Monthly Archives: April 2015

Instinctive Empathy

Every year in April, my school hosts the Special Olympics. Our students serve as “buddies” to athletes who come to our campus with their teachers, caregivers and families to participate in two days of competition and games. It is disruptive to the regular schedule we follow, but like most disruption, it brings about a new and needed perspective and teaches different but key lessons.

The youngest students in my school make signs with words of encouragement and support while the older students accompany athletes through the games or run booths, making macaroni necklaces and painting faces with peace signs and flowers.

Yesterday, I saw one of our students pick up a young child in distress and hold him in his arms. Although this teenager is exceptional in many ways, what he did was ordinary – he saw a need and filled it. On different levels and to varying degrees, that’s what most of our students had the opportunity to do – and did – during these two days.

While we often talk in our classrooms about the power of empathy and the importance of service, nothing we say is quite as impactful for our students as this experience. It confirms that school is about so much more than papers, tests, grades, personal achievement, and mission statements. Abstract notions about community can’t hold a candle to the real thing.

The Truth About Fiction

I watch Mad Men the way I read. I scour Don’s interactions and facial expressions for meaning, trace motifs strung like pearls along episodes, pore over images like prim and proper Betty shooting birds in her backyard.

The theme song repeats in my head long after the show closes, and the graphic of Don falling in perpetuity gets under my skin every time. I want him to stop falling. I don’t care if he lands and lives or crashes and burns. But at the same time, I don’t want the show to end.

Good serial television, like Serial the podcast and 19th century serial novels, casts a spell that is hard to shake. It distracts, delights, disturbs. Last night I didn’t sleep because I couldn’t decide whether or not this season’s new character Diane, a waitress with as angular a face as Don’s and as little compassion, is a figment of Don’s imagination or a reality. Every scene involving her feels like a scene out of The Sixth Sense.

Analyze as I will, I know that there is no right answer. Moreover, I know that it doesn’t actually matter if she exists or not. Don doesn’t exist either.

But we do. When we read fiction in any form, although we can never know things absolutely, we nevertheless experience truths. As Heidi Julavits writes in The Folded Clock, “Readers… experience real feelings as a result of fiction.”

Listen and Learn

I like how blogger Maria Popova  (Brain Pickings) gathers up the debris of literature and history and delivers up perfect little gems like the one about Virginia Woolf reading from an essay titled “Craftsmanship” in 1937.  It is the only recording I have ever heard of Woolf’s voice, and I have been completely transfixed by it, playing and replaying it whenever I open my laptop.

Virginia Woolf is my patron saint. I have written more papers on her work than I should admit, since none are published or noteworthy. Her books, essays and miscellany line several shelves in my house and whenever I hear church bells toll the hours, I think immediately and only of Clarissa Dalloway. Whenever I see a lighthouse, I think of Mrs. Ramsay. Whenever I think of stones or pockets, I think of Virginia, wading out into the river.

Before listening to this recording, I had only ever heard Virginia Woolf speak through ink and paper. Hearing her voice was definitely unsettling to me, at first. But I’m getting used to how she sounds, and can finally actually listen to what she was saying, is saying still. Things like,  “a word is not a single and separate entity, but part of other words. It is not a word indeed until it is part of a sentence. Words belong to each other.”

As each of us.

To Each Her Own

Since joining the women at Great New Books to write book reviews a few times a year, I’ve been reading more newly published work than I usually do. Our charge is simple, on the face of it: fall in love with a recently released book and recommend it to others.

I read a lot and love a lot of what I read, so I thought this would be easy. It was in the case of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. But it’s been harder since then. For example, I picked up Cynthia Bond’s Ruby, strongly endorsed by Oprah Winfrey, and read it with every intention of loving and reviewing it.

It had all of the elements that I look for in a favorite: allusions to other loved books, in this case Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Bluest Eye; a compelling story about an underdog; a brave look at complex issues like gender, race, and poverty; and frequently beautiful imagery threaded throughout the narrative. And yet. I appreciate but don’t love the book, and don’t plan to review it.

This experience of wanting to love stories that other people love is universal. One of my best friends, who usually shares my opinions on what to read, texted me when she was 80 pages into Ferrante: “I’m trying but not loving it. What am I missing?”  Students have asked me this same question hundreds of times. With Faulkner. With Whitman. With Bronte. With Joyce.

As an English teacher, I have actually been in the business of book reviewing for a long time. The difference is, in the classroom, my recommendation is much more than mere suggestion and there is no quitting on a book once we are underway.

Every time I have chosen a book to teach to my students, I have essentially given it a gold star and made a promise that what I’m asking them to read is worthwhile and important. Even though it’s usually a completely accepted book, a prize winner or written by a prize winner, I hope I am adding to its legacy by introducing it to young readers who will think about it for the rest of their lives, maybe even love it.

Or not. Either way, it’s okay. Reading is a practice that builds relationships among readers, whether we love what we read all of the time, or not.