The Book of Chloe by Chloe Harris

Some years I’m lucky enough to teach a course I’ve designed called Writing for Life. In it, I help students write personal statements for scholarships, internships, or professional and graduate schools. I also work with them as they write personal essays. My aim is to help students see that writing is inextricable from thinking, and, as such, that writing is an important part of a reflective life, no matter what one’s eventual life path.

All students have been affected by COVID-19. But I have particular sympathy for the students of the Class of 2020, who have been denied those important, bittersweet last moments of triumph, expectation, and longing that compose the final weeks of a college career.

As a small way of compensating some of those students–as well as to highlight some outstanding work from my class–I asked three students who wrote particularly excellent final essays if I could share their work here.

The final assignment was to write about an important object in their lives in a way that case light on the object, on the writer, and on some concept or idea that could only be reached by thinking about the relationship between writer and object.  This year, I gave students the choice of reflecting on their experience of the pandemic. I think it will be clear which direction each student chose. At the end of the essay, you can learn more about the writer.

Today’s essay is by Chloe Harris. It is titled The Book of Chloe. You can read the two earlier essays in this series here and here.

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The author’s mother showing off some of her crosses.

The Book of Chloe

I like to read. I used to love to read. My younger self dove into book after book, living vicariously through the main characters, losing all touch with reality while my eyes drank in the details. You would find me curled up on a bench during recess, sneaking to the bathroom during dinner or with a flashlight late at night, catching up with my favorite friends.

When my focus returned to the present, I was involved in a program called National Girls Ministries from Kindergarten to 8th grade. In the later years of the program, we were expected to read the bible every week and write about what we learned. My initial resentment of the assignment for taking me away from the mystical world of wizards and dragons wore away when I started reading more of this Good Book. War, love, sacrifice, betrayal – I couldn’t put it down, reading more than I was assigned every night. I read the entire collection cover to cover, rereading the books that interested me the most. I always skipped Numbers, but Exodus, Thessalonians, Ezekiel, Job and Revelations had pages nearly ripped at the spine from the many times I flipped back through the stories.

I was forging my own sermons by the time I was 11 and even wrote a song for the choir to sing during a Sunday morning service. For each resonating passage I found, I’d practice the way I’d interpret it in front of my mirror, throwing in phrases I’d heard in church and long pauses to build suspense. I suppose this is the first place I found my love for taking leadership, expressing my opinions, connecting with those around me. When I think about the bible, I often think about my father. We shared many moments discussing the verses and relating words written nearly 3000 years ago to twenty-first-century society. He taught me how to see beyond the words, finding meaning hidden in the verses. Our back-and-forth sharpened my mind, opening my eyes to perspectives I hadn’t considered in my initial readings of the captivating stories.

My relationship with religion, and with my father, was commensal. I was a remora fish suctioned on to the belly of large shark. I gained a lot from the shark when I was younger: Protection, nutrients, a great community. Eventually, though, I realized the shark was not gaining anything from me, ignoring my presence when I asked where we were going or suggested an alternate route. Something once so integral to my identity is now only a fading memory.

My parents had been divorced for many years, but my mother opened a new case for custody when I was in 8th grade. She won, and after moving out of my father’s home, I was able to start forming my own opinions. I started questioning the connections we drew from the scriptures more often during the weekends I spent with him. My father’s responses were condescending, rigid, and offered little for my understanding. The more I asked, the harsher his reactions became. A shark snapping at the small fish that swam too close to its snout.

“I don’t understand why God allowed Job to be tortured” My words tip-toed from my mouth as I skimmed over the pages of one of my favorite chapters.

“Mmm? Why’s that?” His eyes peered through his reading glasses as he sorted through papers scattered across the coffee table, too preoccupied to see my furrowed brow.

“Aren’t we supposed to resist Satan’s temptation? It seems like Satan was goading God and rather than ignoring it, God felt challenged and Job suffered for it.” I glanced up from the passage to see my father glaring at me, his glasses pulled away from his face as if to make sure the small windows weren’t impeding his anger. He regurgitated the lesson on how God will test us and the next day, our devotion was centered around what happens to those whose faith strays.

My questions soon turned into statements of disbelief and angry mutterings as my relationship with God became seemingly one-sided and futile. I was tired of hearing “read these verses and pray about it” when I wanted validation. I’m not sure when exactly it happened, but the book I used to love transformed into a tiresome riddle that I was weary of reading. Anger lingered around me for a long time. My anger grew when I couldn’t justify my faith any longer or discuss scripture with my youth group without a cynical shadow looming over the conversations. It exploded when my mom finally told me that the church had shunned her, the kindest woman I have ever known, even as the pastor preached acceptance and community in every sermon. It simmered when I realized the only connection I had with my father was our shared love of the bible and mine was dissipating. I was just angry, and all my rage was directed at God and everything about him.

My father and I never recovered our relationship after I rejected my faith. I haven’t seen him since the summer after my 9th grade year and reading the bible only opens a wound that isn’t fully healed. I stopped going to church services, removed myself from youth group chats and threw away the extensive scripture journal I kept, distancing myself from any reminders of religion. I became the shark, refusing to acknowledge any part of my past that remained attached to me. At least until my mom came home with an obsession with crosses.

My mom’s crazy addiction for the simple shape made seeing them bearable. The excitement and joy she radiated when a new cross settled into its space on the wall made it difficult to look at the shape with disdain. I found myself drawn to her reactions. All giggles and scrunched noses and happy dances while she hung the ones my brothers and I would give her. Mom’s joy was infectious. She was always 100% herself, with chaotic decorations, loud laughter, and random bursts of energy.

During my years in high school, I saw my momma cry for herself for the first time and many more times. Her post-partum depression deepened when we found out she needed surgery to remove a tumor from her cervix. Her hormonal instability worsened when menopause wreaked her endocrine system and she found out my little sister had sensory OCD. Her heart broke when her husband cheated on her and she was facing yet another divorce that she knew would be difficult for everyone involved. I watched her strain to maintain her happiness while the world continually threw shots at her, as if it were trying to find her breaking point. But she never broke. I think the crosses had something to do with it. Despite loving her reactions to them, I was not exactly thrilled about the dozens of crosses gracing the wall right across from our front door. They were obnoxious and loud, with giant gemstones, bright colors, and mismatched patterns painted on the limbs, but I think I think the crosses made her feel closer to God. They reminded her she could shift some of the weight of her burdens onto His shoulders and He would take them, the same way Jesus took them when He carried a cross through Jerusalem.

I started to appreciate God for helping my mom even if I could not bring myself to repair my relationship with Him. He was helping her be who she really was underneath the pain and those crosses reminded her of that. They reminded her of the love she was able to give. During my Pentecostal upbringing, countless sermons reminded me to let the Lord’s light shine from within us. “Show others the kindness and mercy of our savior, let Him lead them to the light through you.” I cannot think of a more light-filled person than mom. Working as a nurse for more than half her life, the patients my mom has taken care of remember her. The words “nurse Kristy” shout to her from across parking lots and in grocery stores when people recognize the woman who took the time to care about who they were rather than what they were diagnosed with. Visiting her at work and seeing the smiles she could bring to the faces of those riddled with cancer and losing hope fueled my determination to make a difference in the medical field – to have her light shining from within me. I strove for many years to shine the way she does, letting the love of God fill her so that when people are around her, they can feel the love too. Her selflessness, empathy, and wholehearted kindness leak from her as if she’s made of a porous material that cannot contain it all. She took a small, simple symbol, and shaped it into something that gave her strength, resilience, openness, and the ability to change.

The older I get, the more I see how much of my mother seeps out of me. I laugh while I’m crying when watching sappy movies, I jump up and down, singing out my words when I’m excited, I cry for my friends and dance to songs in my head when I’m bored. Though my interior design skills are far superior, I am so proud to be her mirror image. The first cross my mom bought was large, nearly 3 feet of bronze decorated with elegant twirls of metal, twisting in and out of large gaps found at the end of each limb. The middle of the cross was a raised hemisphere with small curled knobs circling it, once a dark brown, now shining with oil from the many times my mom rubbed it as she passed. A small gesture reminding her she was okay.

“What you don’t like this one? EEEEK I love it! Y’all know I have my special style!” I raised an eyebrow as mom threw up her arms and pretended to cock a shotgun holding the hot-pink trimmed zebra printed cross in her hands. Hiding my grin, I rolled my eyes and watched her struggle to find space for it on the crowded wall. My eyes skimmed over the bedazzled, glittering objects, falling on the Dallas Cowboys themed cross she was moving to the side and laughing as I cringed. She started humming some hymn I vaguely recognized from church. I felt my chest squeeze tight and the grin drop from my mouth as that familiar feeling of resentment settled over me.

Though my mother and I are so similar, I am sometimes lacking in her ability to let things go, change her thinking and move forward without burdens. My anger toward God fueled an ongoing battle between my past self and the person I was becoming. It took a lot of energy to house all that hatred, to blame a single entity for every negative aspect of my past and work to forget a lifetime of experiences. For a long time, I saw my religious past and the relationship I had with my father as something that needed to be cut off so that I could grow into who I was meant to be. I realize now that I did not lose a part of myself when my opinions and beliefs contradicted the rigid interpretations my father had laid out for me. I reshaped it. I reshaped it the way my mom is constantly reshaping herself so she is not consumed by morbid and harmful realities and can accept the world as it is.

My religious past gave me critical thinking skills. Sitting criss-cross applesauce at the end of my bed, my neck craned over the yellowing pages of a bible, I saw more than laws and stories. I found my opinions. I owned my voice. When reading essays and research articles, I appreciate their beauty and intelligence, but still critique and interpret their meanings.  The bible gave me a curious mind and a desire to understand the afflictions of those suffering. I am not easily satisfied with unanswered questions. I push and I speculate, and I can change my mind. My mom’s relationship with crosses reminded me of my ability to see things in different perspectives while respecting each one. She helped to put aside the pain I held onto. I am still a shark. Swimming along with my remora fish, no longer ignoring the suggestions and lessons they have, I use their guidance to build my own path. I do not have the same relationship with my father or God as I once did, but I am grateful for the things they taught me.

“This is great, Chloe Anne-Marie. You wrote this all by yourself?” I struggle to picture the blurry face of my father as he said these words the first time I brought him a sermon. Written in purple marker with small yellow flowers, orange fish and blue crosses decorating the borders, the paper filled me with pride. “You need to reference the bible more often though,” his cheery tone turned flat, “or these are just your words and not words that were given to you by God.” I watched as he stenciled in possible verses, slashing his black ball point pen through the words I had practiced a dozen times in the mirror. My eyes glued themselves to the wrinkles lining his forehead while my teeth dug into the soft flesh of my cheek. I wrote two sermons later that night. One was written in pen, with the addition of versus and quotes from the bible lying neatly on my father’s desk. The other, a replica of the original, hanging beside my bed, signed Chloe Harris.

Fin

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Born and raised in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Chloe Harris graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in biochemistry and molecular biology from Hendrix College. She will go on to work in a urology clinic during her gap year before attending medical school next fall. When she isn’t making detailed lists or talking off her friends’ ears, she’s covered in paint and hunched over a canvas. 

Split by Connor Onitsuka

Some years I’m lucky enough to teach a course I’ve designed called Writing for Life. In it, I help students write personal statements for scholarships, internships, or professional and graduate schools. I also work with them as they write personal essays. My aim is to help students see that writing is inextricable from thinking, and, as such, that writing is an important part of a reflective life, no matter what one’s eventual life path.

All students have been affected by COVID-19. But I have particular sympathy for the students of the Class of 2020, who have been denied those important, bittersweet last moments of triumph, expectation, and longing that compose the final weeks of a college career.

As a small way of compensating some of those students–as well as to highlight some outstanding work from my class–I asked three students who wrote particularly excellent final essays if I could share their work here.

The final assignment was to write about an important object in their lives in a way that case light on the object, on the writer, and on some concept or idea that could only be reached by thinking about the relationship between writer and object.  This year, I gave students the choice of reflecting on their experience of the pandemic. I think it will be clear which direction each student chose. At the end of the essay, you can learn more about the writer.

Today’s essay is by Connor Onitsuka. It is titled Split.

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The author’s bike, front left

Split

            It can’t be that hard, right? The thin tires on the 52-inch road bike stared me down as I hoisted myself over the seat. What are these things where the pedals should be? Setting my feet on the clip-on pedals, I rubbed around on the smooth, oval-shaped pedals to try to get a better grip. When I shifted my whopping 112 pounds of weight onto the cracked seat of the bike, the pale white frame creaked a little. I pushed off to a wobbling start, straining my hands on the short bullhorn handles, struggling to stay balanced. After a block, though, I was getting used to the thin tires. Faster. With each revolution of the wheel, I felt my anxieties whip away, my stressors left far behind. Before I knew it, my twists and turns around the block had taken me right back.

“How was it?” Mom asked. She told me she’d pay for half of a cheap road bike so I could shuttle myself to and from school, since she worked over forty minutes away.

“I think it’ll work.”

I spent my years of high school running. Not in the literal sense: I quit cross country my sophomore year. The competitive aspect of cross country, the meets, the expectation to improve, and the daily time commitment drove me away from it rather quickly. Instead, with my new-used bike, I pedalled away from everything I loathed, as fast and as often as I could.

