Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Tangent

In my classes, I sometimes get off on a tangent. It is easy to do in literature and writing class because one major aspect of analysis is trying to connect what is being read to contemporary culture, our lives and experiences, or to the history of the author and the historical period during which she created the work.

This year, I am trying to allow for tangents while simultaneously being aware of the through-line in the lesson. I believe my students are still sometimes a bit unclear as to what will be important later on the test. Some will ask me if the story I told relating to my own road in life in response to Robert Frost’s “Two Roads” will be part of the test. I am using my story as a way of connecting to the poem, I tell them. They must find their own stories in their lives that allow them to connect with Frost’s insights.

Tangents come from two distinct places for me. One, I like story. I find that a mere stating of facts does not make the subject real for me as a learner. A story seems to cement the point for me. If someone can construct a narrative that illustrates that the means determines the end rather than the end justifies the means, I am hooked. I actually believe that human beings crave stories. We are addicted to them. Even now, in an age when fiction has lost a little luster, and more nonfiction books are being published than ever before, the facts are most often published as a narrative. If you ask someone on the street what is most interesting, the facts of the Vietnam war—casualties, major battles, dates, significant players, political background—or a narrative of what it was like to be present at the fall of Saigon, I believe most people would opt for the man-on-the-streets-of-Saigon piece. This is why the teaching of history now includes cultural, literary, and personal elements alongside facts and figures. If the writers of history textbooks begin their research with diaries, letters, journals, and source documents, why is the result so dry and dull? If we get out of the textbooks and read I.F. Stone, David McCullough, William Manchester and David Halberstam, I think history would have a much broader appeal. Why? Because these writers write history as a narrative, not as a recitation of dry facts.

The second source of tangents in my teaching comes from Robert Chianese. Chianese taught English at my college. I took two or three course from him, and all of them changed my life. To look at my grades, one would not know this. At the time, I was working a full time job and attending school with a full load of units. I worked Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from eight in the morning to five or six in the evening. Tuesday and Thursday, as well as at night, I went to school. In the remaining few free hours, I studied, read, wrote papers, and tried to keep the apartment picked up. I burned the candle at both ends, and in the middle. I caught pneumonia, bronchitis, ringworm, stomach flu, and assorted viral and bacterial infections. I could never get enough sleep. As a result, my grades were miserable Cs and to anyone who witnessed my educational performances, I seemed like a real dunce.

I sat in the back of Chianese’s class near the heater, because I was always cold. Often during the class, I struggled to stay awake, and usually lost the battle. Once, my head tilted back so far that I struck a solid blow to the metal heater grate immediately behind me resulting in a loud gong that echoed throughout the classroom and brought everyone’s attention. Chianese just glared at me.

Even though his class was literature—Victorian and nineteenth century—after we analyzed the text, Chianese would take us off into tangential areas of culture and history. He had this remarkable was of connecting something written 150 years ago to current events happening, quite often, that very day. It was in his class that I recognized the inter-connectedness of all things. Art is not created in a vacuum; critics who believe the work is all that matters are missing key details. History, personal stories, cultural events, current situations all matter within the context of literature. I learned that from Chianese.

I could not see a film, go to a museum, pick up a newspaper, without hearing his voice connecting what I saw with Charles Dickens, or Kate Chopin, or Emily Dickinson. His work in the classroom was a revelation, and even though I appeared to be half-asleep, he changed my world. He made me a teacher, long before I knew I was.

There is a happy ending to this story. In education, the good you do often becomes apparent years later. Some of my teachers are dead now. They have no idea that the sleepy kid in the back of the room turned out to be a passionate teacher. Chianese got a chance to know the good he did all those years ago.

I applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities one summer, and I needed a mentor or guide for my study. Since I would be studying utopias and their presence in literature, and Chianese had written extensively about them, I contacted him to ask him to be my mentor. He was quite surprised when I walked into his office one afternoon. I could tell when he put my face to the name on his answering machine, that I was the last person he expected to see. We had a good talk, and I was finally able to tell him why my performance in his class was underwhelming all those years ago. I did not get the grant, but I was very happy to be able to set the record straight for him and tell him that I had followed in his footsteps and become a teacher.

Therefore, I allow myself the tangents. I believe in the power of the tangent. If we get off track, if we do not finish the lesson in the time allotted, I no longer sweat it. My mentor teacher, a nun, in a Catholic school twenty-one years ago, used to tell me “We teach children, not curriculum.” Experience has demonstrated the truth of her statements.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion wrote. I would add that we tell ourselves stories in order to learn, to appreciate, to feel, to make real. In the classroom, I follow a plan, a curriculum, and I try to do the plan justice. Nevertheless, if a tangent invites me, like the road less traveled, I am likely to take it. One never knows where it my lead, or the connections we might stumble upon, and that might make all the difference.

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