Human beings are products of their experiences. Good or bad–we cannot avoid the affects of our life experiences. Whether it is a visceral life occurrence or a vicarious experience, we are not impermeable static beings. Instead, we are constantly evolving as a result of our consciousness and capacity to learn and to grow. Most importantly, this learning and personal growth is a result of self-discovery: this I believe.
Growing up in a middle class suburban home, the inherited script was clear. My blue-collar, skilled tradesman father was going to provide his children with the opportunities that he never had or die trying. There existed this undertone that my father believed his life to be a failure because of his work status and that he was determined to protect his children from experiencing the same painful realization in their lives. And so it was prescribed: work hard, do well in school, go to college, succeed, and you will be happy. It seemed straightforward enough to me, and for my father, there could not have been a better promise for the future. The way he saw it, you only needed to have the determination–believing this to be a good (if not a fair) proposition and instilling this value deep within his children.
Still, early in my teaching career, this philosophy conflicted with another deeply ingrained part of my being: my literary experiences. I remembered Holden Caulfield– disillusioned with a corrupt Post-Modern world. I remembered Biff Loman– betrayed by his inherited script. I remembered Jay Gatsby–blind to the illusory nature of the American Dream. And then, a breakthrough. In spite of what I had been taught, there was no guarantee that hard work and determination would result in success–let alone happiness. My first two years of teaching were consumed by what to me was the single most profound realization of the century: the American dream to which my father and so many others subscribed was a myth. I could teach my students this, and they would never have to suffer from the same delusional fate. I would become “the catcher in the rye” by arming them with this wisdom and by saving them from the corrupt and morally bankrupt wolf at their doors. I would teach them about Willy and Biff Loman, about the perilous nature of pursuing fool’s gold and of not knowing who you are. I would tell them the story of Gatsby and teach them about “what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams.”
After two years of empassioned lectures and sophistaticated discussions, something finally occurred to me; I had made a terrible mistake. Teaching from this lens was not for my students’ benefit like I had originally intended, it was for my own. I had lost sight of the fundamental truth about learning: it is about self-discovery. Salinger, Miller, Fitzgerald–they knew this. But like every valuable experience worth carrying with you in life, I had to discover it for myself.
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