For a beginner’s road bike, the vintage Bianchi I found on Craigslist in my sophomore year wasn’t all that bad. Mom and I took it to a bike shop after we bought it, where we were told that a few spokes on each wheel had cracked. It rode fine though. Mom paid for the tune up and every safety-related item imaginable: a helmet, 650 lumen light, Kryptonite U-lock, flat repair kit, and some shiny reflectors to tie around my ankles at night. The bill came out in the hundreds. Though expensive, it was not the last price Mom would pay after we bought the bike. Rather than simple, reliable transportation, she bought my liberation – from my responsibilities, from school, and tragically, from our relationship.

By high school, my near-perfect relationship with Mom had changed drastically. Throughout my parent’s divorce, I spent most of my time with Mom, who won primary custody over me and my sister. We preferred spending time with her anyway; Dad was an ass. Mom has always been caring and silly, and provided a solid foundation for us throughout a chaotic divorce. As my sense of humor and identity developed through elementary and middle school, she and I would banter about the girls I might or might not, but definitely didn’t like, or how my sister might never stop wearing striped skirts and checkered knee-highs. Unfortunately, the once playful banter between Mom and I became harsh and hurtful when I started high school.

Mom and I fought and bickered daily after the first semester of my freshman year. She questioned me about my choice in friends, my time spent playing video games each day, or why I was acting like I was high on a drug I’ve never done. We drove to school in a tan 1999 Camry that was sunbleached and crunchy, constantly requiring some kind of tune-up or replacement. The Camry was a replacement for Mom’s reliable Honda Odyssey that had been totaled in an unfortunate run-in with FedEx.

Unlike the Odyssey, riding in the Camry was a trap. Not so much because it was unreliable—although it was: the windows worked about half of the time, and the locks even less—but because when I was in the car with Mom, it was lecture time. On shorter drives, I would get a quick check in on my attendance or a comment about how Mom hadn’t slept well because I was up all night yelling at my video games. On the longer drives, quippy remarks would metamorphose into a full-fledged life lesson I’d heard four times before. I felt penned in by the Camry, and I figured that I could probably get to anything within the city faster on my little white bike.

It’s hard for me to tell whether getting a bike was ultimately beneficial. Aside from the obvious boon of physical exercise, it helped me find a new pastime after quitting soccer and cross country. It saved me from playing more than 8 hours of video games alone in my room, instead shuttling me to my friends’ houses, where we could play video games together in their rooms. At the same time, I hurt myself and my relationship with Mom by getting a bike. I crashed an absurd number of times, with permanent scars serving as ugly reminders. Out of all of the safety items Mom had bought, I used the light when night came, the U-lock, and sometimes the helmet. I remember sneaking home a bloody meat crayon, lucky to have avoided broken bones and brain damage, avoiding Mom’s concerned gaze as I scuttled up to my room.

By my senior year, my goal of being valedictorian had been downshifted to “show up today.” A combination of boredom and stressors from home and school made going to class feel suffocating. Ironically, Mom had helped me buy my bike, and in turn, she lost her son for the better portion of two years. It turns out my bike hadn’t just provided freedom, it also contributed towards a twisted retaliation against my wonderful mom.

This retaliation manifested itself in my school attendance. Due to a failure in my high school’s attendance policy, I could have as many absences or tardies as I wanted, as long as I showed up to class once every two weeks. Mom let me bike myself to school, so over my final semester in high school, I accrued ninety-eight absences and thirty-something tardies. Though I typically attended my difficult classes like AP physics and calculus, my grades and classroom relationships suffered. For the first twenty or so absences, Mom received a call from the school and begged me to get to school on time. After weeks of daily voicemails, she gave up. Liberated from her lectures attempting to make me go to class, I capitalized on my victory by continuing my rampant streak of delinquency, unaware of the stress Mom was shouldering on my behalf.

My relationship with Mom improved drastically after I left for college. College itself was another attempt at an escape, but when I came home for the longer breaks, things were as though the last few years had never happened. We were back to our usual banter, complaining about my sister’s messy room or how our evil cat wouldn’t let us pet her. I still went on bike rides, though they weren’t meant to escape so much as a means of simple transportation.

Petty crime had been steadily rising in Portland while I was away for school, according to Mom. My now rickety old white bike, despite no longer looking like something remotely worth stealing, disappeared one afternoon. The U-lock was left cracked and discarded a few feet from the bike stand. For the rest of the summer, I opted to take rides with Mom in her old Camry that had just crested 200,000 miles. What once guaranteed long lectures with no escape became another place Mom and I could make up for lost time – I was happy to ask for rides, or drive when she didn’t want to.

The bike had been stolen once before, too. During my junior year, my attendance began wavering, especially for classes scheduled earlier in the mornings. Shortly after winter break, I woke up to the sound of my laptop playing YouTube videos, still running by autoplay from the night before. It was already 10:00. At this point in my high school career, I still felt remorseful for missing class. I was at school by 10:30, my hair greasy and clothes soaked by the perpetual Portland drizzle. In my haste I managed to forget the U-lock, but I couldn’t afford to miss another class to go get it. Doing my best to conceal the lack of a lock, I rested the contraption between a few other dingy-looking bicycles.

Inevitably, the bike was stolen during class and I was left stranded at school. Mom was strangely understanding on the phone, rushing home from work to pick me up. We spent hours searching the school and surrounding park for signs of the bike. Miraculously, we found it and two other bikes locked to the railings at the parking lot furthest away from the school buildings. Mom suggested I lock my bike to the railing with my own U-lock she had brought from home, and come back in the morning. My bike made it through the night, and the next day, the foreign lock had disappeared, along with the two other bikes.

To this day, I don’t understand why Mom worked so hard to save my bike. She knew it granted me the freedom to be absent from the house and from school. Maybe she assumed I’d find another way to escape anyway. I’m afraid to ask, mostly because I feel ashamed that I used the freedom she offered to hurt her. Though I haven’t voiced it – I don’t know why, either – I’ve been doing my best to make amends. The second time the bike was stolen provided a perfect opportunity to assure Mom I no longer felt the need to escape.

I didn’t consider it much of a loss when my bike was gone for good. Financially, the bike was probably worth less than the steel it was made of. Emotionally, I blamed the bike for the time I lost that I could’ve spent with Mom. Despite my unfair assessment, the bike was dead to me. I was happy to drive around with Mom, who had just started working from home. We took the Camry, still chugging along, to go bowling after dinner, to bubble tea shops and cafes, and sometimes nowhere, just to chat. High school-me would have immediately gone out to get another bike. In fact, Mom offered to help me find another. I declined under the reasoning that I would only be there for the summer anyway, leaving unvoiced the excitement of more rides in the Camry.

Last summer, my sister finally nabbed a driver’s license and utilized Mom’s Camry to its fullest extent. Out of necessity, I searched Craigslist for another road bike, and once again, Mom offered to split the cost. My new bike, a beautifully marbled black racing bike, took me to and from work downtown. It didn’t see much use outside of exercise and transportation, though. When the Camry was free to use, Mom and I would head out to the store to find ingredients for a new recipe to test, or to a bar, where we drank BFK’s (coffee mixed with Bailey’s, Frangelico, and Kahlua) to gab and gossip. After college, I’m sure we’ll take the old, reliable Camry out to keep making up for lost time.

I’ve been trying to train up to a marathon. When I first mentioned the idea to Mom, she was hesitant but supportive. Over winter break, we drove from store to store, comparing different running shoes that could live up to the arduous 26.2-mile task.  I found a pair of shoes I liked, and took them for a test run around the block. Taking off down the street, I felt comfortable knowing that my feet weren’t whisking me away from anywhere or anything in particular. At the end of the test run, I was happy to find myself back where I started, with Mom.

“How are they?” She asked. Once again, she offered to split the cost.

“I think they’ll work.”

We had a nice drive home.

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Connor Onitsuka, who is from Portland, Oregon, double majored in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BCMB) and Neuroscience at Hendrix college. He’ll be taking a gap year to shadow and work as a scribe in Portland, while also spending time with his cat and drinking bubble tea.

Six Feet Apart by Chelbi Gilmore

Some years I’m lucky enough to teach a course I’ve designed called Writing for Life. In it, I help students write personal statements for scholarships, internships, or professional and graduate schools. I also work with them as they write personal essays. My aim is to help students see that writing is inextricable from thinking, and, as such, that writing is an important part of a reflective life, no matter what one’s eventual life path.

All students have been affected by COVID-19. But I have particular sympathy for the students of the Class of 2020, who have been denied those important, bittersweet last moments of triumph, expectation, and longing that compose the final weeks of a college career.

As a small way of compensating some of those students–as well as to highlight some outstanding work from my class–I asked three students who wrote particularly excellent final essays if I could share their work here.

The final assignment was to write about an important object in their lives in a way that case light on the object, on the writer, and on some concept or idea that could only be reached by thinking about the relationship between writer and object.  This year, I gave students the choice of reflecting on their experience of the pandemic. I think it will be clear which direction each student chose. At the end of the essay, you can learn more about the writer.

Today’s essay is by Chelbi Gilmore. It is titled Six Feet Apart.

Chelbi Treehouse

A treehouse the author’s father built for her and her sister. (Since lowered and used for storage.)

Six Feet Apart

   I sit on my bed, attempting to do homework, while my parents and sister argue about Easter plans in the living room. I try to tune them out and focus on what I’m working on, but this quickly proves to be impossible. I dread walking in there and being dragged into another hour-long conversation that ultimately ends without resolution.

This is how our nights are spent now, arguing about how we should respond to the current global COVID-19 pandemic. Tonight, they’re discussing whether we should participate in our normal Easter routine: attending church and having an egg hunt for the kids. My dad leads a house church, which means that 6-7 families meet in someone’s home each week and he gives a short sermon. It’s not traditional, but we love the close bond that has formed among all the members. He has continued to hold a house church service every Sunday during the coronavirus outbreak. My mom and I have abstained from attending, which has caused dissent in my family. We believe that having 25 people in a confined space during this time is socially irresponsible, but my dad doesn’t see the problem.

“I just wish you guys would stay home more,” I hear my mom say.

“We’re not together even when we are here!” my sister yells back.

She’s not wrong. Even when we’re all home, we watch TV and work in separate rooms, only gathering for dinner. When we’re all together, we feel the tension that the outbreak has caused our family. I know inevitably I will be dragged into the dispute, so I finally decide to leave the comfort of my room and join the rest of my feuding family. I walk into the living room and sit next to my mom on our couch, which is facing my dad and sister standing on the opposite side of the room. We’re six feet apart, even in our own home.

When the outbreak started making headlines, I didn’t anticipate people would have such mixed reactions to it. I assumed everyone would do everything the CDC recommends and self-isolate inside their homes to avoid unknowingly spreading the disease. However, in my family of four I’ve seen firsthand how much dissent these recommendations have caused. My mom and I have taken the federal and state directives, like staying six feet apart from people in public, seriously and refuse to leave our house except for essential reasons. My dad, on the other hand, believes that everyone’s overreacting about the virus. Other than washing his hands more frequently, he has made few changes in his life to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Every day, around five o’clock, my dad comes home from work, changes clothes, and leaves again to go to our local park to play disc golf with his friends. I haven’t seen any of my friends in person for almost two months now, but my dad continues to hang out with his every single day and risks exposing them or us to the virus. After arguing about this irresponsible practice repeatedly, my mom and I eventually grew too exhausted to continue trying to change his mind.

It seemed fitting that on Friday the 13th we received the email informing us we would not be returning to college after that weekend. At first, I only felt bummed to be missing out on the last two months of time with the friends that I had spent almost every day with for four years. At this point, I didn’t comprehend what the full impact of the COVID-19 outbreak would be. I thought I was simply going to move back into my parent’s house and spend my days in front of my computer, bored, as I log into this new virtual version of school. I couldn’t have foreseen the stress that would come with moving back home.

Well, perhaps I could have. My dad and I have always disagreed about politics, but we’re able to have (mostly) calm conversations explaining our beliefs. After Donald Trump was elected president, we began to have these disputes more frequently. The night of November 8, 2016, I remember sitting for hours with many of my peers at Hendrix, watching the election polls. We continued watching way after we realized that there was no chance Hillary Clinton would win. It’s like we couldn’t bear to look away from the disaster that was unfolding before us. People cried as we walked back to our rooms in the early hours of the next morning, grieving the livelihoods of everyone that would be affected by Trump’s horrible policies. My dad, on the other hand, was rejoicing 120 miles away in my childhood home. Ever since Trump began campaigning for the presidency, my dad has supported him. He claims that it’s refreshing to see a president who doesn’t act as a politician, but rather says exactly what he thinks. He argues that Trump is an advocate for “working class people” and can’t see that he alienates many people, some who would even fall into the “working class” category. I point out to my dad the reason Trump doesn’t act like a politician is because he has absolutely no idea how to run our country. In the past few years, we’ve had numerous debates about abortion, immigration, healthcare policies, etc. Neither of us are willing to completely compromise, but we’re always willing to listen to each other.

