Thursday, October 29, 2009

Our Place In The World

“…but what I remember most is Mango Street, sad red house, the house I belong but do not belong to.”Sandra Cisneros
The House On Mango Street

I am blessed with some great ninth grade English students. Sure, they are struggling to achieve in their first English Honors course, but we have some great discussions. They have things to say, opinions to share, and they think. There is not enough of that going on in the world anymore.

We are reading Sandra Cisneros’ The House On Mango Street, a slim volume that is more poetry than prose, and is actually below their reading level, but rich in content and insight into what it is like to be different, to be in the early teenage years, and to witness the emptiness and desolation of difficult circumstances, to be filled with regret for missed opportunities, or worse, opportunities that never materialize.

Cisneros’ characters are trapped, and her voice in the novel is Esperanza, a fiercely brave young girl who wants more from life than her circumstances offer and has a ringside seat for the disappointments and tragedies of failed dreams.

Esperanza tells us that she wants “Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.” After living her life in the crowded house on Mango Street, she dreams of a home of her own, where she can be an individual, where no one will mess with her, or take her things, and she can write and read and think. Esperanza is a different character from her friends and family. Over and over again in the novel we see the futility of empty lives.

There is Marin whose boyfriend is in Puerto Rico. She is more worldly and experienced than Esperanza and “knows lots of things.” The things Marin knows are about sex, and what a girl must do to get attention from boys. She smokes cigarettes and wears short skirts. But the real heartbreak comes in the last lines. “Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life.”

There is her father “who wakes up tired in the dark” for another day of work. But today, Esperanza’s grandfather has died. It is the first time she has seen her papa cry.

The last chapter always nails me in the heart. “Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes.” Esperanza talks of leaving Mango Street, of getting out and into the world, leaving the past behind. “I like to tell stories,” she says. “I tell them inside my head. I tell them after the mailman says, Here’s your mail. Here’s your mail he said.” Cisneros has the lilting rhythms of Dr. Seuss, of children’s poetry. “I like to tell stories. I am going to tell you a story about a girl who didn’t want to belong.”

We are all the people we have ever been. Wordsworth’s great line: “The child is the father of the man.” All the places we have lived, all the disappointments, the triumphs, the days of bearing witness, and the nights of fevered dreams, they are what make us. Esperanza speaks of this theme. She traces the litany of all the places she has lived. “I put it down on paper,” she tells us, “and then the ghost does not ache so much. I write it down and Mango says goodbye sometimes. She does not hold me with both arms. She sets me free.”

My students are Armenian-American. They are searching for a way to remain Armenian while also becoming part of American society. They have, quite literally, a foot in each world, split like a compass straddling a circle. Many of their relatives and their Armenian teachers tell them to remember: culture, food, language, history and values. But the pull of America is strong, the pressure of peers, the desire to fit in, even stronger. I feel for them and empathize with their plight. To assimilate is to fail their elders; to remain isolated from American culture is self-defeating. Which way to go?

So they connect with Esperanza. They see their own future journeys in her desire to escape from Mango Street to find her home in the world. I share with them my own conundrum: I had to sever the ties with my family in order to find myself. The cost is loneliness, guilt, regret. But to not break away is to remain trapped, like so many characters in the novel.

Cisneros says it best in the closing lines of the book: “They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.”

We are all looking for our place in the world. I watch my students struggle with this, make mistakes, suffer the pangs of anger and disappointment. They push back against the forces that try to hold them close. They must leave, if only to gain some distance, some perspective. It is only by leaving that one can have any hope of finding a way back.

We must, in the end, be fearless. We must trust the journey to bring us home.

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