Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Recitatif

I assigned William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway to my English 113 class this semester. I also assigned Flannery O’Connor, Kate Chopin, and Alice Walker. I wanted to assign Toni Morrison, but the syllabus was full. Could I cut out Faulkner, I wondered? I didn’t really want to teach Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” anyway, so maybe I could cut that.

This might be the only literature course my students ever take, and I had to make a lot of tough decisions about what to include and what to leave out. I left out a lot of classics: Joyce, Steinbeck, Hawthorne. Mostly “classics” by white men, as you can see. There just wasn’t time to cover everything, even if I limited myself to the accepted canon, which I refused to do. Our Analyzing Literature textbook, thankfully, covered a lot of ground, so I had plenty of material by women and people of color to choose from.

Even so, there were some works on my syllabus that I honestly did not think needed to be there. I just didn’t have the guts to leave them off.

I should have assigned Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” and James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” or something by Zora Neal Hurston, or Ralph Ellison. Instead, I taught Faulkner and Hemingway. Why? The first reason, the way I rationalized it to myself, is that my students will encounter these famous writers later in their education. I feel responsible for exposing them to the canon, even if I reject its limited scope. They need to know who Hemingway is, if for no other reason than to appear well-read to those who define “well-read” as knowing the traditional literary canon. Do I think they can be well-read without reading Faulker? Yes. Of course. But not everyone else will, so I play the game, and assign “A Rose for Emily.”

There’s another, more personally difficult reason I didn’t assign Toni Morrison’s story in particular, as brilliant as it is, as much as I longed to include it in my course. As a graduate student, I had watched a class I was in crush a white professor for attempting to teach The Bluest Eye. That book changed my life and my thought forever, for the better. But reading it in that setting instilled a sense of caution about how I can and cannot teach certain texts as a white woman -- no, more than caution, fear. That professor was the only teacher who ever assigned Morrison to me, in four years of college and four years of graduate education. So, I also feel ill-equipped to teach her work on a basic intellectual level (same with Baldwin, Hurston, Walker -- the list goes on).

Yet the story is so good, on so many levels.

Instead of teaching “Recitatif,” I assigned it as extra credit. Students had the option of reading the story, watching a youtube video of Junot Díaz interviewing Toni Morrison about race and writing, and writing a one page essay about how the video illuminated the story. Honestly, I think it was a brilliant assignment. Three out of nineteen students completed it, and as I graded those extra credit assignments I keep thinking, why didn’t I make all of them do this? Why didn’t I require it? As one student told me how the video of Morrison and Díaz made a lightbulb go off in her head, I lamented the lost opportunity for the rest of my students, who will likely never bother to read the story on their own. It would have been difficult, but wonderful, to discuss that video, and that story, with them in class.

But it was my first time teaching an English class, my first semester as a professor, and I was too scared. I don’t know Morrison’s work well enough, I told myself, and I certainly didn’t know if I was capable of managing what would be a heavy, potentially volatile, classroom discussion with a bunch of freshman.

Still, I assigned Alice Walker and Langston Hughes and Sekou Sundiata. Considering that it was only an eight week course, we had a decent number of conversations about race and literature, starting -- painfully, awkwardly, uncomfortably -- with O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the first week. It has been a challenge to summon the guts to imagine I have anything to say to my students about race while also balancing that courage and confidence with the humility needed to let the texts we study guide the conversation -- to let the authors speak instead of me.

I want to teach Toni Morrison in such a way that she teaches all of us. I’m just the guide. The needed “expert” on literature, asking leading questions, making my students talk to each other, and trying somehow to impart not only knowledge but wisdom.

And so if there is one thing I regret it is that I did not have the guts to assign that story. Sure, we had a nice discussion about southern gothic literature and foreshadowing in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” But “Recitatif” is a brilliant piece of writing, a story I will spend years making sense of, a story that could have taught my students so much more about literature, about the world we live in, and even about themselves. While most of them had never read Faulkner, most of them had never read Morrison either. And they should. Oh, they should!

Next time she won’t be extra credit. Next time, Faulkner will be. We’ll keep him on the margins, and put Morrison up front, where she should have been all along.

As for me, I’ll spend my summer reading some of those authors I should have read in college, but never did. I’ll read them so that I can teach them in the future, but first I’ll let them teach me.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Thanks for Noticing

Yesterday I wrote a letter of recommendation for a student. This was a first for me; I am used to being the one asking others to recommend me. I hate asking people to write letters for me, but the process of writing one for someone else turns out to be really lovely work. I love saying nice things about well-deserving people. I love getting to say, “Hey, you! Yes, you! Admissions Office! This student freaking amazing and you would be crazy not to give her everything you’ve got. I am lucky to be her teacher.” I find myself grateful for a chance to say something good about students who may or may not believe all the good they have done and can do in this world, to say not only how bright they are, but what a gift they are to me, their teacher.

I remember a particularly low point in my senior year of high school, when I was feeling the crush of all kinds of pressure to succeed. I had applied to five colleges: two small liberal arts colleges, both of whom were wooing me gleefully, with scholarships that were a drop in the bucket compared to their high price tags, and three state schools. I got in to all but one: the University of Michigan wait-listed me. That was disappointment number one. Then a scholarship competition at Western Michigan University yielded only the smallest scholarship -- the one everyone got just for earning a spot in the competition to begin with. Disappointment number two. And then I didn’t get a writing scholarship I applied for at Hope College. Disappointment number three.

Though I suppose I could back up further. I could talk about how I felt like a failure because I fell short of every goal I set for myself that year. It would sound silly, because it was. These “failures” were things like getting a 29 on the ACT when my personal goal had been a 30, a 1290 on the SAT when my goal was 1300. And so on. These days, I refuse to discuss standardized test scores. I know too well what it is to place more emphasis on those numbers than we should. So whether I did well or badly on the GRE is nobody’s business but the graduate school admissions offices who reviewed my applications.

Back then, though, I felt like a big dumb failure -- always close, but not quite. I was average, normal, good enough. At 18, I longed to stand out for something, anything -- I was so quiet, such a wallflower, never the center of attention, never the “best.” So when various rejections -- or perceived rejections -- rolled in, I caved in on myself. I went into Eeyore mode. (Eeyore is my spirit animal to this day, probably.)

All this time my mom had saved copies of the recommendation letters my high school teachers had written for me. I hadn’t read any of them, though I was technically allowed to. It felt weird to me, somehow. I didn’t know how to take a compliment, much less pages of them proclaiming my merits to complete strangers.

When I hit my lowest my mom got out the folder of letters, brought it to me in the bathroom where I was hiding -- I always went into the bathroom to cry because I didn’t have my own room -- and made me read them.

I’m pretty sure that made me cry more.

I don’t know how many of those nice things people were saying about me I was able to believe at that point in my life, but I know that reading them helped. That knowing someone who had taught me, and had really known me as a person over the years, someone who had seen me grow, learn, try, fail, and improve, would care enough to take the time to say those things -- that meant something to me. It meant a lot more than a number, a grade, a test score, or even a scholarship.

So, writing a letter of recommendation for someone feels pretty damn good. Only 12 years ago I was in this student’s place, pouring all my dreams into college applications and hoping that somewhere in all the essays and numerical evaluations a future would take shape.

And wouldn’t you know, it did. And it still is. For me, and for her.

Tell someone how amazing she is today. Tell her she is so much more than a number, so much more than class averages and statistics and points on a graph. Tell her she’s freaking amazing, and that you’re lucky to know her.