For the first time, I feel like my dad isn’t responsive to my point of view at all. In the past, he’s always been willing to listen to the reasons for my beliefs. His opinion didn’t feel as rigid as his opinions about COVID-19 feel. I think this is because with most issues he doesn’t completely disagree with me, but rather, he prioritizes something else. For example, during our many disputes about President Trump’s immigration policies, I always point out that some people who immigrate to the United States do so because they feel like they have no other choice. Many people that Trump is trying to keep out of this country are seeking refuge from terrible situations. My dad does not argue with this fact; however, he says that immigrants are “taking jobs from American people”. He agrees that these people need help, but he prioritizes the U.S. economy over this need. So, while he mostly disagrees with me, he acknowledges that I am right in some respects. In contrast, we both see our argument regarding social distancing as purely black and white. There is no movement towards agreement; we’re in a stalemate.

Now, I don’t mean to make my dad seem like a terrible person. He’s one of my favorite people and has always supported me in my endeavors. For example, he wanted me to completely focus on my schoolwork in college, so he supported me financially, even though my parents didn’t have the excess money to give. He sacrifices everything for not only myself, but the rest of my family too. In our family, he’s the guy who will always help you out, no matter what you’re asking of him. There have been many times when he would get a call from one of his cousins who were in trouble because they’d spent all their money on drugs. He loans them money that he knows he’ll never get back. My dad always helps the people around him, even if they continually ask for his help and give nothing in return. He owns a small construction company and makes a point to hire people who can’t find a job anywhere else. My dad not only supplies them a job, but also truly cares for them. Recently, one of his guys decided to separate from his wife, so he needed somewhere to live. My dad let him stay in my late grandma’s house for free until he could afford to pay rent. He lets friends borrow his truck, lawn mower, construction equipment, and tools whenever they may need. He does all this for the people in his life, so why does he not care about those affected by COVID-19 or Trump’s administration?

I think many of our differences can be attributed to what we’ve been exposed to in our lives. My dad went to work at his family’s construction company straight out of high school. Shortly after this, he met my mom and they were engaged nine months later. They built the house that I grew up in together, which means that he moved directly from his parents’ house in with my mom. She has a similar story. She was raised one town over from my dad and married him within a year of graduating high school. I cherish their small-town love story, but it means that they haven’t experienced much outside of the place they’ve lived their whole lives. For me, there were many positives to growing up in a small town. For example, it was easy to make friends because I saw the same people every day in school for 13 years. However, there are downsides to this kind of community too. I was never exposed to people from a different background than me, so I didn’t truly value a diverse community until I came to college. My parents have always lived in the same area with an overwhelming number of white, southern, traditional people, so I think they struggle to sympathize with those who are different than them. For them, voting for Trump is the most natural thing to do because everyone around them supports him too. I wish that my parents could experience what life is like for those discriminated against by the Trump administration, even just for one day.

While my sister and I grew up in the same geographical area as my parents, we were also raised in a time when everyone is connected online. We were exposed to different perspectives simply by being on social media. I think that the media I consumed played a huge role in my acceptance of people who are different than me. Of course, there are still many ways that TV shows and movies could be more inclusive, but as the shows I watched become more accepting of people’s experiences, so did I. When I began college, I was surrounded by people who valued diversity. Now, I almost forget that other people in my life don’t think the same as me.

Even though my sister also grew up in the “digital age”, she has still chosen to align herself with my dad in this heated debate about COVID-19. I don’t think her experience with diversity in media has influenced her feelings about the pandemic. The only reason she “agrees” with my dad is so she can continue hanging out with her few friends still willing to socialize. She’s always been eager to soak up whatever the people around her think, especially my parents. She is a “people pleaser”, so she thinks like the people she wants to please. It’s simply easier to regurgitate what my dad shouts at the news every night. So, when my family started arguing about how we should respond to the coronavirus outbreak, she chose the side that would allow her to continue doing what she wanted to do. I’m not saying that my sister doesn’t have any individuality, but she does tend to accept the information that my parents tell her without researching to decide what she believes.

Despite our differences, my family has always been close. We’ve never been this divided over an issue, or at least we’ve never acknowledged it. Maybe I didn’t allow myself to dwell on the problems I have with my parents’ beliefs. Until now, I’ve always been able to escape conflict by going back to my friends at Hendrix. It’s difficult for me to reconcile my love for my family and the frustration I feel towards them for their beliefs. To me, it seems so clear that we must do everything we can to “flatten the curve” and keep others healthy. However, my dad has a completely different perspective. He believes that the media is causing panic among the American people, so we don’t need to change our daily habits to stop the spread of the virus. No matter how hard my dad and I try, we can’t see why the other person thinks the way that they do.

He always tells me that my “bleeding heart” will get me in trouble. He says I think about others too much and should think more practically about how the economy is negatively impacted when the U.S. government helps others. It seems so strange to me that he says this when he has a “bleeding heart” for everyone he knows. It’s easy for him to prioritize economic gain over a human life when it isn’t directly in front of him. However, if the issue is off in the distance, he separates his feelings and refuses to care about people he doesn’t personally know.

In my living room, the night before Easter, my mom and I are stationed on one side of the room opposite of my dad and sister. My sister and I mostly let our parents do the arguing. I interject a few times when it seems I might explode if I don’t let my thoughts out. One time, I tell my dad how I can’t bear the thought of accidentally passing the coronavirus to an elderly couple in our church.

“See, I don’t think like that,” my dad replies. “I don’t live my life in fear of what might happen!”

My mom and I try to convince him that we aren’t fearful, but cautious of how our actions affect others. I’m not afraid for my life, however, I don’t want to jeopardize the lives of others. My dad thinks we’re silly for thinking this way, but I don’t care. Even if my mom and I are completely wrong about COVID-19 and the disease isn’t as infectious as the CDC says, I would rather be on the side of caution than in my dad and sister’s position.

“I just want us all to be together on Easter,” my mom says, implying that she wants my dad and sister not to participate in the festivities tomorrow. My dad concedes and decides to stay home the next day. This is not a permanent solution. Next week, they will be right back to their regular scheduled outings each Sunday. We will continue to isolate ourselves in our rooms to avoid this repeated conflict, wishing for the eventual day when the COVID-19 pandemic ends. Hopefully, at that point the divide in our family won’t be so deep that it’s irreparable and we’ll be able to close the six-foot gap between us.

Chelbi

Chelbi Gilmore is from the small town of Alma, Arkansas and recently graduated from Hendrix College. She will start working as a medical scribe in central Arkansas this summer and plans to apply to medical school in the fall. 

 

Strangers in their Own Land: Jewish Self-Awareness in Holocaust Memoirs.

Earlier this semester, I presented for the third time at the annual Arkansas Holocaust Education Conference. In addition to giving the keynote talk (“Holocaust 101”), I also taught a session (basically, a class). The conference has an unusual format and remit. It is designed for high school students, their teachers, and interested community members. In a single busy day, participants hear two plenaries plus a presentation from a Holocaust survivor, and attend two breakout sessions from a selection of about six or seven.

I love being able to teach such a wide range of ages and experiences: a typical session will include as many retirees as 15-year-olds. The unusual format comes with its own challenges, of course: keeping the students from feeling intimidated by the adults; making sure the older participants really listen to the younger ones. By making participants work together to close read something, I seek to put everyone on the same footing and build a sense of community.

My session this year was called “Strangers in their Own Land: Jewish Self-Awareness in Holocaust Memoirs.” As I’d like eventually to turn it into a more formal piece of writing, I thought I’d transcribe my lesson plan here.

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Ruth Kluger

The handout that we used for our exercise was headed by two quotations; together, they offer a condensed version of what I was hoping the participants would learn:

I had found out, for myself and by myself, how things stood between us and the Nazis and had paid for knowledge with the coin of pain.

—Ruth Kluger

To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

—W. E. B. Du Bois

At first glance, Kluger—the Viennese-born survivor of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Christianstadt, and a death march—and Du Bois—the legendary African American sociologist and writer—might seem an unusual pairing. I argued that, on the contrary, they share the same way of thinking about the vicissitudes of being a member of a persecuted minority. For persecuted minorities, to know is to hurt, to exist is to be a problem.

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Nechama Tec

I began by explaining my title, which I adapted from an anecdote in Kluger’s brilliant memoir Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered. In 1937—Kluger was about to turn six—her family summered in Italy. They had a car, rather unusual for the time, especially in Italy. Driving through the rural South, they pass another car with Austrian plates. The tourists wave to each other. Kluger is taken by the experience. She thinks, We wouldn’t have done that at home; we don’t even know each other. Writing many years later, she reflects:

I was enchanted by the discovery that strangers in a strange land greet each other because they are compatriots.

But this comforting nationalism, in which strangers become acquaintances by virtue of calling the same place home, would soon prove false and alienating. Kluger learned, along with the rest of Europe’s Jews, that being Jewish trumped being Austrian (or German or Polish or French or whatever). On her prewar holiday, Kluger enjoyed the experience of being a stranger in a strange land; just a year later, after the Anschluss, Kluger became a stranger in her own land.

To realize you are not at home in your home is shattering. The experience is powerfully ambivalent one, at once harmful and helpful.

To show how that might be the case, I referenced three Holocaust survivors: Kluger, Nechama Tec (born in Lublin in 1931 and hidden together with her family in a series of safe houses across Poland), and Sarah Kofman (born in Paris in 1934 to parents who had emigrated from Poland and who survived in hiding with a family friend she learned to call Mémé). Interestingly, all of these women later became academics: Kluger a professor of German, Tec of sociology, Kofman of philosophy.

(I’ll skip the potted bios, but I’m happy to say more in the comments if you’re interested.)

That brief orientation over, I divided the class into three and assigned each group one of the following passages, which we first read aloud together:

I found a small opening in the wall from which, unobserved, I could watch the girls at play. To me they seemed so content, so carefree, and I envied them their fun. Did they know that a war was on? At times, as I watched them, I too became engrossed in their games and almost forgot about the war. But the bell that called them back to class called me back to reality, and at such moments I became acutely aware of my loneliness. These small excursions made me feel, in the end, more miserable than ever. The girls in the boarding school were so near and yet so far. The wall that separated us was thick indeed, and eventually I could not bear to go near it.

—Nechama Tec, Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood (1982/84)

(Before we read, I explained the context. The scene takes place in 1940 or 41. Tec and her family are living in hiding in a disused part of a factory formerly owned by Tec’s father. The factory abuts on a convent school, a source of fascinated longing for Tec.)

In 1940, when I was eight or nine, the local movie theatre showed Walt Disney’s Snow White. … I badly wanted to see this film, but since I was Jewish, I naturally wasn’t permitted to. I groused and bitched about this unfairness until finally my mother proposed that I should leave her alone and just go and forget about what was permitted and what wasn’t. … So of course I went, not only for the movie, but to prove myself. I bought the most expensive type of ticket, thinking that sitting in a loge would make me less noticeable, and thus I ended up next to the nineteen-year-old baker’s daughter from next door with her little siblings, enthusiastic Nazis one and all. … When the lights came on, I wanted to wait until the house had emptied out, but my enemy stood her ground and waited, too. … She spoke firmly and with conviction, in the manner of a member of the Bund deutscher Mädchen, the female branch of the Hitler Youth, to which she surely belonged. Hadn’t I seen the sign at the box office? (I nodded. What else could I do? It was a rhetorical question.) Didn’t I know what it meant? I could read, couldn’t I? It said “No Jews.” I had broken a law … If it happened again she would call the police. I was lucky that she was letting me off this once.

The story of Snow White can be reduced to one question: who is entitled to live in the king’s palace and who is the outsider. The baker’s daughter and I followed this formula. She, in her own house, the magic mirror of her racial purity before her eyes, and I, also at home here, a native, but without permission and at this moment expelled and exposed. Even though I despised the law that excluded me, I still felt ashamed to have been found out. For shame doesn’t arise from the shameful action, but from discovery and exposure.

—Ruth Kluger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (2001)

(The passage offers its own context; but I reminded participants that by 1940 the situation for Jews in Vienna was increasingly dangerous. Kluger’s father, a doctor who had already been arrested for seeing Aryan patients, had just fled for France (from where he was later deported to the Baltics and murdered); Kluger’s own deportation was less than two years away.)

Knowingly or not, Mémé had brought off a tour de force: right under my mother’s nose, she’d managed to detach me from her. And also from Judaism. She had saved us, but she was not without anti-Semitic prejudices. She taught me that I had a Jewish nose and made me feel the little bump that was the sign of it. She also said, “Jewish food is bad for the health; the Jews crucified our savior, Jesus Christ; they are all stingy and love only money; they are very intelligent, no other people has as many geniuses in music and philosophy.” …

My mother suffered in silence: no news from my father [arrested and deported]; no means of visiting my brothers and sisters [in hiding in various places in the French countryside]; no power to prevent Mémé from transforming me, detaching me from herself and from Judaism. I had, it seemed, buried the entire past: I started loving rare steak cooked in butter and parsley. I didn’t think at all any more about my father, and I couldn’t pronounce a single word in Yiddish despite the fact that I could still understand the language of my childhood perfectly. Now I even dreaded the end of the war!

—Sarah Kofman, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat (1994) Translated by Ann Smock (1996)

(The passage, set in 1942 or 43, describes how Mémé, the woman who saved Kluger, also abused her.)

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Sarah Kofman

Each group worked together to discuss the passages and answer two questions. The first was the same for everybody: Do we see self-awareness in this passage? If so, how?

The second was particular to the excerpt. I asked the Tec group to track the passage’s verbs. What can we learn about Tec’s experience when we pay attention to those verbs?

