hat is it like to teach English literature in a French school? How fond of stairs are you?
Imagine a classroom that seems to be an after-thought. At the end of a hallway, a little left-over space—hey let’s put up a wall! We’ll call it a classroom! Now cram a teacher, a computer and twenty students inside and call it the 8th grade literature class. To get to our classroom, we have to climb to the fourth floor. Oh, not so bad, you’re thinking. Well, the stairway between each floor is a double stairway, so we’re talking eight flights of stairs.
In the classroom, one long window runs along the side, a fire-window, which means only the firemen can open it from the outside. And while you can’t open this window, you also can’t use just any old shades. Only special fabric, which takes one year for the management to order. I sent photos of the students sitting in sunlit glare to my director, who told me I had to have patience. One year!
Never mind that it takes a year for shades, say we who have far fewer students in our classes of English literature than the French teachers have in their glamorous rooms with Apple TV and screens mounted on the ceilings. We tape pieces of paper to the windows. And we become inventive.
Let me tell you a secret. Our classroom, up with the birds, became a sanctuary that we loved. Glorious rainbows appeared up there and surprising snowfall. I let the kids crowd along the window to watch weather events. Good for their descriptive writing, I said, assuring them there was pedagogical purpose to looking out the window.
Camaraderie was the only way through. So, we had prizes: student of the week; short story awards; the respect prize; best drawing of a scene in Of Mice and Men; most thoughtful answer; best PowerPoint. Lest you think this fostered competition, I think you are right! But sometimes these awards were the first time a student had ever gotten an award.
We began with Macbeth, no mean feat for kids whose second language was English. One shiny day in March, I asked my students if Macbeth had anything to say to them as eighth graders. One boy reflected that Macbeth was beloved in the beginning, an excellent warrior who fought against the traitor MacDonald, saved the king, saved the day, saved the kingdom. But then he made some bad choices. Don’t you love it? Macbeth subjected to the same discourse to which we subject the students, as we emphasize good choices over bad!
We build on this idea of the tragedy of Macbeth with a novel. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is a true revelation. I tell the students that ambiguity is something interesting in literature and that I hope they learn to appreciate it. How many like ambiguity? Miss, what is ambiguity? I explain that there is not a definitive resolution to a story. Now, how many like ambiguity? Maybe two hands go up.
So, then we ask the question in Of Mice and Men: who is the more tragic figure, the woman whose only name is Curley’s wife, and who dies, or Lennie, George’s only friend, who also dies? Primed by the tragic figure in Macbeth, whose fatal flaw is pride, the students turn their attention to Of Mice and Men and they don’t really find a tragic flaw. Instead, they see societal pressures leading to a terrible outcome.
One of the most beautiful moments in the story occurs after Curley’s wife dies:
“Curley’s wife lay with a half-covering of yellow hay. And the meanness and the plannings and the discontent and the ache for attention were all gone from her face. She was very pretty and simple, and her face was sweet and young. Now her rouged cheeks and her reddened lips made her seem alive and sleeping very lightly. The curls, tiny little sausages, were spread on the hay behind her head, and her lips were parted. As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment. And sound stopped and movement stopped for much, much more than a moment. Then gradually time awakened again and moved sluggishly on. The horses stamped on the other side of the feeding racks and the halter chains clinked. Outside, the men’s voices became louder and clearer.”
At first the students think that the author is sexist by not giving Curley’s wife a name. But what if the author did that on purpose, I ask them. What could he have in mind? Some of the students, female and male, take this challenge up and investigate her life, her dreams, and see how the world of men in this novel is stacked against her. On the other hand, we have Curley’s friend, Lennie, who is severely mentally challenged. There is no refuge for him, no help, and he remains encased in a childish, child-like response to his world. Without any safety net, his life, too, becomes a tragedy.
ONE SMALL STEP FOR A STUDENT, ONE GIANT LEAP FOR MANKIND
Often the students ask me, well, which is it? And I respond, well, you tell me. I insist that they create a paragraph arguing explicitly against their own point. Imagine they think Curley’s wife is the more tragic figure. The students will then write, “While it is true that Lennie suffers a terrible fate, it is even more important to understand the demise of Curley’s wife.” Then the students investigate Lennie’s suffering, even though they have prioritized the ultimate tragedy of Curley’s wife.
I believe that this method of argumentation deepens the students’ understanding of their own point of view, and also gives credit to a different point of view. No vilifying, no ad hominem attacks, such as this: “only losers think X.” I believe extracting the positive points from the opposing point of view teaches respect for another point of view, and an adherence to arguing the points and not attacking the person.
AMBIGUITY: THE SEQUEL
At the end of this series of lessons, when the book was finished and papers written, I asked the students again. Who is more comfortable with ambiguity? And I hope you see that there is not a right answer to the question of who is the greater tragic figure, Curley’s wife or Lennie. Well, more than half the hands went up.
A TEACHER’S SATISFACTION
One of our students joined this particular 8th grade class as a newcomer to the school. I happened to be stressing how to structure a paragraph. This new student would write a sentence, then skip a line and write a new idea. A paragraph, if I may remind you (please don’t!) is a series of 7 to 10 sentences focused on a single idea. Research suggests that if a student can write a focused coherent paragraph, then they will be able, eventually, to write a much longer essay. I taught the connectors: thus, furthermore, moreover, as a result, as a consequence, indeed.
The new student did not see how it all worked for the longest time. Until she started to join two sentences together, then three, then four.
HOORAY! SCHOOLYEAR IS OVER
It was a hot day at the end of June. The students had thanked me; we had all brought goodies to school. I brought the trash bags to throw the paper plates and cups and napkins tidily away. They took their drawings down from the wall, and they thanked me. They left.
I sat down with an extended sigh of relief. Whew! Well, not so fast. The new student of the terrible paragraphs came back into the classroom. I thought, oh dear. I had to pull myself back together. Was there a problem at home? A bullying problem?
The student said to me, “Miss, I just wanted to tell you what an excellent teacher you are. Thank you again,” she said, and wished me a relaxing and enjoyable summer. Be still my heart, said I to myself after she’d left. It’s a thrill to be recognized by a student, for they can be the fiercest critics.
Surely the two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, exist in a world without a safety net. Godot’s very arrival is uncertain. Some people call Beckett’s play a tragicomedy (in two acts) because that is what is written on the English translation which Beckett made himself. Hey! Never overlook the obvious. But in reality, the artistic expression is the theatre of the absurd. Perhaps tragicomedy is a good enough definition of the theatre of the absurd. But now at least we have two feet to stand on: tragicomedy and absurd. Wouldn’t that make three feet to stand on, you might say? Tragedy, comedy and the absurd? Well, …. no!
The tragedy in Waiting for Godot is meshed right in there with the comedy. It’s not that some parts are sad, and some are funny. I think it’s more like when you get to the border of the known world, where the right things didn’t lead to the right outcome, you kind of fall off the edge. The tramps are already to go, but then they don’t move. But this is the edge. They have already gone over it. So, when they don’t move, it’s already ironic, since they have gone to the ends of the earth already. It’s ridiculous and sad at the same time. I think it’s the contrast, two ends of the spectrum, that are badly welded together there in the middle. That’s what I take away from the play.
(Actually, never mind the play. That’s what I take away from la vie.)