Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Monday, March 7, 2011 9:32 pm

Literature as real as it gets

Filed under: Y'all go read this — Lex @ 9:32 pm
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From the Chronicle of Higher Education (paywall; temporary, I believe):

In our darkest moments, when our students have taxed us beyond taxing, when an outburst or a threat or a student stunt has rattled us, we who teach in community colleges will joke privately—only as a way to vent and find some perspective: Well, at least I don’t have an ax murderer in my class. In other words, whatever has happened, it could have been worse.

But now a suspected ax murderer was one of my students. What should I do?

The issue wasn’t just that a young man suspected of — but not charged with — patricide was on the rolls. The issue also was that in this course on short stories, everything on the syllabus addressed in some way themes related to crime, parent-child relationships or both. To add to the tension, the case had been and continued to be big news in the community, and the professor could gauge from class comments — or the lack of them — which other students in the class knew that the prime suspect was sitting at second row center.

Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case” found us discussing whether tension between fathers and sons is inevitable, and the lengths to which some people will go to get what they want, if even for the short time of a flower’s “one splendid breath,” as Cather puts it. Through Tobias Wolff’s “Smokers,” we looked at the airs that some private-school students assume and how and why young people strive for a life different from that of their parents. We looked at theft and at lying as measures people routinely use to get to where they want to go. Only one student would risk discussing the inextricably dark nature of Arnold Friend, the presumed killer and rapist in Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” But all appeared electrified by the real-life details of the serial killer Charles Schmid, the “Pied Piper of Tucson,” Oates’s inspiration for the story. No one floated the term “sociopath.” But it took no imagination to connect the dots between the issues examined in the fiction and the reports emerging in the news media that semester.

And so it went, day after day, story after story. Why do people lie? What happens when people act in anger? What lurks beneath brother-to-brother conflict? The stories hit it all. A “bloody hatchet,” for us a sick double entendre, even surfaced in Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation.”

The nature of students’ comments told me right away which students were aware that an alleged ax murderer was in our midst. Class discussions are generally free-flowing, dynamic, open. That semester we ground forward with the help of a few students who must have been in a blessed news blackout and a few others with exceptional courage and heart. Some struck me as frozen in place—always in class but never wanting to engage with the horror of the outside world that had found a physical and emotional presence in our classroom.

As for me, I did not hold back. I taught as though my life depended on it, and I had to believe that my life did not. My students needed those stories and the subsequent discussion and reflective writing. I needed to help them understand that, through literature, they were experiencing life in all its darkness and all its light, without suffering any of the consequences. Literature was fulfilling its best purpose, as I see it now.

The essay is a little gem, as tense and intense as Hitchcock. If the paywall’s still up when you read this, keep checking back.

 

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