I asked the Kluger group to track the word “home” and its synonyms in this passage. What can we learn about Kluger’s experience when we pay attention to those words?

I asked the Kofman group to track two repeated words in the passage: “detach” and “nose.” What can we learn about Kofman’s experience when we pay attention to those words?

As the participants worked on their assignment, I wandered the room, eavesdropping and cajoling if the conversation seemed to falter. After seven or eight minutes, I brought the class back together and asked each group to report their findings (after reminding everyone that, since we’d all read the passages aloud, anyone could feel free to chime in at any time).

They did well! If you like, you can take a minute to think about how you’d answer the questions.

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IMG_1685

My annotations

Here are some of the things we noted:

Tec shows us both the appeal of fantasy and its cost. Spying on the children lucky enough to still be living ordinary lives takes her out of her situation, allows her to remember another life, even to almost forget the war. But the school bell that rings for them but not for her recalls her to reality. And that reminder is painful: she feels even worse than before, to the point where she eventually gives up her voyeurism. I’m always struck by “these small excursions”—such striking and unusual phrasing. What does an excursion imply? A vacation, a trip, a holiday, students will say. An adventure, but a safe one. Yes, I’ll add, an inconsequential one (a sense furthered by the adjective “small”). Tec is an explorer, but not, in the end, a successful one. She can’t keep going back to look at the childhood she no longer has. Excursion implies choice; yet this fantasy too fails her, just as the active verbs of the beginning of the passage (to find, to watch, to envy—things Tec herself chooses to do) are replaced by the experience of states of being (become engrossed, become acutely aware—things that happen to Tec).

The story of Kluger’s clandestine, dangerous trip to the movies (itself a salutary reminder for participants of how thoroughly Jews were shut out of ordinary life) centers on exposure. The “ex” prefix here, as in her use of “expelled” and Tec’s “excursion,” gestures to a desire, expressed at the very level of phonetics, to get out, to escape. Kluger tries to hide in plain sight, but the effort fails. Significantly, it is her next door neighbour who finds her out, showing us both how intimate persecution is, and how much, in this context at least, it functioned through an undoing of everything home should stand for. (To sell the point, Kluger uses many variations of the word home: I’m especially struck by her decision—not unidiomatic, but also not typical—to describe the theatre as a “house.”) Just as persecution makes home foreign, so too does it pervert justice. The baker’s daughter is right when she scolds Kluger for breaking a law: it’s easy for us to forget that Nazi persecution was legal. Kluger’s world has been turned upside down (her use of “naturally” is thus ironic); only she herself, her personality, her determination, offers the possibility of continuity. She is forbidden to go to the movies, so “of course” she goes. That’s just who she is. But the consequences of that persistence (nearly being turned over to the police) suggest that the idea of being true to one’s self is for Kluger as much a disabling fantasy as Tec’s spying.

Kofman similarly struggles to understand who she is. The figurative nose in her first sentence (and I’m cheating here, since we were working with a translation, and I don’t know the original) is echoed, then amplified by the literal one that Mémé so disparages. As a group we marveled, if I can put it that way, at Kofman’s anguished situation: out of a complicated mixture of gratitude, internalized self-hatred, and adolescent rebellion against a difficult mother, who, to be sure, is herself in an unbearably difficult situation she falls in love with a woman who turns her against herself. Mémé teaches Kofman to hate her own body and her own identity, by making her experience herself as others do. In that sense, she turns Kofman into someone who must live in bad faith. Yet, as we noted, the repetition of “detachment” inevitably carries with it a reminder of attachment: in describing what she has lost Kofman indirectly reminds us of what she once was. And we speculated that Kofman’s similarly indirect presentation of Mémé’s litany of anti-Semitic canards (where even the compliments are backhanded) implies a kind of resistance on her part to the older woman’s actions. It is unlikely, I suggested, that Mémé said all of these things at once, in a single sentence, as Kofman presents it. Which implies she has arranged the material: by piling the attacks on, she is inviting us to see them as ridiculous, contradictory, unhinged. But Kofman’s critique is retrospective. At the time, her position is utterly confused. Witness her (classically hysterical) aphasia—able to understand her mother/father tongue, but no longer able to speak it. Years later, Kofman eventually throws Mémé over, even refusing to go to her funeral. The “good mother” in the memoir—well worth reading—turns out to be neither of the two women she is caught between but rather Frenchness itself: the language & culture Kofman becomes so adept in, able to wield rather than submit to.

Having facilitated discussion, and with time drawing short, I emphasized that resistance and rejection are intertwined in these passages. Resistance takes the form of self-knowledge.

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W. E. B. Du Bois

To understand the implications of that double position, I had us turn to a thinker from a different tradition. I read aloud the last passage on the handout:

The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him [sic] no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

—W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)

Then I defined that consequential term double-consciousness: it’s what results when we have to define the self through the eyes of others. (I always use the example of Canadian identity, because it’s relatively low stakes and I can try to be funny with it: when Canadians think about what it means to be Canadian, as they often do, they usually begin, “Well, we’re not Americans…” In my experience, Americans seldom think about what it means to be American. They certainly don’t say, “Well, we’re not Canadians…” Which is because in geopolitical as well as cultural terms, America is dominant; they set the terms of understanding. The tape Americans use to measure themselves has been made to measure them.)

Minorities, Du Bois argues, typically define themselves in terms set by the majority. A significant result of this claim is that there is something valuable about that position of double-consciousness, for it is by definition a critical position. As Kluger explains in her memoir, her earliest reading material was anti-Semitic slogans, which gave her “an early opportunity to practice critical discrimination.”

The position of the majority or the dominant is properly speaking stupid, because it never has to translate its experience into terms given by someone else. It need never reflect. That is the definition of privilege.

But double-consciousness isn’t just enabling. To be in that position, to be a minority, specifically a persecuted minority like Jews in fascist Europe or Blacks at any time in American history, including the present, is to be at risk. Critical positions are precarious, dangerous, even intolerable—not just psychologically but also bodily. Think of Du Bois’s resonant, pained conclusion: to inhabit double-consciousness (to be at home in the idea of never being at home) is to feel “two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Torn asunder. How can we read that and not think of lynching, or gassing, or any of the myriad ways minority bodies have been and continue to be made to suffer?

We were out of time. So I could only end by saying that the reason I had us to read Du Bois alongside Holocaust survivors was to think intersectionally. In terms of double-consciousness, minority experiences are more similar than different. And I wanted participants to think about the lesson for us today from these (to them) very old texts. To ask these questions: If we are a member of a minority, can we harness the power of double-consciousness and not be crushed? If we are a member of a majority, can we become self-aware enough not to harm, whether knowingly or unknowingly, minorities?

Can we be at home without being smug? Can we be self-aware without being strangers?

 

 

 

A Personal Anthology: 12 (More) Favourite Stories

I recently added my thoughts on twelve favourite short stories to The Personal Anthology. I thank Jonathan Gibbs, the editor of this valuable project, for the invitation to contribute. (Do browse the archives—you’ll find all kinds of things worth reading.) I made my choices based on my experience teaching short fiction. In doing so, I had to leave off many worthy candidates. So even though nobody asked for it, here’s a baker’s dozen more wonderful stories.

QaaHL

“Nervous” by Robert Walser, translated by Christopher Middleton

Walser’s little prose texts, scribbled on bits of paper, published in feuilletons across German-speaking Europe, are one of the glories of 20th century literature. Amazingly, they are finally getting their due in English. But thanks especially to the efforts of poet and translator Christopher Middleton, some of his work already appeared in English in the 1980s, including one of my favourites, “Nervous.” Walser’s writing is characterized by what I think of as a very Swiss mixture of sweetness and snark: its coziness soon goes off the rails. Here, in a text not coincidentally written in the middle of WWI, Walser is more anguished than gentle. But the reversals, hesitations, and self-cancellations of his prose are clearly evident.

I’ve often taught “Nervous” together with Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” (1983) another bravura exercise in narrative voice (in her case, in the imperative). Both texts undermine the coherence of the speaker, leading us to ask whether the very idea of identity is a fantasy of writing. Because both pieces are so short, they’re ideal for forcing students to linger over details. Students can even read them for the first time in class, which, in my experience, typically generates the best conversations.

First published in German in June 1916 in Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Published in English in Selected Stories Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1982. You can read an excerpt here and the German (with facing Dutch translation) here.

“The Demon Lover” by Elizabeth Bowen

It hurt to cut this from my original list, just as it hurt to cut it from my syllabus a few years ago. Students never loved it the way I do, and that disparity was getting me down. To be sure, it’s not straightforward. Bowen’s brilliant ghost story centers on Kathleen Drover, who has returned to London during the first Blitz to check on the house she and her children have left behind for shelter in the country. She finds a letter pushed under the door, a curt missive reminding her that the writer has not forgotten the troth she plighted, the promise she made. “Today is the day we said” it says, ominously. The letter takes her back to the Great War, and the man she fell in love with, the man she promised to marry, a cruel man, a man who returned to the front from leave and never returned. (The students have a hard time distinguishing between the two wars.) The letter sends Mrs. Drover into a panic, and she collects what she came to get as quickly as she can and runs away to hail a taxi. But you can’t outrun the past. This is a story of trauma, about physical and mental stains and strains. I can never shake the image of the weal on Kathleen’s hand when her fiancée presses it hard against the buttons of his uniform. One thing my students and I always agreed on, though: the editors of Bowen’s Collected Stories must have had a lot of fun when they made sure the story ended on p 666.

First published in The Demon Lover and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1945. Available in The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Ecco, 1989. Read the story here.

“The Bear Came over the Mountain” by Alice Munro

Maybe it’s because I’m Canadian, where we are All Munro All the Time—I remember reading “Boys and Girls” in middle school and having “the symbolism of the foxes” drilled into me—but I am lukewarm on our Nobelist. I mean, I recognize her greatness. But for me she’s so cold, and not just because that’s the emotional register of the largely Scottish and English WASPs that comprise a certain idea of “Old Canada,” fictional versions of which populate Munro’s stories. I find the stories themselves chilly, almost clinical in their attitudes to these figures. (No accident that so many of her editions have a reproduction of an Alex Colville painting on the cover.)

They do teach well, though. And this one in particular works for me. “The Bear Came over the Mountain” intertwines two couples: elegant Fiona, whose forgetfulness grows into dementia, and bien pensant Grant, who is not as nice as he thinks he is, on the one hand, and Aubrey, a former sweetheart of Fiona’s who she reconnects with in the facility Grant reluctantly moves her to, and Marian, Grant’s seemingly unsophisticated but in fact defiant and shrewd wife, on the other.

As the couples re-arrange, our suspicion grows that Fiona has orchestrated the events. The story asks: what is true, in the life of a couple and even in life itself? Epistemological uncertainty isn’t just something faced (with terror, stoicism, even grace) by the patients who lose their memories, but by readers as well.

First published in The New Yorker, December 27, 1999. Collected in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage McClelland & Stewart, 2001. You can read the story here.

“The Bad News” by Margaret Atwood

Atwood, by contrast, is another CanLit big shot whose work I do admire. (For whatever reason, her chilliness doesn’t bother me as much as Munro’s.) Although best known for her novels, Atwood’s written plenty of stories; the ones I’ve read are good. For a while I taught this story regularly, highlighting, in particular, its narrative structure and use of time. Like “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” “The Bad News” is about (the fear of) dementia. But I don’t think memory loss explains the story’s structure, which reminds me of a möbius strip. The narrator and her husband live in a dystopic near-future (if I were to read the story now, I’d probably just think it was set in the present) but part-way through the narrator remembers a trip they took to Glanum, the Roman ruins in the South of France. The memory sparks a fantasy that, at some point, becomes the present of the narrative itself. It ends with the couple, living in what to them is simply an outpost of Rome, nothing ancient at all, talking themselves out of worrying about the barbarian invasions (“They won’t be here for a long time. Not in our lifetime, perhaps. Glanum is in no danger, not yet”). We’re left wondering if the modern couple, similarly obsessed with but in denial about bad news, is perhaps a dream of the ancient one, rather than the other way ‘round. “We don’t like bad news, but we need it. We need to know about it in case it’s coming our way.”

First published in The Guardian, 2005. Collected in Moral Disorder and Other Stories, Nan A. Talese, 2006.

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“Indian Giver” by Max Apple

Probably the least famous writer on this list, which is a damn shame. Especially as he is probably the nicest (admittedly, the only one I’ve met, but man what a mensch). Apple is a worthy heir to Malamud (which, if you’ve read my original list, you’ll know is high praise). Seymour Rubin owns an automotive junkyard, but the only person who can work the baler that keeps the place going, a man named Alonso Johnson, has just converted to Islam and needs to pray on his lunch hour every Friday. Seymour, incensed at what he sputteringly calls “once a week anti-Semitism,” fires Alonso, which leads to his near ruin. (“Indian Giver” is a take on Malamud’s “The First Seven Years.”) Everyone begs Seynour to take Alonso back, especially Seymour’s son, Chuckie, who calls from the reservation in the South West where he is working with indigenous people. When a rival Jewish recycling firm offers to buy him out, Seymour has no choice but to go back to Alonso. Who, Apple’s story asks, is a Jew? And what does that mean? Are the identities we live by enabling or disabling? Funny, too!

