematic or technical feature I introduced in yesterday’s lecture on modernism.  We point to them like kids on a zoo field trip.  Look, kids, here’s a fragmentary narrative!  And over there, that’s what irony looks like!  Get ready, if you look really closely you can see the minimalism.  It’s accessible and rich in examples.  It’s also in no way Hemingway’s best work, and since it’s so unknown it won’t even count as cultural currency, to be spent later at a dinner party or job interview.

I’ve never referenced an English textbook in a terribly regular way, nor have I known any high school English teacher to work methodically through a high school anthology.  We all practice Literary Canon Arithmetic to some extent, adding and subtracting from the prescribed textbook.  Two years ago, when Seattle Public Schools announced that they were aligning English curriculums across the District, our worst-case scenario was a strictly-enforced anthology curriculum.  We all shivered at the thought of not being able to choose what we taught.

Though all anthologies contain great literature, often the selections are limited.  Many of them seem bound by length requirements, so we get excerpts from “Life on the Mississippi” instead of Huckleberry Finn, or “Winter Dreams” instead of The Great Gatsby.  Some of the selections are less clear.  “In Another Country” is longer and less intricate than “Hills Like White Elephants,” the Hemingway story we’ll read tomorrow.  I imagine this tale being chosen in a windowless conference room in a middle floor of a New York skyscraper, by a panel of literary experts who pull the strings on the next generation of learners.

The reason might be simpler, though, and lovelier.  Perhaps someone in that room loved “In Another Country” and defended it.  It’s possible he’d read it himself, in a magazine somewhere, and it cleared away the hazy definitions of modernism, or maybe reminded him of his grandfather, wounded in World War II.  Whatever the reason he thought it worthy of being read by all American eleventh graders.

That’s the way of English teachers, really, and the true reason that anthologies lie unopened by so many of us. Many English curriculums require students to read several novels (none of them anthologized), along with intermittent clusters of poems and short stories. I’m asked to run selections by our Department Head, but pending their approval it doesn’t matter if they are or are not part of our textbook.  Though we’re granted the solemn responsibility to teach “reading, writing, speaking and thinking,” often the words that get us there are flexible. We’ve spent our lives collecting the stories and poems like interesting shells on the beach, saving them for later, waiting for the right moment to bring them out.

This has its disadvantages, of course.  Students, even those taught only in Anthology World, will always arrive to college having never read a text their professor believes is critical.  There are, quite simply, too many books.  (After reading Othello and Hamlet back to back my senior year, I’m still putting off Macbeth.  Oh, and I’ve never read 1984.  I know, it’s important.) In the end, though, teachers often present the writing we love and remember.  As a teacher I’ve gotten to read many new books, and some of them, like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies or Othello have become my favorites only after teaching them a dozen times or so.

Most of my favorite classes, though, have been the ones in which I brought something beautiful or curious, something another teacher once read to me, and passed it along.  In this way, teaching English reminds me more of an oral than a literary tradition; the canon evolves autobiographically, with each of us teaching different stories, for different reasons, seeking always the sharpest images, the deepest themes, the most germane discussion.  Sometimes these appear in anthologies, where we visit Poe’s oval portrait and Twain’s jumping frog, linking us to someone else’s passions.  Sometimes we venture further afield, seeking wisdom and skill, and I’m honored by the trusted role of guide, tracing our steps by memory back to places I once found interesting, bringing with me these students I love.

On Doing Hard Things

And I’m convinced that if the Christian church loses this generation, it will be not because we didn’t entertain them, but because we didn’t dare them… with the truth of the world. And it won’t be because we’d made the Gospel too hard, but because we made it too easy, and we just played games with kids and didn’t actually challenge them to think about how they live.

Shane Claiborne

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Above: English 11 meets a new challenge, Literary Debate, with courage, formal wear and a flair for the dramatic!

“This is so hard!”

My student is scrolling through an article on Ernest Hemingway, trying to absorb without reading too much of it, as our class works on the second day of a research project.  I glance at the article, scholarly and reliable but laid out poorly in its no-frills, EBSCO way, and nod.  It’s seventh period on a sunny day, and I’m in no mood for pedagogical deception.

“You’re right.  It’s hard.  Hard, but not impossible.  And not in any way harmful, right?  Can you read it with a goal in mind?  Like, find three major life events that influenced Hemingway’s writing?  That might help.”

He nod and returns to his article with a sigh, and I continue pacing the library, full of hardworking researchers.  They’re doing a good job, really, and I’m proud of their efforts.  Something about the exchange sticks with me, though.  I’ve had so many conversations like this in the last five years, conversations that ended with me confirming that what I’ve asked is difficult.

I’m not talking about the times that the requests to “get out a sheet or paper” or “open to chapter five” elicit deep, resentful grimaces.  Rather, there are days when the concepts are challenging, the facts obscure, the skills technical and the discussions complex, and someone needs to honor the process of learning by admitting that it won’t come easily, and shouldn’t.  You’re being stretched, I tell them, and out there on the edges of ability, that’s where all of us learn.  I’m thinking of tone, of fantasy writing, of racism, literary criticism, and Shakespeare.  I’m thinking of research writing, the challenge to take many sources of information, evaluate their accuracy and then reassemble them to support our own unique discoveries.  It’s hard.

