Waiting on Light

This just in from my email:

We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I’ll get to that in a few minutes. Meanwhile, the post I’ve been struggling to finish all week is about how everything is different this year.  I keep saying these words to my students as old books hit this year’s raw nerves in new ways.

A few quick examples:

Tom, in the opening pages of The Great Gatsby, quotes white supremacists and warns about the downfall of the white race. “Oh,” I find myself saying this year, “this sounds just like our president.”

George Murchison, sometime boyfriend of Beneatha in A Raisin in the Sun, tells her to stop thinking. He’s sick of hearing her talk, he says; all she should worry about is looking pretty. Then he bombs in for a kiss she doesn’t want and has to push away. (American Lit refresher–he’s the rich boyfriend. They let you do anything when you’re rich.)

Finally, earlier this week, I pulled out the Ta Nahisi Coates Atlantic essay from a few years back, “The Case for Reparations.” I have my students read excerpts from it to get a sense of how government sanctioned red-lining has kept neighborhoods segregated and prevented African American families from accumulating wealth through home-ownership. It helps them understand that the Younger family isn’t heading into an uncomplicated  “happily ever after” when they move into an all-white neighborhood in Chicago.

Of course, that was different this year, too. Usually when I read that essay, I praise the Congressman who has brought HR40 to Congress every year since the mid-80s. You’ll recognize his name. It’s John Conyers.

Teaching English for seventeen years in a row makes you tired creates an interesting anthropological window into our culture. Ten or fifteen years ago teaching Gatsby, students often didn’t notice Tom’s racism. They would read the first few chapters and come in complaining about how much they couldn’t stand Daisy. After the chapter where Tom hits his mistress and breaks her nose, they would come in talking about how much they didn’t like Myrtle. They somehow didn’t see the big abusive white man hiding in plain site. (OH–I just re-read this and realized what I wrote. None of us saw them, did we? )

Five or so years ago teaching Raisin in the Sun, I would have encountered an earnest young student who argued that Mr. Lindner, the man from the home owner’s association who tries to buy out the Youngers to keep his neighborhood white, was actually being reasonable. After all, Lindner himself assures us, “that race prejudice simply doesn’t enter into it.”

This year, we encountered this scene the day after David Duke, former head of the Ku Klux Klan, praised Donald Trump’s reckless promotion of racist videos. In other words, a man who left the KKK to start his own white supremacist organization is praising POTUS. That’s new.

My students, though, bombed into class calling out Lindner’s hypocrisy before they even sat down. “Hurry up and graduate,” I told them. “You’ve got work to do.”

So, I was trying to figure out what to do with all these  random thoughts about how teaching literature is different this year.  Nobody needs another litany of the past week’s (or weeks’, either works here) horrors, and my trusty old optimism tic seems to be on sabbatical.

I thought I might write a cutesy “Five Things to Do…” essay like all the cool blogs do, but how would I end that sentence? Five things to do while…waiting for a new president? …wondering about nuclear war? …waiting for the next Evangelical pastor to endorse Roy Moore?

And even if I could end that sentence, how could I come up with five things? Who could possibly have five pieces of advice for how to live or love in these times? I’ve been having trouble coming up with one.

And then that Bonhoeffer quote showed up in my in-box.

Forget the cutesy, self-care suggestions. Don’t go for walks in nature. Don’t stop reading the news. Don’t pet a dog or drink tea or make time to relax with friends.

Bonhoeffer gives us advice that just might be hard enough for these hard times.  “Learn to regard people…” he tells us, “in the light of what they suffer.”

My first thought was to end this essay there and let that quote just resonate. Fred wasn’t impressed. “That’s it?” he said, when I stopped reading. “You’re just going to stop there?”

If I had stopped, I would have gotten this essay out into the world before the latest school shooting happened last Thursday, a few hours up the road in Aztec, New Mexico.

I wouldn’t have had to wrestle with the line I keep hearing the students say on tv. I wouldn’t have had to spend even five minutes thinking about just whose suffering Bonhoeffer wants me to attend to.

When I first started teaching, I felt what I think most new teachers or new parents feel–an overwhelming sense that I somehow had to be better than I am. After about ten years in the business world, I knew how to be a professional–I knew how to leave my real, messy self at home and take a shiny, polished version of my life into the office.

Then a few weeks into my teaching career, 9/11 happened. None of us had a shiny, polished version of ourselves ready for that morning.  I had to learn to stand with students in their fear while navigating my own. I had to accept my lack of answers and get busy working on me if I was going to have anything of value to offer my students.

Over the years, I’ve had to keep learning–teaching begs you to be more compassionate, more clear in your thinking, more solid in your knowledge of who you are. It’s never-ending: every year I have to scrub off more pretense, barrel through new fears, crank open my heart wider than I know it can go.

When you are a teacher, I’ve learned, you don’t have that luxury of having a “work” self and “another” self–ready or not, the work calls you into wholeness.

Maybe that’s why I can’t stop thinking about those teachers.  Thursday morning when the immediate danger had passed and the horror remained, they kept trying to protect their students. “Don’t look to the right,” they told them, as they ushered them out of their classroom-turned-bunker, past the body in the hall. I can’t stop thinking about how that walk, about how those words are going to resonate in their lives.

So it turns out, I still don’t know where I’m going with this. Thursday night after I watched the evening news I went to choir practice. It’s advent. We’re singing about waiting for light to be born into a suffering world. It occurs to me that things might not be so different this year.

It occurs to me that on Tuesday when the people of Alabama cast their votes for Senator, we won’t learn anything new about ourselves if Roy Moore wins.

If he loses though, I’ll be thinking about those teachers in Aztec. In that most awful moment, they were still trying to shape how their students see the world. They were betting, I think, on the next day, a day with algebra homework and band and cheerleading practice, a day where no one hears gunshots in the hall.

They were teaching us how to live and love in these times.

Waist deep in suffering, they were making a space for the light to come in.

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