First published in Story and collected in The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories, Johns Hopkins, 2007.

“The Night Rhonda Ferguson was Killed” by Edward P. Jones

Now that I think of it, I briefly met Edward P. Jones at a reading from his novel The Known World. And he too was lovely, so soft-spoken and introverted, clearly a man uninterested in platitudes or bullshit. I warmed to him immediately. Though I’ve yet to read that book, I love his early stories, especially this one, which I use in teaching literary realism. This is a beautiful and very sad story about an angry, vulnerable teenage girl, Cassandra G. Lewis, whose best friend, the Rhonda Ferguson of the title, is about to sign with a record label. Rhonda almost never appears in the story—instead we follow Cassandra and some of her other friends as they spend a flirty, chaste, emotional, ordinary Friday evening that is upended by tragedy. By the time we learn of Rhonda’s death, so much has happened we’ve forgotten all about it, and we’re shocked despite the title. I love how one of the girls, a quiet soul Cassandra hardly knew before the fateful night, becomes the story’s central focus. And its last line is heartbreaking: “She sang on into the night for herself alone, pushing back everything she did not yet understand.”

Collected in Lost in the City, William Morrow, 1992.

“Tapka” by David Bezmozgis

A bittersweet, funny, but ultimately rather ominous story about a family of Latvian Jews who emigrate to Canada in the early 1980s as part of the exodus of Soviet Jews. (In this sense clearly autobiographical.) Mark Berman is in first grade at George Best Elementary School in his new home of Toronto. Together with his slightly older sister, he is tasked with walking a neighbour’s dog every day at lunch. Tapka is spoiled; her owners, also Russian emigres, though of a lower social class than the Bermans, have no children. Tapka is their everything. While the adults struggle through English classes by day, the children learn through osmosis (the narrator likens his brain to a catchment basin, with rivulets of language steadily accumulating into a pool). Pride of place goes to schoolyard insults, like “shithead” and “gaylord” (how it pains me to remember that we used to say things like that). The children love Tapka. But they also hate her, for inscrutable reasons that have to do with their powerlessness and general sense of being lost in a new place. So they start calling her the names they’ve learned, maybe felt the lash of; Mark feels the thrill and shame at having violated something. One thing leads to another, and the kids let the dog off the leash, whereupon it dashes into traffic and is hit by a car. Everything ends okay, except nothing will ever be okay again.

I also use this story to teach my American students the correct pronunciation of Toronto and what a washroom is. I think of it as a duty.

First published in The New Yorker in 2003. Collected in Natasha and Other Stories, Harper Collins, 2004.

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“The Knock at the Manor Gate” by Franz Kafka and translated by Willa and Edwin Muir

My favourite Kafka to teach is “A Hunger Artist” (though I confess I don’t love to teach Kafka—he is too hard, too much about the resistance to interpretation), but my favourite Kafka altogether might be this little text, which is perfectly Kafkan, but, more importantly, for me, comes unbidden to me every time we chant the v’ahavta in synagogue. That’s the prayer in which we name the ways we shall love G-d. Tell them to your children, think of them when you wake and when you sleep. And, finally, “bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Kafka would have known this prayer (it comes just after the sh’ma, Judaism’s affirmation of monotheism); every week I wonder if he had it in mind in writing this enigmatic work.

First published posthumously in Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer in 1931. Collected in English in The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka, edited by Nahum Glatzer, Schocken, 1971. You can read the story here.

“The Use of Force” by William Carlos Williams

Although only four pages long, this story is so rich, it’s easy to spend an hour talking about it and still have plenty to say. Based on Williams’s own experience as a doctor in Rutherford, NJ, it tells the story of a doctor summoned by a poor, terrified couple who suspect their daughter has diphtheria. To confirm his diagnosis—which will lead only to quarantine, there being nothing else the man can do: the story is from the 1930s; there are no antibiotics—the doctor needs her to open her mouth. Which the girl refuses to do. The result is a battle not just of wits but of strength. The title doesn’t just describe the doctor’s actions; it also poses a question: what is the use of force? What purpose does it serve? Can we diagnose a condition without causing harm? And if we think about the similarities between diagnosis and interpretation, we might extrapolate to ask, can we read a text without doing violence to it?

First published in 1933 in Blast and collected in Life Along the Passaic River, New Directions, 1938 and The Doctor Stories, New Directions, 1984. You can read the story here.

“A Family Supper” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Rohan Maitzen tipped me on to this story, one of only a few by Ishiguro. Although it would be terrific for any lesson on unreliable narrators, I always teach “A Family Supper” on the second day of the semester to help students begin the semester-long process of learning to support claims with textual evidence. For the central question demanded by this story of a young man who returns after the death of his mother to his home in Japan from a new life in America is whether his father has poisoned their supper of fish soup. (The first thing we learn is that the mother died from eating improperly prepared fugu.) Students always have strong opinions, but they’re not always sure why they think what they think. Ishiguro has a fine way with dread and unease. In addition to everything else, this is good ghost story.

First published in Firebird 2 in 1982. Collected in Malcolm’s Bradbury’s anthology The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories, Penguin, 1989. You can read the story here.

“Drown” by Junot Díaz

The narrator’s former best friend Beto is back in town, but the narrator doesn’t want to see him. We learn that Beto once gave him a blow job, which the narrator both liked and hated. “Drown” is a story of repression, confused masculinity, and growing up in a society that has no expectations for you (note the imperative of the title). My students and I often linger on this early passage, where we can already see the rivalrous relationship between the boys. Along with the rest of the kids in the neighbourhood, the boys have climbed the fence at the local pool:

I sit near the sign that runs the pool during the day. No Horse-Play, No Running, No Defecating, No Urinating, No Expectorating. At the bottom someone has scrawled in No Whites, No Fat Cbiks and someone else has provided the missing c. I laugh. Beto hadn’t known what expectorating meant though he was the one leaving for college. I told him, spitting a greener by the side of the pool.

At night the pool runs by other rules: the difference between no expectorating and a greener by the poolside. Nighttime pool has vitality, but what is that worth compared to the power of daytime rules?

First published in The New Yorker, January 29, 1996 and collected in Drown, Riverhead, 1996. Read the story here.

“The Marquise of O” by Heinrich von Kleist, translated by David Luke and Nigel Reeves

A crazy, long story about a woman, the Marquise of the title, who becomes pregnant after being raped during the Napoleonic wars. The scholar Mary Jacobus has a nice essay about how everyone sees the Marquise as an empty O just waiting to be filled (literally or figuratively). The story’s told with Kleist’s characteristic indirection, which means students have a hard time with it—it doesn’t help that the central event is elided in a dash—but they often get into rousing discussions of contemporary slut-shaming that makes them see things haven’t changed as much as they like to think. For me the big question is: can we read the Marquise as having any control over her circumstances? Does she have any agency?

First published in German in Phöbus in 1808. Available in English in The Marquise of O and Other Stories, Penguin 1978.

“Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” by Herman Melville

What is there to say? A stone-cold masterpiece. “I would prefer not to” doesn’t mean no. It’s much more destabilizing (or insidious, depending on how much you side with the narrator). A wonderful story about men at work.

First published in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine in November and December 1853. Collected in The Piazza Tales, 1856. Read the story here.

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Now you tell me: what would be on your list?

Teaching Survival in Auschwitz (II)

In my first post on teaching Primo Levi’s Holocaust memoir Survival in Auschwitz, I discussed the conclusions I help students come to in regards to what I take to be the two most important chapters in the book. In this post I’ll list some of the other aspects I address. I never get to all of this material; there just isn’t enough time. Take this then as a menu of options, from which I choose based on our conversations:

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1. Levi’s aims—reading the preface:

Survival in Auschwitz begins with a short author’s preface. It’s easy to skip, but you shouldn’t. It tells us interesting things about what Levi thinks he is up to in his book. The first phrase—“It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944” and the last sentence—“It seems to me unnecessary to add that none of the facts are invented”—offer good opportunities to think about tone and rhetoric (the irony of the opening, the preterition of the closing). More than that though I want students to think about Levi’s aims. As the final line suggests, Levi is at least in part motivated by the impulse to document. The things he will relate really happened. Levi was often asked whether the Holocaust could happen again. His response: it happened once, thus it can happen again.

But Levi isn’t only a documentarian. Yes, he wrote the book, he explains, not to accuse but rather “to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind.” Yet in the very next paragraph, Levi apologizes for “the structural defects of the book,” which date to his time in the camp, where the need not just to tell his story to others but to make them participate in it had already taken on “the character of an immediate and violent impulse.” On one hand, Survival is sober and reasoned (that quiet study of the mind: Levi refers to syllogisms and logic); on the other, it’s an emotional outpouring. This isn’t some kind of failure on Levi’s part; it’s typical of the fractured quality of so much Holocaust literature. These texts struggle with its very textuality. Every text has some kind of shape or form. But what happens when the subject matter of that form is destruction, terror, violence, in a word, formlessness? Each work of Holocaust literature answers this question in a different way, but, I tell my students, it’s one we’ll come back to again and again.

2. Author as character:

I’ll often start our second session, by which time students have read most of the book, by asking these questions: Who is Primo Levi? How does he present himself? What do we learn about him from his memoir?

He’s Italian. He’s Jewish. What does Jewishness mean to him? He doesn’t seem to be very Jewish. How can you tell? He’s not religious. (This is a useful place for a mini-lecture on Jewishness as both religion and culture: my students, almost none of whom are Jewish, often have many questions.) How does he end up at Auschwitz? That is, what brings on his deportation? He’s arrested. For what? For fighting as a partisan. (Mini-lecture on the partisans, and the situation in Italy before and during the war, especially 1943-44.) Right, he’s arrested as an anti-fascist. And when he is arrested, he prefers to admit, as he puts it, his “status of ‘Italian citizen of Jewish race,’” believing, wrongly as it turns out, that it would be more dangerous to confess to being a partisan. To me this suggests that he thinks of his Jewishness as a kind of bargaining chip: not that he doesn’t care about it, but that it isn’t central to his sense of self.

What else do we know? How old is he? 24. Why is that important? He tells us that he was neither too old nor too young—adducing as an example of the latter a teenage prisoner known simply as Null Achtzehn (Zero Eighteen, the last digits of his tattooed number). No one likes to work with Null Achtzehn because he has no sense of proportion. He doesn’t husband his strength. He works flat out until he collapses, invariably bringing trouble on whomever happens to be his partner that day. (Their job in this particular anecdote is moving “sleepers,” railway ties frozen into the Silesian mud.)

What about Levi’s background? Can we tell anything about who he’s been before deportation? I’ll often have us look at a passage where Levi mentions how, for days after his arrival at Auschwitz, he would reflexively look at his wrist, and find, instead of a watch, a tattoo. What does this anecdote suggest? Dehumanization, of course—his name has been taken away (along with his clothes, his hair, his belongings, his dignity), he has been entered into a vast bureaucracy. (Which requires us to complicate the consoling idea that the Nazis are monsters, irrational, barbarians, etc. They are efficient, methodical, all-too-human.) All true. But what else? What kind of person looks at their watch? (Tricky question, getting more abstruse every year, as watches fade from memory.) Students will offer hesitant replies. An anxious person? A punctual person? A detailed-oriented person? (Levi was all of these things.) How about, I say, a person who understands time in a certain way: a person who doesn’t work in the fields. Levi is bourgeois, a middle class professional. The Italian Jews—secular, assimilated—are known throughout the camp for being professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc.). What do other prisoners think of them? They laugh at them, think of them as useless, hopeless. Right. Levi notes they can’t do anything practical, they are not long for this world.

What is Levi’s own training? He is a scientist, a chemist. Why is that important? It saves his life: he is transferred to a work detail, a chemical unit, which gets slightly better rations and, just as importantly, works inside, out of the worst of the cold. Some students will suggest that we can see Levi’s scientific background in his style. I am always a little resistant to this idea, which always seems to me based on a crude idea of science, but they adduce his matter-of-factness, almost brusqueness, the absence of showy stylistic flourishes. I admit they have a point, especially when we think of how thoroughly Lei effaces himself in the text, and, more generally, how much he downplays agency, that is, willpower.

But I want us to get back to the matter of Levi’s style as a function of his background. Does Levi only know about science? Does he have other knowledge that appears in his writing? Those questions don’t always go anywhere right away. So I’ll point to the passage about the guard on the truck taking the “lucky” prisoners from the ramp to the labour camp at Monowitz: Levi calls him “our Charon.” We discuss who Charon is, and briefly consider the implied comparison of Auschwitz to the underworld. My point, though, is that this is a classical allusion, an example of Levi’s humanist education, which we will consider in detail when reading the Canto of Ulysses chapter. Levi is as much a humanist as a scientist. He is well-rounded, a real liberal arts guy. Levi is interested in everything pertaining to the human.

3. Levi’s style:

An exercise that always gets good results is to ask students to find a passage they consider representative of Levi’s style and to free write why. I’ll choose a few students to share their examples, selecting students who’ve been quiet so far. (This is usually in the second week of the semester.) I always have my own example in reserve. Depending on how much time we have, we sometimes work through it. (Sometimes students even select it: always a happy occasion.) Levi is describing the arrival of his transport at Auschwitz:

The door opened with a crash, and the dark echoed with outlandish orders in that curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger. A vast platform appeared before us, lit by reflectors. A little beyond it, a row of lorries. Then everything was silent again. Someone translated: we had to climb down with our luggage and deposit it alongside the train. In a moment the platform was swarming with shadows. But we were afraid to break that silence: everyone busied himself with his luggage, searched for someone else, called to somebody, but timidly, in a whisper.

