Wednesday, February 01, 2017

A List of Names

This year I have been teaching a new American literature course, entitled “Coming to America:  Literature About Immigration.”   To quote my own course description, “In this course we approach America’s literary tradition through the study of fictional and non-fiction narratives that depict the varied experiences of those who came to this land and began new lives – from Northern Europe, Central and Southern Europe, China, India, Mexico, the Caribbean – as well as those who fled here as refugees or were compelled to come here as slaves.”   In the fall term we read from such authors as Charles Simic, Henry Roth, Bharati Mukherjee, Edwidge Danticat, Willa Cather, Olaudah Equiano, Bernard Malamud, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Mary Anne Sadlier, Junot Diaz, Mohja Kahf, Sheri Venema, and Mario Puzo.   In the weeks ahead we’ll be reading Amy Tan, Chang-Rae Lee, Jhumpa Lahiri, David Henry Hwang, Richard Rodriguez, T.C.  Boyle, and Sandra Cisneros.     If I could recommend one piece that we’ve read and studied so far, it would have to be a recent work of long form journalism from the New Yorker:  Kathryn Schulz’s “Citizen Khan,” about a Pakistani immigrant who came to Wyoming in the late 19th century and lived a prosperous but barrier-filled life, a life that reaches into our time and contains in one story all the inspiration, heartbreak, and moral outrage that can be found in our national story of immigration.  

I could go on at length about these texts, but instead (lucky for you) I’m thinking of a single statistic, one I came across as I studied the history of American immigration in order to prepare to teach the course.   A revealing statistic.  Due to a number of factors – mostly severe immigration restrictions imposed in the 1920s that lasted until the mid-60s but also the Great Depression and World War II – the percentage of foreign-born Americans living in the U.S. declined from 15% in 1910 to about 5% in 1970.    That number has ticked back up to 13% today. 

I think those numbers go a long way toward explaining the crisis we’re going through about immigration today.  I was seven years old in 1970, and living in a place that had not been a major destination for immigrants even when the great waves of immigration were at their strongest.   To the best of my recollection, my grade level in school – a few hundred people - contained one kid from Peru and one kid from India.    The rest of us were either white or black.  That was diversity.  That was our international component.    

Reading that 5% statistic and reflecting on my own experience gave me a better handle - I think - on why so many people of my generation are freaked out about the new immigrants.   Other than the coming of the internet, the most dramatic change in the world I’ve seen in my lifetime is the ethnic composition of the community where I live and work.  It is profoundly different.  As much as I would hope that whites of my generation would embrace this new reality and the opportunities it offers, I understand their disorientation.  I have experienced some of it myself.    But too many of us have allowed that disorientation to curdle into fear, a fear that is largely baseless and turns us away from the better angels of our nature, causing us to mistreat people who deserve better from us.

My students of immigration literature are working on essays about the current immigration crisis.  In the instructions for that assignment I wrote, “You will not become experts on immigration policy or refugee resettlement or national security practices, or anything close to it.”  I can say the same thing for myself.     I’m not qualified to make pronouncements about possible economic effects of the wall or the legal intricacies of the executive order or what the theology of my church obliges me to do in this crisis.   But I do sense in the election results and the administration’s haste to impose restrictions an animus toward this generation of immigrants, and that makes me want to say something on their behalf, based only on the immigrants I have known.

I like to save a few cents by reusing manila folders.   Sometimes I purge my overstuffed file cabinet, emptying the contents of a file on some unit I’m never going to teach again and putting the empty folder in a stack I’ll draw from as needed.   Recently I grabbed a newly empty folder for some papers I needed to grade.   When I got home I found a list of names and numbers on the folder, names from an AP English class I taught 20 years ago.   Evidently I had been scoring some essays on Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One and left my gradebook at school so I wrote the names and scores on the folder to be transferred to my gradebook later.     Here are the names (but not the scores).  A roll call of the new America:


Chris                           Ronnie                        Calvin
Mehdi                         Fahd                           Abhi
Sungnam                    Naomi                         Hannah
Danny                         Kajal                           Kim
Leslie                          Sherol                         Sara
Kung                           Tim                             Josephine
Ginny                          Sooyoun                     Christine
Kumida                      Brandon                     Colleen                      