Interestingly, students usually respond well to this.  Once we all admit we’re doing something difficult, if I know it and they know I know it, everyone seems a bit happier.  It’s still challenging, but it seems more purposeful, as if this acknowledged challenge has more potential for growth than an annoying chore, merely to be endured.

BFA has offered students credit for a Bible project for reading a book called Do Hard Things, by Alex and Brett Harris.  While I haven’t yet read it, I’m intrigued by the premise, which is that American teenagers are withering under a crushing load of low expectations, and the only way out is through seeking challenge for the glory of God.  I admire this step by my school, acknowledging that our students both fear and desire “hard things” as they seek meaning and answers at this critical point in their lives.  It’s an important message for kids, of course, but I can’t accuse them of being the only ones avoiding difficulty.

It reminds me of the importance of challenge in larger communities than the classroom.  If we spend our time telling one another that life is simple, that questions have easy answers and problems clean solutions, we dishonor and ignore the real suffering that meets every human life.  Yes, the Gospel offers the simple gifts of grace and new life, but its message is by no means easy.  Paul refers to the Gospel as a “stumbling block,” and Jesus Himself urges that following him will require us to “take up [our] cross.”  I’m reminded then that life isn’t easy; it’s often hard, yet Christ is with me, every steep step of the way.

Laughter from another end of the library reminds me of the task at hand, and I find three of my students updating their Facebook profiles with quotes they’ve discovered by their authors.  Washington Irving, Emily Dickinson and Frank Herbert speak again, in the open forum tongue of social networking.  I have to laugh.  Challenges, they take us where we never thought we’d go, whether it’s author quotes on Facebook statuses, a Shakespeare class in college, or a Christian high school, halfway around the world.

NaNoWriMo

Short Story Ideas: Chick Flick Action Story

Damsel in Distress/Platonic Ideal: Super smart and hot

Creator made a weapon and then lost it. Quest: Find it and destroy it. Wants to make something better.

Trickster/damsel befriends creator, tricks him into finding the Magic Weapon. Once they find it, she steals it and threatens the platonic ideal.

Has known platonic ideal for whole life. She’s liked him for his whole life. As soon as he starts to like her, he gets distracted by the damsel.

Notes from Study Hall Brainstorming Session

It’s not as if anyone really needs to search long for an excuse not to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November.  “I don’t want to” generally seems to do the trick.  The organizers of NaNoWriMo, tricky writers’ code for National Novel Writing Month, seem to pride themselves on this being an entirely voluntary event.  No one is getting paid or tricked or tortured.

Still, the issue of wanting to doesn’t apply to me.  I do want to write a novel, very much so, and have wanted to participate in NaNoWriMo for the last few years.  (Basically, ever since I met Anna Barton, Prodigious Novel Writer/College Student.)  At the beginning of the month, I more than flirted with (courted?) the thought of jumping on board.  How long would it take, I wondered, to write the required 1,500 words a day?  November 1 is a holiday in Germany, set aside to venerate the saints that Germany stopped venerating approximately 500 years ago, so I had plenty of time.  I wrote my 1500 words and went to bed.

Flash forward two weeks, to when I’ve become a story processing machine.  A few days ago I assigned an “Archetypal Short Story” to my eleventh graders.  Their mission: To create a coherent short story out of five randomly drawn character and situational archetypes.  In theory, this should work, and every combination in my grandly named Jar of Fortune has already been told somewhere.  In practice, many of my students are struggling to put the pieces together.

Anyone overhearing us in the library during study hall would be party to some odd conversation:

T: My characters all have, you know, Norsic names.

Me: Nordic names?

T: Yeah, that’s what I meant.  Did you know that Dustin is Nordic?  And it’s like a normal name.

A: So… can I combine the Platonic Ideal and the Trickster?

Me: No, they don’t go together.  The Platonic Ideal is perfect.  She can’t be tricky.

A: How about the Damsel in Distress?

Me: She can be the Trickster.  You could either have an Ideal Damsel or a Tricky Hot Girl who’s in trouble.

A: Definitely the Tricky Hot Girl.

I’ve never taught archetypes before, and have only encountered them briefly, once or twice, in my own education.  Ironically, the most memorable and coherent lessons I ever received on the topic came in tenth grade, in a class that I didn’t really like.  Still, I’m having fun with them, learning alongside students to see the frameworks that hold our stories together and make us love them.  As always happens when I indulge in the pleasure of assigning fiction, I remember that at least part of everyone loves this, the giddy glee of creation.

With all of these stories in the air, fragments of characters and plot lines demanding my attention, I haven’t written 1,500 words daily.  I’ve returned to my original document a few times, planning for the future, and started my own archetypal story.  Mostly I’ve helped kids arrange the variables in order, sorting through the details of their own imaginations and shining light on shadowy turns of plot.  Someday I hope I’ll join in the fun,  twisting together my own 50,000 words for 30 days, but for this year I’m content, living and participating in the particolored worlds created by my students. I’m still swimming in words this November, even if they aren’t always my own.