As a secondary English teacher, I have trouble pinpointing what exactly it is I am looking for in a “favorite student.” For real, students constantly ask me “Who is your favorite student?” or “Am I your favorite student?” I never give a straight answer. How could I? That would just be wrong, even hurtful.
I sort of like what this guy said on the subject.But I tend to point to clues as to how to get to that level: “Be passionate,” I say. “Something has to make you burn inside. What is it? I’m into the people who crave knowledge, who want to be the smartest, most worldly person in the room.” You might be surprised at how many 8th grade students I have who either do not have that or are too afraid to let it be known.
I suppose I will say it up front: It is hard to be passionate, if your life is limited to the same old things all the time, every day, every week, every Saturday, every Sunday, every Summer or Winter or Fall or Spring Break. Recently, we took a group of students to Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. Some did not know how to simply BE in such a place, a living museum, a place of immersive learning that people go to on purpose…for vacation. I asked a student, “Ever been to a place like this? Does your family go on vacations?” The student replied, “We just go to the beach.”
The beach, to be clear, is wonderful. Some of my students undoubtedly have never seen the ocean, have never smelt that air, felt that breeze, the sand between your toes as the tide ebbs and flows, the sticky air blowing a dusting of sand on tanning arms and legs. But what if that is all you ever have? Year after year, break after break. What if you never even experience anything as little, or as much, as that?
I am reminded of a Ted Talk I love presented by Nigerian scholar and author Chimamanda Adichie. The speaker opens her talk with an anecdote about how, when she was young, growing up in Nigeria, all the stories she read were from England, stories of white kids, who played in the snow, ate apples, and rejoiced at the sight of a sunny day. This was not her experience, but when she herself wrote stories, these were the sort of stories she wrote. Ironic, because, in Nigeria, it never snows, they eat mangoes, and the sunny day is so commonplace that one would not need to talk of weather.
In essence, she had been trapped in a single story of youthful experience, as there simply were not children’s books written by Nigerians, published in Nigeria, for even middle class African children like her, children of university professors, business people, etc. on her continent.
Another anecdote has Adichie recalling meeting her American college roommate, who was shocked that she spoke English, listened to American pop music, and knew how to use a stove. Her roommate had been trapped in a single story of Africa, where everyone lives in tribes in the bush or desert with no modern comforts, a story of starvation and poverty and war, as seen on TV…in America.
Adichie herself admits to her own astonishment upon visiting Mexico and finding booming cities full of happy people and not a population of would-be immigrants living in abject, crime-ridden poverty. She had only a single story of Mexico. She goes on to make some interesting points about the danger of stereotypes that some cannot help but avoid.
The trap of the single story is a trap built around lack of wonder, experience, passion…and a lack of, well, reading different stories, whether due to limited access or limited willingness to read at all. You might be shocked at how hard so many of my students work to NOT even try to read even assigned readings. I don’t have the exact numbers, but it is a lot more than I am comfortable with.
The most amusing anecdote in Adichie’s talk is when she recounts a classmate, upon reading a work she wrote, proclaiming the shame it was that all the men in Nigeria are physical abusers. She clapped back that she had just read Bret Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho,” and how it was such a shame that all the young men in America are serial killers. We simply, as an American people, cannot be this simple...right? To not even try consider the depth of that which we do not fully know.
I live in a shallow place. The government of my home state of Tennessee is so very hard at work perpetuating a single story, mostly due to the stranglehold of one political party in our state and local governments, fueled by a vocal minority of people wishing to eliminate stories, facts even, that could potentially open up the world for our young people. I have another entire piece on the small groups of fascists sweeping through the small town South injecting hate into the townspeople about books that merely provide affirmation of the LBGTQ+ communities or provide advice on sexual health to teenagers. My community's local library board and appointed director have received actual threats of violence...over books that they refuse to "segregate" or remove. I have so much more on this coming soon...
Our state representative, John Ragan, recently authored a “divisive concepts” bill (originating as HB1376), now law, that is ultimately a thinly-veiled attempt to limit discussions on college campuses of the power imbalances inherent in American institutions (otherwise known as CRT…bum bum bum!!) and allow people to rat out teachers and students, who challenge certain traditional ideals.
Mr. Ragan is working from a single story he hopes is the only one told, one of white patriarchal evangelical power, the story of America that Adichie warns against, as she states in her talk: “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.”
The right in Tennessee keeps trying to “segregate books” in our libraries to, in essence, keep them out of the hands of children. We have read such in this very newspaper every week for months now. These books are largely stories confirming and affirming LGBTQ+ folks. They are doing this because they tell another story of America and its people and not the single story they want: straight, Christian, “normal.” Well, not everyone is straight and Christian and “normal,” never have been and never will be. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 100 million Americans do NOT identify as Christian.
It is easy to fear what is not understood. Books help us understand. Nothing more. Nothing less. The thing is there is nothing to fear from reading a book other than the fact that you might learn something that changes your mind. We should all be so lucky to have that willingness: to change our minds. And we have the personal freedom to choose what we read or do not, what our children read or do not. What we do not have the freedom to choose is what people who are not us or ours read or do not read.
Public libraries are for the public. Public institutions include each and every person.
As a kid, I watched a movie with a transgender character called The World According to Garp and later read the novel upon which it is based. I am still straight and present myself to the world as a man.
I read Romeo and Juliet in high school. I never murdered my girlfriend’s cousin.
I watched Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction when I was way too young. I never killed anyone for hire, snorted heroin, or gambled on a boxing match.
I played Grand Theft Auto: Vice City on Playstation 2 for days on end in high school. I never mowed anyone down with a car or a machine gun.
I read To Kill a Mockingbird in 7th grade and many times since. It was confirmed. The racism I heard and saw all around me was indeed wrong. Our systems during Jim Crow were wrong. And those systems still have an effect today because they put an entire race of Americans a century behind.
I read its sequel Go Set a Watchman as a grad student in English. It was confirmed. Human beings are nuanced and varied and complex, even Atticus Finch. Human beings are also capable of virtue beyond a particular religious dogma, and, in fact, are better for knowing as much about this life and its people as possible, people of all faiths, sexualities, races, classes, capabilities and experiences. Without diversity, we are a people devoid of PASSION.
When we remove access to even one book, we remove worlds of possibility. We put our future in danger because America is more than one story. It is many.
Another Google Search: E Pluribus Unum.