On the first day of the class, I write these words on the board: Love, Sex, God, and Death. I then turn and say, “Welcome to Survey of Literature 101. These four words are the common thread between human beings who huddled around a fire in a cave and those of you who sit in this room.”
Now, I realize most of my students are thinking to themselves, “Wow, this is what college is going to be like. The teachers write SEX on the board. Cool.” But that is only the initial response. Before the semester is over, they are convinced. Eternal verities exist. There are truths and passions and questions that link humanity together. The world shrinks down to a classroom where we collectively enter into another’s doubts, another’s fears, and another’s joy.
My students read Maxine Hong Kingston and enter into a Chinese village where an adulterous woman is ostracized and known as No Name Woman. They enter Raymond Carver’s blue collar neighborhoods where alcoholism stunts and ruins lives. We read Maya Angelou and read of a white dentist who claims he would rather put his hand into a dog’s mouth than into an African-American child’s mouth. And Wayne Johnson writes of the demeaning isolation suffered by a Native American boy whose humiliation becomes untenable and ends in a blow of a baseball bat.
There is no way a dominant culture can understand a minority culture from observation on the outside. No sound bite, no brief encounter, no drive-by glimpse will teach us what it is we need to know. We need inside information and in lieu of a lifetime Peace Corps commitment (not such a bad idea), the next best thing we can hope for is a voice from inside and a recording of that voice for all time. Literature.
C.S. Lewis said we read to know that we are not alone. And that’s what has happened to my students. “Everyone should have to take this class,” they’ve said again and again at the semester’s end. They live in Iowa in 2007. They often drive broken-down, $500 cars, some have husbands who beat them, others know of meth labs in the neighborhood where they raise their children, and almost always someone they love has died and left them sleepless and self-medicating. Somehow knowing that we aren’t the first human beings to cross the great plains of uncertainty is comforting. We have it on record that others wavered along their journey, but these strangers in another place and sometimes century, ultimately made it. They survived and left a monument.
Literature is the human record which links us with those who came before and those who will follow. “So write your own story,” I tell my students on the last day of class. “No one else will ever see the world the way you do. You owe it to others to say: I’ve come this far. And I expect to go further still.” This I believe.
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