A dozen SS men stood around, legs akimbo, with an indifferent air. At a certain moment, they moved among us, and in a subdued tone of voice, with faces of stone, began to interrogate us rapidly, one by one, in bad Italian. They did not interrogate everybody, only a few: “How old? Healthy or ill?” And on the basis of that reply they pointed in two different directions. […]

In less than ten minutes all the fit men had been collected together in a group. What happened to the others, to the women, to the children, to the old men, we could establish neither then nor later: the night swallowed them up, purely and simply. Today, however, we know that in that rapid and summary choice each one of us had been judged capable or not of working usefully for the Reich; we know that of our convoy no more than ninety-six men and twenty-nine women entered the respective camps of Monowitz-Buna and Birkenau, and that of all the others, more than five hundred in number, not one was living two days later.

Here is Levi’s version of a scene central to so many Holocaust memoirs—the scene of arrival at the camp, with its sudden shift from limbo to hell. One of the most surprising things about Levi’s depiction is how calm, almost silent is a scene that other writers describe as a cacophonous tumult. After the opening crash of the transport doors and the barked orders, there is only silence. This is matched by the casualness, even indifference of the SS, their legs akimbo. There is no sadism here. And the scene is the more terrible for its absence. (Though Levi will certainly experience that later, not least in a famous scene when, tormented by thirst, he has tried to grab an icicle from a window only to have it snatched away. Why? he asks. The guard responds, chillingly: Here there is no why.)

The unexpected calmness is further conveyed by Levi’s unadorned, modest prose. In this passage (as elsewhere), he is chary with metaphor. The SS men have faces of stone, the night swallows up those sent to the gas chambers, but those are the only examples. The description in the first paragraph of the ramp swarming with shadows is probably literal, given the glare of the lights.

I suggest the scene is more report than narrative. Notice Levi’s pronouns. He doesn’t use I at all here, and quite seldom in the text, which is surprising since he’s writing a memoir. That effacement of the self by the group reflects Levi’s wish to consider the event in its larger significance. It’s not just about him. Sometimes students want to take is use of “we” as a gesture of solidarity, which is a fine thought, though neither here nor elsewhere is that a real possibility. Besides, the “we” doesn’t, in fact, just refer to the deportees. In the excerpt’s last sentence, it expands to refer maybe not to everyone but to all who have studied these events. And Levi makes it clear that each of us must take up the task.

Perhaps for this reason—his desire to record the truth about an experience the significance of which extends beyond himself—Levi often writes in the kind of judging, assessing, almost omniscient style we might find in Balzac, or, more pertinently, Manzoni. Look at the end of the first sentence: orders are uttered in “that curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger.” The orders aren’t just barked; they are barked the way Germans bark them, expressing a thousand-year-old rage. (Maybe there is a buried reference to the thousand-year Reich here, too.)

What most concerns Levi in this passage is the speed with which human beings can be turned into what the philosopher Martin Heidegger, himself seduced by Nazism, called “standing reserve”: an inability to see anyone or anything in anything except for their use value. Levi and his fellows are so many kilojoules, units of work to be extracted before their bodies are discarded as useless husks.

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Arrival records from Auschwitz. Levi’s name is seventh from the top.

4. Kraus, or, Friendship in Auschwitz:

I often devote time to short chapter called “Kraus.” Unusually, Levi is at the center of the action. Kraus is one of the thousands of Hungarians who flood Auschwitz and its sub-camps in the summer of 1944. By now it is November and it is raining. The veterans, like Levi, who counts as one after having survived nine months, fear the onset of winter. Kraus, though, is still a newbie. Kraus can’t march in step and he risks bringing the Kapo’s ire on the rest of the work detail. For some reason, which he cannot or will not explain, Levi suddenly addresses the man in pidgin German. He tells Kraus he dreamt about him. In the dream, the war was over and Kraus visited Levi in Italy, bringing a warm loaf of bread with him. Levi puts him up for the night, introduces him to his family, they share good fellowship.

Then comes this:

What a good boy Kraus must have been as a civilian: he will not survive very long here, one can see it at the first glance, it is as logical as a theorem. … Poor silly Kraus. If only he knew that it is not true, that I have really dreamt nothing about him, that he is nothing to me except for a brief moment, nothing like everything is nothing down here, except the hunger inside and the cold and the rain around.

Why, I’ll ask the class, does Levi include this moment? He wants to show a full picture of himself, that he’s not just good. What, is he bad? Well, no, not bad. The situation is bad. So that’s what he wants to show? The whole book is about that. Why this moment? Discussion ensues. He’s mean to Kraus, someone will say. Yeah, the way all the veterans are mean to the new arrivals, retorts another. I don’t know if he’s mean, he’s trying to encourage Kraus. But he doesn’t mean it, it’s just a trick, cynical even. I’ll jump in: so is this like “bless your heart”? I always ask this question, because I can’t help playing to the gallery and it always gets a laugh. (I lived in the South for several years before I realized just how double-edged this expression is, which mostly means something like “What an idiot,” but can sometimes mean “Poor you.”) Then I’ll add: has Levi become like the prisoners he condemned in an earlier chapter, people who’ll use anyone in any way to aid their own survival? Depending on time, I’ll juxtapose this scene to Levi’s descriptions of two people who were really like friends, as much as possible in that place, anyway. Alberto was another Jewish deportee from northern Italy; Leonardo a civilian worker sent from Italy to support the war effort. As a non-Jew, he lived in a different kind of camp, had access to food parcels, and received a much greater ration. The two encountered each other by chance one day and realized they were both Piedmontese. For six months Leonardo left a pint of soup each day for Levi.

By comparing these descriptions of friendship to the example of Kraus we can think further about whether solidarity is a meaningful concept in the world of the camp. Since everything in the book goes back to the concept of the human, we can think about how solidarity might preserve humanity.

5 “The Story of the Last Ten Days”: The end of Survival in Auschwitz:

Why does the book end as it does? Why is the last chapter presented as a diary, unlike anything else in the book? (Even though it is clear that the diary is fake—that is, written retrospectively. Interestingly, Levi wrote this chapter first.) Why does it end so abruptly? The last entry concludes by stating the fate of two Frenchmen with whom Levi formed a trio dedicated to helping each other in the newly-liberated camp: “Arthur has reached his family happily and Charles has taken up his teacher’s profession again; we have exchanged long letters and I hope to see him again one day.”

The students and I note that liberation is presented neither as a triumph nor an invitation to resume life. The abrupt ending suggests that something has ended, but nothing has yet replaced it. (Levi would write another book about the many months it took him to return home.) The only hint that humanity will be a part of whatever that new state turns out to be is the fact that Levi’s last lines reference communication and connection. The last chapter describes the stages by which the prisoners slowly inch towards becoming human again, the best evidence of which is their willingness to help each other.

As part of the process of reawakening, the dated “entries” reintroduce ordinary time to the text. Which is where the book begins: the first line is “I was captured by the Fascist Militia on 13 December 1943.” But that’s one of the last references to time. Survival in Auschwitz is organized thematically, not chronologically. This decision is a function of Levi’s interest in structure, in analysis, in the big picture. As we’ve already noted, he isn’t just telling his own story. But it is also a function of the way time changes in the camp. The days are all the same, only the weather is a little better or a little worse. The linearity we attach so much importance to in thinking about our lives is gone. There is no beginning, middle, and end. The final chapter, then, is important as a marker of change. Liberation returns Levi to time.

That’s hardly everything there is to say about this important book. But we return to Levi throughout the semester. He becomes our touchstone, not so much the arbiter of how to think about the camps, but the one most interested in documenting it as scrupulously as possible. Levi sometimes bridled at the term “witness.” In the book’s first reviews—basically uninterested: the book was not initially a success—Levi is often called a witness, a term explicitly contrasted to writer. As if Levi were merely transcribing, rather than also shaping experience. But Levi came more and more to embrace the term. As he wrote to Jean Samuel, immortalized in the book as the Pikolo in “The Canto of Ulysses,” who remained a close friend after the war: “Whether we like it or not, we are witnesses and we bear the weight of it.” Studying Survival in Auschwitz is one of the first ways my students learn what it might mean to bear that weight.

Teaching Survival in Auschwitz (I)

This month I’m reading and writing about Primo Levi. Here’s the first of two posts on my experience teaching his most famous work.

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Along with Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the only book to have remained constant on my Holocaust Literature syllabus is Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. It sounds grandiose, but Levi’s memoir is one the most important books in my life. It drew me to the field of Holocaust literature in the first place, but it would be a desert island book for me even if I didn’t do what I do for a living. One of the key testimonies of the 20th century, it is the book I recommend when people ask me what they should read to learn about the Holocaust.

I’ve taught the book often enough (12-15 times, I’d say) that I thought it might be worthwhile to offer a sense of how I teach it, usually over three 50-minute class periods. Not enough time, but what can you do, there’s so much other material to get to, plus I typically spend two more days on two important essays by Levi, which gives me some extra time to squeeze in a few more bits of the memoir. By the way, the book I am calling Survival in Auschwitz is really called If This is a Man. (Readers in the UK know it under that title.) Unfortunately, for all the predictable reasons (sales, expectations of what American readers want from a text, etc), Levi’s US publishers changed the title. It’s one of the great publishing travesties, but since that’s what it’s come to be known in the US, that’s the title I use in class. Plus we can have a useful conversation about the differences implied by the titles.

What follows is likely more useful for those who have read the book. If you haven’t, I hope you will. It’s not long, and it’s really powerful.

Over the years I’ve varied my teaching approach, partly to keep things fresh and partly because my ideas about the book have changed. (Not fundamentally, but the more time you spend with a book the more clearly you see how its parts fit together.) But despite those refinements, I’ve always spent a lot of time on two chapters. They are central to Levi’s project, and they’re what I’ll talk about in this post, adding a second one about some of the other topics I like to get to.

The first of the two chapters is called “The Drowned and the Saved,” which is Levi’s way of distinguishing between two types of prisoners. For whatever reason, the alpine Levi, born and raised in Turin, always used water metaphors to conceptualize the fate of the Nazis’ victims. He uses the terms sinking and touching bottom when speaking of death in the camps. He gives the name “the drowned” to those who are not dead yet, but will be soon. Even if physiologically alive they are mentally and spiritually dead. They are barely human. In the argot of Auschwitz, the drowned are Musselmänner, Muslims. (The term in no way refers to actual Muslims; scholars still don’t know where the term came from, though some speculate it is connected to the concept of submission that is one of the pillars of Islam. But this would be a terrible distortion of what Muslims mean by that term.) No prisoner could live much more than three months on the rations they were given without succumbing, without drowning. Only those who could find a way to cheat the system, to gain some small privilege that will result in an extra half slice of bread, an extra ration of soup had a chance of surviving.

When he talks about “the saved,” Levi does not mean the elect. The saved are not better than the drowned. In fact, in an essay written much later, Levi argued they were in fact worse, because they had to have compromised their morals in some way. He does not exempt himself from this charge. (Students struggle with this. They really want Levi to be saying that the saved are morally superior: in this way, they reflect our culture’s poor understanding of Darwin, who was describing not prescribing when he spoke of the survival of the fittest.)

We spend a long time on Levi’s distinction, not least because it preoccupied Levi his whole life. I want students to figure out Levi’s attitude to the drowned. To that end, I ask them to close read this sentence:

All the musselmanns who finished in the gas chambers have the same story, or more exactly, have no story; they followed the slope down to the bottom, like streams that run down to the sea.

I’ll begin by asking, What are the implications of this metaphor? If that doesn’t generate anything useful, I’ll break it down. Why do streams go to the sea? Gravity, someone will say. That’s just the way it is, says another. It’s the nature of the universe. It’s natural. What, then, is the implication of these answers for our understanding of the drowned? Is it in their nature to drown? Is Levi describing something like fate? Is the universe just made for them to succumb? If so, what about Levi’s many claims that chance was the main determination of who survived? Is Levi judging the drowned?

Later passages make it clear that he is not. Take this resonant, stern assertion:

If I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen.

What he judges is the universe in which it is natural for the drowned to sink to the bottom, which is to say, the universe of the camps. That last sentence is further evidence of a tendency we will by this point in our conversation already have talked about, namely, how highly Levi values thought and reason. To be able to reason is to be human. But to reason in the camps is painful—it reminds the prisoner of all he has lost. That is the ambivalence of the camp infirmary: it spares prisoners from the back-breaking labour for a time (assuming they recover), but it gives them the opportunity to reflect on what has happened to them.

An even more complex consideration of the double-edged quality of reason lies at the heart of the book’s most magisterial chapter, “The Canto of Ulysses,” the second I emphasize. (In recently learned from Ian Thomson’s biography of Levi that he wrote it in a single 30-minute lunch break at his first job after returning home to Turin.) Here Levi submits reason to the most intense and consequential scrutiny.

