Ask most English teachers what their favorite book is and you’re near sure to find them silent, lost in ecstasy as classic titles float through their heads. Not this one, though. Without question, my favorite book is Les Miserables. And like the humble bishop in my favorite book, I believe in silver candlesticks.
Silver candlesticks are choices rooted in love that I make to be kind instead of turning the thieving Jean Valjeans of the world back over to the police squad. I teach high school English, and high schools are populated by many self-centered, what-can-the-the-world-do-for-me teenagers who are so because too few people have offered them the glow of a lit silver candlestick. I believe that anyone—high schoolers included—who experiences an act of unsuspected kindness given from a loving heart is changed. That particular anyone might not show it in the here and now; he might even take my candlesticks and run. But I trust that after he has experienced the glow of silver candlesticks, somewhere along the way, he’ll pass the light on to someone else.
My grandmother hasn’t read my favorite book, but she knows all about silver candlesticks: she has a heart capable of loving everyone. I’ve watched her meet coarse, angry workers in the grocery store deli; her brand of hello must be a candlestick itself because those terse workers smile at her and say “what can I get you, dear?” People whom she has never met walk up to her in waiting rooms and reveal their secret pains, and she listens purposefully. I think they know she believes in silver candlesticks. You see those little, seemingly meaningless actions that are the results of kindness and love are silver candlesticks that tell us we are loved by someone else.
After reading Les Miserables, my students take up Hugo’s call to help their fellow man by volunteering themselves to some humanitarian cause. They gripe and complain about being “forced to volunteer,” but they come back to me with renewed spirits after having helped someone else. One student last term walked in with a smile on his face the day their volunteer recap papers were due. He asked me if he could share his experience. He gave himself to a church function and got to make little kids laugh. That kind of sharing was important to him because he realized that he could make the world a little bit better by just showing someone kindness and love. My students realize that they, too, can be Hugo’s bishop carrying and sharing silver candlesticks with the world around them by simply loving it and offering a candlestick when someone’s in need. And when they do, they realize that the world changes a little bit for the better.
Some literary enthusiasts attack Hugo for his humanitarian idealism. Not this one, though. My grandmother and students wouldn’t either. We’ve seen too many lives changed by loving acts of kindness. Yes, I—no, scratch that: we–believe in silver candlesticks.
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