Picking Up Snakes

Jeff - Edwardsville, Illinois
Entered on February 18, 2009

Picking Up Snakes

A couple springs ago, when my youngest daughter was just two, we were outside enjoying the first real warm day of the season. She hopped around the grass collecting a bouquet of tiny purple flowers which had erupted all over the yard. We stumbled upon two thin garter snakes out enjoying the warmth, too. Jaelyn lit out after them and surely would have picked them up to add to her flower collection. I stopped her, though, grabbing a handful of shirt and saying, “Whoa, whoa. Don’t pick them up, honey.” The snakes still wore a winter sluggishness and stayed so we could watch them. “Look at their tongues,” Jaelyn pointed. She took another step toward them and they scurried down a crayfish hole.

Instead of a garter snake, I’m afraid my daughter may have picked up my squirmy fear of them. Raising two girls continually forces for me the question, how do we know what we know? I believe we negotiate our place in the world through language. It is the reptilian tongue we flick out into space to see what sticks, to assure ourselves that we are here and that we matter.

I have started asking my high school students this same question, “How do you know what you know?” An answer we return to over and over, sometimes only implicitly, is that we know what we know because of the stories we are told, because of the stories we tell. Language. Words. This is at once both a disconcerting truth and a powerfully hopeful truth. Writer Barry Lopez acknowledges this power of story when he writes, “Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader; each story, in the end is social. Whatever a writer sets down can harm or help the community of which he or she is a part.” Failure to understand that we know what we know because of story is to risk being victimized by propaganda. Either you are with us, we are told, or you are with the terrorists. Language can divide especially when some stories are ignored, some voices silenced. Therefore, we have a significant responsibility to tell our own stories and to fight for those whose stories are being muted.

Seniors in my advanced composition and literature class read Richard Wright’s novel Native Son last year. To culminate our reading of the book, we invited a few local university professors to participate in a round table discussion of the book, its protagonist Bigger Thomas, and the social issues Richard Wright attacks. As wonderful as our guests were and for all the novel’s merits and flaws, the real stars of that afternoon were the students. Some kids who’d not made a peep all semester told compelling stories about the effects of loneliness, fear, and despair in their own lives—about being the only black student in a private elementary school, about the many blockades some students have to overcome in order to access the best classes and teachers in their school.

Though the stories were often filled with pain, it was an expression of pain, a release, a healing. Further, we as a group started the process of thinking about what we know about the American Dream and how unfair that ideal may be for some. Bigger Thomas could have done everything right, worked hard for Mr. Dalton. He was never going to be a pilot. No matter how hard some people work, they’ll never achieve their dreams. This is not the narrative we’ve grown up with. New stories are needed, new definitions of wealth and happiness. What happens, Langston Hughes wondered, to dreams deferred?

This spring my girls and I were again in the yard. We pulled weeds along the foundation of our house. Wormed in against the foundation, we found another garter snake, a tiny one. I wasn’t going to let this one escape down any hole. And though I may have looked like the Crocodile Hunter with a black mamba, I eventually picked up the snake. She coiled up in my palm flicking out a vivid red and black tongue. The girls pet her gently. We set her back against the house and slithered inside to tell mom. I believe we need to continue picking up snakes and telling the stories!