“The Canto of Ulysses” concerns Levi’s relationship with his work kommando’s Pikolo, a young man named Jean. A Pikolo (also known as a Pipel) was a kind of messenger boy/mascot selected by the Kapo or head of the commando. (Kapos were themselves prisoners, but almost always criminals or sometimes political prisoners.) A Pikolo was typically a teenage boy, who was often used sexually by the Kapo; either way, he had a higher status than ordinary prisoners and received certain privileges. Jean’s full name was Jean Samuel: after the war, he and Levi maintained a decades-long friendship. Jean, an Alsatian, speaks French and German equally well. Mindful of the importance of languages in the camps, he asks Levi, on a day when he has selected the older man to accompany him from the work site to the kitchen to fetch the day’s cauldron of soup, to teach him some Italian. The chapter describes what counts as an idyll in Auschwitz. The task takes about an hour, in which the two men are free from hard labour and the threat of punishment.

Levi makes the unusual decision—which Samuel later said bemused him at the time—of granting Jean his wish by reciting for him a canto from Dante’s Inferno. He readily admits he does so more for himself than for Jean: being able to turn his mind to the foundational text of Italian literature imbues him with new life. But the canto Levi chooses—in class I pass out a copy of the relevant section, as only some lines are quoted in the chapter, and in the process offer a quick summary of Dante’s aims and achievement in the Divine Comedy—is surprising.

In the poem, Dante is surprised to find Ulysses in Hell (as opposed to in Limbo with other virtuous pagans). What, he wonders, has Ulysses done to deserve this fate? Ulysses answers by telling the story of how, having escaped the enchantments of Circe, he goaded his men into sailing across the Mediterranean, through the straits of Gibraltar and past the edge of the known world. He trespassed the boundaries of human accomplishment—and was punished for that audacity. Levi makes a clear parallel between the expedition he and Jean are making and Ulysses’s own, which the wily Ithacan launched in a rousing speech: you are men, and thus made for wisdom, he tells the sailors, mere beasts of burden. The canto matters to Levi because the story it tells “has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for the soup on our shoulder.”

They are not the oxen they appear to be. In using the phrase “dare to reason,” Levi echoes the Latin sapere aude, dare to know, the credo of Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. Even this early in the semester, students hunger for a positive moment. They welcome the message that humanity can’t so easily be destroyed.

To complicate this wishful thinking, I assign an activity in which half the students make connections between the excerpt from Dante and Levi’s chapter, and other half close the chapter’s final paragraph in order to figure out how it’s related to what’s come before. In pushing them past the obvious comparisons between the rousing Ulysses and the valiant camp inmates, I focus on how Ulysses gets his men to do what he wants. (They are rightly reluctant.) The poem says that his speech about how knowing is central to being human is an example of zeal. We consider the ambivalence of this word, which can be used as much to condemn as to praise. Zeal is almost always too much. It’s irrational (think of the way we use “zealot”). What I want students to see how reason is compromised by the very intensity with which it’s upheld. Ulysses is irrational in his praise of reason. Think about our own culture’s unreasoning and often unreasonable belief in the importance of science and technology, of progress, of improvement. It’s not that these are fictions. It’s that they are hollowed out when they are fetishized. This contradiction is important, because too often the Holocaust is taken to be an aberration from Western culture, when it is, if not its logical conclusion, completely in keeping with the way the West has thought about the world.

That’s why the chapter’s final paragraph, which is set off from what’s come before by a break, is so important. Levi and the Pikolo have reached the kitchen before their language lesson can be completed. Their idyll is over; the reality of camp life returns:

We are now in the soup queue, among the sordid, ragged crowd of soup-carriers from other Kommandos. Those just arrived press against our backs. ’Kraut und Rüben? Kraut und Rüben.’ The official announcement is made that the soup today is of cabbages and turnips: ’Choux et navets. Kaposzta és répak.’

‘And over our heads the hollow seas closed up.’

The last line is Ulysses’s description of his expedition’s fate. This language resonates with the references to sinking and drowning I mentioned earlier. Levi’s language (“sordid, ragged”), his description of the crowd that swallows the two men, putting paid to their conversation about Dante, and his use of foreign languages to talk not about poetry but about food combine to return is to reality. What matters is what’s in the soup today. But what about that final line from Dante. Should we read it as a final irony, a dismissal of what Levi and Jean have achieved? Or as an insistence, however faint, that poetry (and human accomplishment more generally) can persist? What does it mean to describe the press of starving men in the language of Dante? Does it elevate the scene? Does it denigrate Dante? Does the scene even need elevation?

Our difficulty in answering these questions—a result of the text’s complexity, nuance, and appreciation of paradox—challenges any consoling beliefs about the human spirit.

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Next time, notes on some of the other questions I ask in teaching Survival in Auschwitz.

On Teaching Anna Kavan’s Ice

Like all teachers, I’m always tinkering with my syllabi. Sometimes I’ll add texts I haven’t taught before. More rarely I’ll do something even more outrageous (exciting, foolish: choose your adjective): I’ll assign something I’ve never even read.

Before you get too excited (is he crazy? What a charlatan!), know that when I say I’ve never read it I’m not saying I’ve simply plucked the book off a shelf at random. It’s possible to know quite a bit about books we haven’t read—maybe we’ve glanced at them, paged through them, read snippets and summaries of. But I still couldn’t say in any meaningful sense of the term that I’ve read the book.

(Why do such a thing? Setting aside laziness or chronic over-commitment—academic summers are pretty full and it’s not easy to get to everything you mean to read—the main reason is to mimic students’ experience: it’s never a bad idea to remember what it’s like at the other side of the seminar table. (Answer: hard and stressful.) Teaching something for the first time, although always kind of a cluster, can be exciting and an excellent way to reckon with a book in a pretty intense way.)

This past semester I taught one book I’d never read before: Anna Kavan’s Ice, first published in 1967 and recently reissued by Penguin Classics. I assigned it in Experimental 20th Century British Fiction, a class I’ve taught many times (this was probably its sixth or seventh iteration). As I said, I don’t pull this trick of teaching something brand new too often, but whenever I do I choose something I am pretty sure I am going to like. Well, there’s a first time for everything. I did not like Ice. But my struggles teaching it taught me some things, especially about I value in a book, and, not unrelatedly, about what kind of book is easiest for me to teach.

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First a few words about the course. My idea is that in Britain in the last century, at least, the idea of experimental literature is best understood in terms of Freud’s definition of the uncanny. Writing in the wake of his experience with shell-socked soldiers in WWI and on the cusp of the dramatic revision of his thinking that was first developed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), the essay “The Uncanny” (1919) is part of Freud’s increasing fascination with unpleasant and traumatic experiences. In that sense it fits in with the trajectory of his thinking. In another respect, though, it is quite unusual: it is Freud’s most sustained act of literary criticism.

Reading E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Romantic/Gothic story “The Sandman” (1817), Freud comes to understand the uncanny—in German, das Unheimliche—as “that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar.” The inextricable relationship between comfort and discomfort inheres in the very etymology of the word: unheimlich contains within it Heimlich, which, Freud notes, means both cozy/comforting and secret/stealthy. Only that which we think we know can truly disturb us. What most has the power to terrify us—to freak us out, even, as in the case of the Hoffmann story, to drive us insane—is the revelation that something or someone close to us is not what we take them to be. The strangest things don’t, at first glance, look that strange. But when we look at them more closely we see how strange they are. And that is unsettling.

I think this idea of strangeness helps us understand 20th Century British literature, which, especially in its post-war manifestations, is often taken to be conventional, formally unadventurous and pedestrian in its subject matter. (The exciting, experimental stuff is thought to be happening elsewhere: France, America, anywhere but at home.) But this is a misreading. After all, the “experimental” only makes sense in relation to the “conventional.” The strangest textual effects, the riskiest narrative strategies, the most disquieting subject matter—these indicators of the experimental might be all the more pronounced when they appear in seemingly straightforward guise.

Having taught the course many times, I have a few fixed points on the itinerary. I start with D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920) and end with J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1973). (Yes, mine is a short century—I’ve added more recent texts into the mix before, but this arc seems to work best.) I always teach Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. And Beckett’s Molloy (I know, not British). And either Henry Green’s Loving or Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day. (It was Green this year, and I think I’ve really finally figured out how to teach him: went very well.) The past couple of times I’ve taught Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter and often I include Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark, as I did this year. Doris Lessing is usually in there too, though this year I took a break. That’s what opened up the slot for Kavan.

I knew Ballard admired Kavan, and I thought Ice might work nicely with Crash. But I’m not sure we made much of the pairing. Both are about violence, and oblique about how they understand that violence. But the books didn’t have as much in common as I’d suspected.

Ice is set in some ill-defined apocalyptic landscape. (Some say it is modeled on New Zealand, where Kavan spent part of WWII. But it feels like nowhere.) The narrator is a former soldier and explorer. Now he is “home,” driving through an isolated landscape in an ice storm to visit the girl he had once planned to marry and her husband, a painter. In some complicated fashion that is probably metaphorical, the girl is abducted by a sinister figure known only as the Warden, with whom the narrator is also infatuated, though he professes to despise him. It is even possible that the Warden is just another aspect of himself—after all, the narrator admits on the second page, “Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me.”

The book is an extended chase scene (if you can imagine a chase in which the setting is inconclusive and the mechanisms of the chase unexplained—it is not, in other words, an exciting chase scene): the narrator searches for the girl, who doesn’t want to be found by him (until, perhaps, at the end, though the narrator’s description of their final reunion is so self-serving I’m unconvinced), and no wonder, since most of his fantasies about her involve her violation. (The Warden is equally violent towards her; more so, since his fantasies actually seem to be realized. It is hard to tell for sure.) At the same time, the planet is threatened by an encroaching ice age; the breakdown of civilization engenders further violence. Although climate change as we know it today couldn’t have been on Kavan’s radar, the way the narrator talks about the coming apocalypse mirrors some of the rhetoric you might hear today: “The ultimate achievement of mankind would be, not just self-destruction, but the destruction of all life; the transformation of the living world into a dead planet.”

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Ice is short: straightforward prose, less than 200 pages. So I allocated only two class periods for our conversation. I was scrambling to prepare for our first meeting: it was three-quarters of the way through the semester, pressures mounting on every side, plus I was having trouble staying motivated to teach this group. Lots of smart students, but reticent, and, what’s worse, afraid. They worried a lot about saying the right thing, I could tell, and that sort of attitude is terrible in a discussion-based class. I’d tried all semester to loosen the atmosphere, but nothing had worked and by this point I’d mostly given up. Worse, their tenseness had affected me, which made me a less effective teacher. I didn’t particularly enjoy meeting with them, even though all the interactions I had with students one-on-one were absolutely fine.

So the situation was not ripe for success. And I was down to the last minute preparing for that first class. We had the first third or so of the novel to consider. I was wary of both my own uncertainty about the book and mindful that the first day on any novel is usually a bit halting. So I offered a few remarks on Kavan’s remarkable life—most of which I pilfered from this fine New Yorker profile, along with the information that her life-long heroin habit began when she was introduced to it by a tennis pro on the French Riviera, who thought it would be good for her serve!—and then passed around a handout with questions I’d prepared. I split the class into groups and assigned each a question. (I thought about including them, but decided that was overkill. Leave a comment if you want me to send them to you.)

The exercise worked okay: we got at some of the novel’s concerns, but I found it hard to get students to point to specific passages in their answers. It’s always hard to get students to do this—they’re always happier with generalities. But the problem seemed more intransigent this time. The reason, I realized, concerned the nature of the book itself. Ice doesn’t lend itself to close reading. The style is flat, with little texture, grain, weirdness. Even the narrator, so problematic, seemed less complex than I’d hoped. Certainly, he is untrustworthy, but he isn’t seductive in the way of Nabokov or Ishiguro’s narrators, for example. Class discussion felt aimless: we didn’t know what to do with this book.

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As I was preparing for the next class I realized I was bored. I resented Ice, hated having to read it. I found my attention even more fragmented than usual: my thoughts wandered away from the page; I was checking Twitter and hockey scores even more than usual. The last hundred pages were killing me. Now, it is true that sometimes I am resentful of having to re-read books for teaching because doing so takes me away from reading other things, things I’ve never read before, but I’m never bored or resentful. I leave that to the students! I like the books assign. Most of them I even love. So what was going on? And why was I the only one (outside my classroom, I mean) who seemed to feel that way?

I’d decided to assign Ice in the first place on the basis of conversations with readers I trust, all of whom were enthusiastic about the book. And as I prepared to teach, I read what Grant and Max and John Self and others had written about the book (I think Jacqui likes it too but I can’t find her review). They all loved it. But I just couldn’t see what they saw.

Finally, I had an insight that offered, I hoped, a way to think more productively about my resistance. I was reading a passage in which the narrator, who has, for reasons too obscure to go into here, joined a group of mercenaries ultimately in the pay of his nemesis the Warden, decides he needs to meet him face to face. But his immediate superior, the only person in the unit with even occasional direct dealings with the Warden, refuses, fearing that his own privilege will thereby be undermined. So the narrator comes up with a scheme:

For days we had been attacking a strongly defended building said to contain secret papers. He [the leader of the narrator’s unit] would not ask for reinforcements, determined to get the credit for taking the place unaided. By a simple trick, I enabled him to capture the building and send the documents to headquarters, for which I was highly praised.

