The Curriculum of Disappointment

The Glass Menagerie“I wish I had a sister like you.”

The line hangs in the air, as the reader pauses in disbelief. Junior jaws drop, a few of them shaking their heads, as if to clear away the last line uttered by Jim O’Connor, gentleman caller and secret high school crush of the hopeful Laura Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie.

“Ouch, that’s way worse than Friend-Zoned,” shudders one young man. “Sister-Zoned!”

“His sister!” wails another girl, who just minutes before had been on the edge of her seat as the gentleman caller gently coaxed the shy Laura out of the imaginary world that had absorbed so much of her attention until now.

This may be an apt time to mention that my honors classes at Black Forest Academy this year are mostly female this year, by a ratio of 29 girls to seven boys. While last year’s classes scoffed at the small, muted world of this modernist play about dreams and their demise, this year my students have been spellbound, swept up in the hopeful possibility of romance for the protagonist’s withdrawn younger sister.

As usually happens, this investment makes the disappointment greater when things don’t work out. The students who were relatively impassive when they read of Gatsby’s murder and the tragic close of Of Mice and Men are enraged by Jim’s bumbling deception, wooing and then disappointing poor Laura’s newfound hopes.

I think my students love this play because for the first time they can directly relate to the characters. Tom wants adventure and travel, but is grounded by duty to his family. Laura wants to be loved–a universal longing–and for a moment believes that wish will be granted. Each student in my classroom has felt kinship to one or the other of these characters, many to both.

Talking with these eleventh graders, it occurs to me that this is one of those moments when literature offers the door to very practical, tangible truth for us. We have all experienced Laura’s disappointment, instances where romantic hope dries up in the hot breath of a few words, declaring that we’re “just friends” or “intellectual equals” or something just as damning. Disappointment, in its many forms, seems to be one of the commonalities of human existence, pointing out the distance between how we hoped life would go and how it actually does.

Yet if disappointment is something we share, then it’s in our response that the hope of Christ shines through. I’m convinced that most people react to beauty, joy and victory in much the same way. Some people thank God, and others do not, but the gratefulness is similar. In disappointment, in failure, in tragedy–there lies the real test.

Almost five years ago, I was laid off from my teaching job with Seattle Public Schools, one of 250 teachers who fell victim to seniority-prescribed budget cuts. I was in a position similar to mine now: faculty advisor for that year’s senior class, deeply involved in planning prom and graduation, mentoring younger teachers as I grew in confidence in this vocation of teaching. I was happy and stable, and felt rooted in Seattle and my school. The loss of this job was, in many ways, the biggest loss of my life up to that point.

With the busyness of the end of the school year, I never had time to mourn, and only had begun to make plans for the future when at the last minute my contract was renewed for the following year. Still, I remember the realization, even in the midst of this rather crushing blow to my dreams for my life, that God must have other plans. That, in the end, it was possible that those plans were better, bigger, more beautiful even than the glowing career I’d imagined for myself at Ingraham.

It’s this realization, ultimately, that led me here a year later, to this green valley in Southwestern Germany, to Black Forest Academy. In disappointment I drew closer to Christ, who guided me forward. I didn’t get what I wanted in 2008–a long career in Seattle Public Schools, maybe a townhouse in Ballard–but this is better. Disappointment doesn’t have to be the end–of dreams, of hope, of joy. It can be a new beginning, a change of scene, if only I trust that God knows more than I do.

As we discuss the play the next day, I ask my students what is next for Laura Wingfield, reminding them that this sort of disappointment–really, any sort–offers two possible ways forward. She can accept the good of that ephemeral relationship, cherishing the few lovely moments that they shared, or she can become bitter at its ending, refusing to let anyone else in.

They are divided on what happens, some believing she’ll withdraw further, while others argue that this experience will help her better relate to others in the future. As we disperse for spring holidays all over the world, I remind them that our dreams–fulfilled, dashed or altered–don’t have to define us. We’re defined by who we love, who we follow, a Dreamer with better dreams for us.