Last night we spent some quality time reading Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride on the bathroom floor between the hours of 1:30 and 4:00 am. Ruthie had her head propped up on her little hands that were folded one-over-the-other on the edge of the toilet seat. “Waiting on the throw up,” she calls it.
The morning came too fast. In anguish, I scribbled out my lesson plans for today and made the mad dash up to the school to make ready for the sub. I returned home to find myself on the brink of a day that spread out before me like a glass lake. Ruthie spent most of the day sleeping and coloring. (She’s particularly keen on drawing “machines” that do things like “suck up all the bad people.”) This means that I had a great deal of time on my hands to read and to write and to do laundry and to scheme up schemes that make me excited about teaching. But especially to read. And, of all the things I read, this one has me coming back to it again and again. I don’t know how I landed there, but it’s Wendy S. Walters writing for About A Word about writing “In These Times. For me, her words are daunting, mesmerizing, captivating. Her message resonates with me even though I don’t exactly understand just what it is that she’s saying. (I think) she’s talking about how writing helps us make sense of things we can’t make sense of. And how (maybe) going out and looking for a poem is less about arriving at the poem and more about how you get there.
As I’m writing this, she’s sleeping in a chair next to me, her face flushed with a fever of 103. I just got finished Cloroxing the white-tiled bathroom floor, which left my finger tips feeling squeaky and dry. Since the fever has not yet broken, it looks like I’ll be another day at home. Here’s hoping a poem is hidden for me someplace in the geography of tomorrow.
We started reading The Odyssey today in my AP class, and it’s got me thinking about quests and tests and challenges and nostos and hubris. Especially hubris, which is really a necessary flaw if you’re going to be an epic hero. I mean, being successful at anything requires a certain amount of ego, so if you’re going to be a fucking hero, I would imagine that you’d need maybe just a bit more hubris than the average guy. But in the end, the hubris is what brings the big boys to their knees. Well, hubris and fate.
The Odyssey was the first nail in my literary coffin. I read it my sophomore year of college in a Great Books class. It was the first time I realized that literature was about the human experience. It may have been the first time it was ever brought to my attention that there were certain universal aspects of being human. Except for the fact that Penelope never leaves the home, I love the narrative structure of The Odyssey: We begin with ourselves, our home; we go out into the world for a reason, on a quest; nothing goes the way we’d imagined it might; it takes a hell of a lot longer than we’d planned; we encounter challenges, battles, obstacles, monsters that test who-we-think-we-are; we eventually make it home (under strange sail and in exchange for a story); and nothing is as we remember it—not even ourselves. We thought we knew everything (hubris), we thought we were somebody (hubris), we bragged about how much of a somebody we thought we were (hubris), only to have our spirit sticks broken by the gods (fail). Just one big circle that begins and ends with me. And we arrive alone, without even our trusty hubris.
I think that’s why so many people experience success in their forties: it takes a long time and a lot of failing to get over the hubris. My twenties have been marked by arrogance and entitlement, and that too seems to be a universal piece of the human condition. Everyone is kind of an asshole in their twenties. We’re like Odysseus, messing over our accomplishments with our bragging. And my generation of braggarts is surely the worst yet as we proudly proclaim our cleverness from the tallest peaks of the Interwebs. Our status updates and tweets have a willingly captive audience and people like us. Social networking’s got us ‘flicted with the hubris. *heavy sigh* #kidsthesedays
Every year, every parent approaches me to confide these three things: (1) My child is lazy, (2) My child did not enjoy reading Time Machine over the summer, (3) My child will not want to write. I’d like to meet the person these three statements would not apply to. Aren’t people generally lazy (as in, we don’t want to do things we don’t want to do)? And who would want to spend a summer reading H.G. Wells’ turn of the century dystopian novel about time travel? And who wants to write? Finally, if all of these statements ring so true for me, then why in the hell am I an English teacher?
I think I’m an English teacher for the same reason that I began this writing project. Because I am generally lazy and I need accountability in order to do things I don’t want to do (like write). Because I really can’t stand Time Machine, but I respect the thematic messages of the book and I believe Wells was really on to something when he predicted that the world would essentially ruin itself with technology (though I love my iPhone). Because even though I rarely want to write, I always find it feels good once I make myself do it (kind of like exercise?). There’s something in me that needs and wants to read and write. Teaching helps me understand where that drive comes from.
I’m sure you’re expecting me to explain where that drive comes from, but I don’t have the energy for such deep probes at this late hour the night before the first day of school. I really need to focus on much more immediately important things like what I’m going to wear tomorrow and which design template I should use for my introductory Power Point. In the meantime, perhaps you might think about why we read and write? I could use your input to help direct our discussions about literacy this week. Here are some questions for you to ponder:
Why do you read?
Why do you write?
What do you read the most? (Think about text in general, not just “Literature”)
What do you write the most?
What do reading and writing help you accomplish in your life?
How often do you read and write?
When you were a student, did you do most of your reading/writing in or out of school?
If you have the time and you’re not feeling lazy (ha!), respond in comments or email me (whitreed at mac dot com).