My mind snagged on that “by a simple trick.” Quite possibly we are to take that as another sign of the narrator’s unpleasant character—look how boastful he—but in that case wouldn’t he want to tell us all about the trick so that we could see just how clever he is? It seems more likely that this is an example of everything Ice isn’t interested in. I imagined the kind of novel that would make much of that offhanded phrase. In that novel, a thriller, say, the mechanics of the trick would matter a lot. But Ice doesn’t care about plot, or plausibility, or cause and effect (its logic, if it can be said to have one, is dreamlike). It also doesn’t care about character, at least not as an expression of a complicated psychology or interiority.

So what does it care about?

I still don’t know the answer to that, which is why my attempt to teach it failed. Pressed, though, I would say it cares about the repetition and re-arrangement of certain images and motifs. But if so, its interest in repetition is totally different than Lawrence’s. We’d spent a long time at the beginning of the semester looking at how Lawrence repeats himself—the most noticeable, and, to his critics, most annoying aspect of his style. But in Lawrence, repetition always leads to difference. When he repeats himself, he seldom uses exactly the same word; he offers slight variations (adjectives become adverbs, for example). When repetition leads to difference, the prose becomes propulsive, befitting his fascination with change. Kavan’s repetition didn’t inhere in her style (she doesn’t repeat the same words); it inheres in her structure (the girl is trapped in one way, then another, then still another).

Thinking about that difference helped me—if not my students—clarify my own values. I care way more about experiments at the sentence-level rather than at the book-level. The flatness of Kavan’s prose offered me no handholds. If, to return to the passage that snagged my attention, the prose could be likened to a strongly defended building, it is one whose slippery surfaces repel me. I cannot grapple with them. The prose offers me no traction, nothing to grab hold of by resisting. At the sentence level, it’s just not weird enough. The book’s weird as hell, don’t get me wrong, but at any given moment it feels so ordinary. In this sense, Ice is the opposite of the books we’d been reading all semester, perhaps exemplified by Loving and The Vet’s Daughter, books that seem straightforward at first glance, but get stranger and stranger the more we look at them, specifically because of their deceptive style. With these texts, we think we know what we are getting (“ordinary” realism—keeping in mind that realism actually ordinary at all, that’s just the straw position it’s held for many 20th century writers and readers) but once we get into them we find ourselves in a stranger place than we’d expected.

Having had us look at that phrase “by a simple trick,” and having broached the question of what Kavan’s novel values, I asked the class: Is this novel boring? The students were reluctant to answer, sensing some kind of trap, but I wasn’t having them on. I told them I found it very boring. But what was boring about it? Was boredom a flaw or a tactic?

One way to recuperate this boredom, I suggested, might be to read Ice as a novel about the violence men perpetrate on women. Such violence is boring. Not unimportant. Nor excusable. Something that ought to be combated (though I don’t think the book has any ideas about how to do so, or if it even can be). It is boring because, no matter how many forms violence takes, no matter what lurid and dismal fantasies give rise to it, it is always the same. In other words, in boring us the book is performing the boredom of misogyny and patriarchy.

Does this reading work? I’m not sure. I am sure, though, that the novel refuses to glamourize violence. On the contrary, it shows that part of violence’s power comes from its resolutely static nature.

In this regard, Ice is quite different from Crash, a novel which also presents violence in an affectless manner but which is also thrilled by it. (It is also so much richer in its prose). Ballard’s world-view—though also quite mad—is less stultifying than Kavan’s, because in Crash violence is equal opportunity (it’s not only men who enact it), and, more importantly, not the point. The point is that violence combined with sex begets fantasies that are transformative and therefore generative, even if in ways that make us uncomfortable. (It’s a book about people who get off on car crashes; it’s about people fascinated by the way bodies can be transfigured through violent collisions with machines. It’s insane, but you should read it.)

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On the course feedback form I asked students whether they thought I should teach Ice again. I’ll be curious to see their answers. My guess is they’ll say no, because none of them chose to write about it for their final papers. And I’m pretty much ready never to read it again. And yet it’s almost always rough the first time one teaches anything. I bet I’d do a better job next time. But I don’t think I’m interested enough to try. Teaching Ice turned out to be a failed experiment. Of course, those are the ones you learn the most from.

On Counterpoint in the Classroom

It often happens that I ask students to work together in pairs or small groups for a few minutes during class. We usually do “think-pair-share”: students write on a prompt for a few minutes, they debrief with a partner, and then, once the class as a whole has reconvened, they share what they learned from talking with their partner. I have the pairs work together for two or three minutes, sometimes five, depending on how engaged they seem.

Sometimes I prepare a series of more involved questions about the day’s text, divide the class into five or six groups, and assign each of them a question, telling them that they will share their response with the group as a whole. In this case they spend longer together, at least five minutes, maybe ten.

This time, when the students are busily working together, is what I want to talk about today.

I find such moments equally satisfying and unsettling. They have a particular texture that, I suspect, is very different for me than for the students. What is happening at such moments? When they are bent over their writing or chatting with a classmate, what am I doing? Am I teaching?

I remember once walking down the hallway of one of the busiest buildings on campus. It was the middle of a class period, and as I passed six or seven classrooms I heard over and over the voices of professors. Some of these classes were lectures, some were discussions, some, no doubt, a hybrid. But regardless of type I didn’t hear a lot of students talking. I’m always conscious that I too am the person who talks the most in my classes. There are good reasons for this (I know more than my students do about most of the things I teach). I’d say I talk more now than I did when I started, for reasons that are both good (I’m more confident; I’ve perfected a spiel that works) and bad (I’ve gotten lazier; it’s easier to talk than to engage in other ways). But my ideal is still a class in which students talk at least as much and preferably more than I do. (I still remember a session on Virginia Woolf many years ago when I only spoke a single sentence for the first hour of class. It was amazing.)

Small-group work has many benefits. It allows people who are shy about speaking in front of the whole class to contribute to class conversation. It helps the ones who need a little time to formulate an answer and who otherwise might be drowned out by students who find it easy to give immediate answers to my questions. And it integrates writing with talking—important because for most people writing is the best way to improve thinking.

When students talk with each other, they wake up, they feed off the changed atmosphere, they gulp down the oxygen that comes into the room. At least, they do when things are going well. Like most teachers, I’ll use impromptu small group work if the atmosphere is particularly leaden (if it’s a particularly rainy or gloomy day I’ll usually come prepared with a small group exercise). Sometimes it doesn’t shake things up. Who knows why. Could be the time of the semester, the day of the week, the weather outside and inside, the intransigence or shyness or fearfulness of a particular group dynamic.

But mostly it works. Things always start quietly; students are shy about breaking the silence. They begin by murmuring, but as they warm to the task they get louder. Soon there is a pleasant hubbub, almost a roar. That’s what I love best. I can feel the class loosening up. There’s more laughter, a kind of ease comes into the room.

I’m not an idiot: I know students aren’t always talking about the thing I asked them to talk about. (Though knowing I might ask them to summarize the conversation usually keeps them honest.) That’s not even the worst thing in the world. If I hear a few groups talking about their weekends or a chemistry exam they just took then I know—though the presence of longer pauses has usually already clued me in—that it’s time to bring them back together as a class. If one group finishes their task too quickly, I’ll go over and check in, ask someone to tell me what they’ve been talking about, prod them to think further, maybe give them another question to think about.

But mostly I stay out of their conversations. Instead I walk, and I listen. Unless I’m teaching a seminar where we can all fit around a table, I always move around the room a lot. Partly because I am nervous and fidgety, but also because I think it keeps them engaged, a little off-balance, in a good way. When I’m asking questions and expanding on their responses—in other words, when I’ve conducting the discussions that make up 90% of my class time—I want to be close to the students: looking in their faces to see what’s happening (are they getting what I’m saying, do they seem confused or bored?) and bringing my presence to different parts of the room. But when they’re doing group work I want to be out of their way. So I’ll wander the perimeter of the room, maybe looking at what’s hanging on the walls (maps of foreign countries, posters listing tutoring times, cheap reproductions of art works hung by God knows who God knows when) or, better still, out the window, if I can. I’ll cast myself outside the space of the classroom, watching the trees rustle in the wind or people hurrying or sauntering along the campus’s walkways or the groundskeepers with their inevitable leaf-blowers. Part of me will be out there, in that space where I don’t have to perform, where no one needs to have something to say about the day’s text. But part of me will be inside the room, roaming.

But this walking is much less important than listening. I’ve always liked to eavesdrop—as a kid I rode the bus a lot, especially when I got to be a teenager, since I took the city bus to school and to work; that’s where I honed my skills of listening in on people’s lives—and these small group sessions are a chance for me to get a (more or less unfiltered) sense of what students are thinking. As I’m wandering the room I’m getting bits and pieces of conversations; I’ll listen for ideas that are repeated from group to group, or for passages that particular groups seize upon. When I can I’ll reference these ideas in our discussions, whether overtly (“I noticed many of you were drawn to the scene at the swimming pool”) or covertly, as a way to structure the rest of the day’s conversation. Eavesdropping is a good way for me to get a handle on misconceptions or just generally take the temperature of the class’s familiarity with the day’s text (if people haven’t read it the small group conversation will be halting; it’s always a tell when students are desperately scanning the pages in the hopes of figuring out what the hell the thing’s about).

As the voices of the students rise and fall, as I make my way around the room, casting an eye outside it and an ear within it, I’ll find myself feeling calmer, even soothed. I’m getting a little break: for a few minutes I don’t have to be the one doing the heavy lifting of making something (a meaningful conversation) out of a room-full of people with their books. I don’t have to worry about time. (When class is going well, time flies by; when it’s not, it’s an enemy, a leaden lump I am forced to try to mould.) And I’m always heartened by the surge of the students’ voices: it makes me feel that something is being achieved in this room—paradoxically, it’s when the class splits up that I am mostly likely to feel the group working together—to feel that it is, in fact, a group, rather than a bunch of individuals who happen to occupy the same space at the same time.

At such times I often recall a scene from the Canadian director François Girard’s film 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould (1993). Canadians of a certain disposition and generation probably know it, but I’m not sure it ever got much traction anywhere else. The film mixes documentary footage and interviews with people who knew Gould and adds re-enactments of important moments in his life. In these, Colm Feore plays Gould, presenting him as gentle and sweet and wise but also strange and demanding and prey to various compulsions, panics, and paranoias. (Much, it seems, like the real Gould.) It’s a good film, and worth your time, regardless of how much you know or care about Gould.

One of the vignettes is called Truck Stop:

As he waits for his eggs and orange juice, Gould, in sun glasses, black beret and wool overcoat, dials into the various conversations around him: a man tells a story about picking up a hitchhiker, a story that seems as though it will be salacious and dispiriting but swerves into a different register altogether; a waitress breaks off her affair with a regular, a long-distance trucker; two men talk sports (the woefulness of the Leafs a topic of almost perennial relevance). We see Gould marking time on his fingers, as if the conversations were a composition by Bach. Girard overlays the different conversations–we’re hearing all the stories at once–but, because he brings up first one and then another, we concentrate on different bits of the general hubbub at different times. This diner fugue is book-ended by Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” which plays on the radio both in Gould’s car and in the restaurant: a more simple musical form, but no less appealing, and important, for that.

Wandering my classroom, I fancy myself as Gould, dialing into first this snippet and then that, but weaving them together into a pedagogical counterpoint that offers an image of what I hope the class a whole will be: a set of independent voices that are nonetheless harmonically interdependent. (Am I understanding “counterpoint” correctly? Help me, musical people.)

At the best of these moments, I feel more than satisfied. I feel exultant. But I’m also uncertain, beset by questions. What exactly am I doing just now? Am I teaching or have I abdicated my responsibilities? Shouldn’t I be taking control and running the show? Similarly, I wonder about Gould’s relationship to the diner’s patrons. He’s with the people but he’d not of them. We get a sense of that distance when the waitress, excitedly, a little flushed, asks “Mr. Gould” if he wants his usual. Is Gould slumming? What is his role here, anyway? Is he composer? Performer? Conductor? Maker of found art? Is he responding to what he finds? Or is he, out of his genius, making something out of nothing, music out of noise? Do the conversations mean anything without his assessing ear?

I’m always worried I’ll let the group exercise go on too long. My worry is in part pedagogical: I don’t want the energy to peter out; I don’t want students to lose focus. But in part it’s more obscure, more personal: am I doing my job if I’m not taking a more active role? Of course, I set the task, I arranged the groups, I’m keeping an ear out for who is staying on task, and I’m the one who will turn this moment into what with luck will be a productive conversation about the text. So I’m doing a lot. Am I being an artist of sorts—is that the best way to describe a good teacher? Or am I imposing order and structure and form on something that might, admittedly, be more chaotic but maybe more valuable, more organic without me? Worse, am I using these exercises as a kind of distraction, whether for myself or for the students or for us all? After all, Clark’s “Downtown,” which is just as important to Girard’s scene as the inaudible Bach that underlies it, is a song about distraction, presented not only as a way to help us get outside ourselves but also, more troublingly, as a way to let us hide from ourselves. “You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares,” sings Clark on the tinny radio. Is that a good thing or not?

Sometimes in these moments that now don’t seem quite as peaceful, these moments when I’m watching and listening and the students are working, I’ll fixate on the close-up of Gould’s fingers and I’ll feel my own twitching. What are those fingers doing? What kinds of cares are they forgetting?