The names were from the mid-nineties, when I was teaching at Meadowcreek High School.   1990s Meadowcreek , serving a lower middle class no man’s land between Norcross and Lilburn, was the harbinger of today’s multi-ethnic Gwinnett County.    It was one of those schools that celebrated an International Day and hung flags in the cafeteria from the many nations of origin that were represented among the student body.   Meadowcreek was not the easiest place to work.  Poverty, transience, and an inability to coalesce as a community often made it hard to get things done there.  The work of teaching could be very difficult, frustratingly so.   But our best faculty were ever mindful of their students' personal struggles, met them where they were, and their frustrations as teachers were tempered with knowledge that, for those with eyes to see it,  there was something special about this school and its students.  Linguistic obstacles hampered many students, but so many of them brought that courageous, striving energy of immigrant families to their endeavors at school.  Lack of a single dominant group gave Meadowcreek an enlivening social fluidity.  No, it was not a place that throbbed with a spirit of kumbayah, and we were not a paragon of educational equity, but there was a lot to appreciate there.  A journalist reporting on the school once described it as being like “a cheerful port city on market day.”   At its best, that’s how Meadowcreek was.    

At Meadowcreek we were always “celebrating our diversity.”  I played along with that idea, but part of me felt that this “celebration” was sort of a consolation prize for us being unable to compete with the county’s more homogeneous and well-to-do schools.   Last in football, last in test scores, but first in . . . number of flags in the cafeteria!   Of course Meadowcreek was never the athletic or academic dead zone so many perceived it to be, but for a long time I privately thought that by trumpeting our diversity so loudly we were kind of conceding that we were losers. I should have known better.   I should have been proud.  Finding that list and seeing those names reminded me why.  As individuals they were delightful, both as young people and as students.  As a group they opened my eyes to the rich possibilities of an ethnically transformed America.  I can’t even connect a face to many of those names, but I’m still in touch with many others.  Several of them are immigrants or children of immigrants.  It is a pleasure to know them.  All in their late thirties now, they've led interesting, exemplary lives.   They may be the main reason I'm teaching "Coming to America" today.  Sadly, some of them have the sort of names that could make them and their families targets of hate or misbegotten policies in our current political climate.  When I think of them, and think of the many, many other immigrant or child-of-immigrant students I got to know at that high school and the two other high schools where I have taught, I’m appalled at the spirit of unwelcome for such people that has taken hold in so many places, especially places of power.   It was not then, nor is it today, a burden to have such people among us.  It was and is a privilege. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Read Like a President

One of the pleasures of teaching where I do is that many of our high school English courses are conceived by faculty members based on personal intellectual interests.   In my time at Paideia I’ve developed and taught courses called “Seriously Funny”  (literary humor), “Literature of the American West”, “Literature in Translation”, “Their Own Drummers" (the central figure in everything we read has to be a pain in the ass – Hamlet, R.P. McMurphy, Walter Lee Younger, and the like), “It’s All True” (American memoir and historical fiction), and “Coming to America” (American literature about immigration – a brand new course this year). 

Most of these courses I’ve taught multiple times, but the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about a course I taught only once, during the 2009-10 school year.  This was Barack Obama’s first year in office, he was widely admired among our students, and published lists of his favorite books hit all the notes we Paideia lit teachers feel like we need to hit when we’re making up a new course:  classic and modern, diverse authorship, a variety of genres, rich and intellectually stimulating, etc.  So from Obama’s favorite books and authors I distilled a list of texts I thought would engage and challenge talented 11th and 12th graders.  I called the course “Read Like a President.”

I remember most of the titles and authors off the top of my head.   Some of the selections were easy.  Obama liked Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.  That novel - the inventively-narrated story of a feckless young African-American’s enlivening discovery of his family’s hidden heritage - would be at home in any high-level high school English course.   The one novel both Obama and McCain called an influence – Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls – would have to be included.  I knew Obama liked Shakespeare, but I don’t recall that he mentioned any specific titles, so I chose Hamlet, because, as Harold Bloom says, “all of Shakespeare is in it:  history, comedy, satire, tragedy, romance.”   Obama expressed a fondness for Doris Lessing’s feminist classic The Golden Notebook, but it weighs in at 600-plus pages and a time suck like that won’t do in a high school course.  So I chose two of Lessing’s short stories about the psychological struggles of women in mid 20th century England:  “To Room Nineteen” and “Our Friend Judith.”    Obama had praised Philip Roth.  Was I going to teach Portnoy’s Complaint to high school students?  Not on your life.   I chose instead Roth’s popular counter-historical novel The Plot Against America.   Obama called Lincoln a favorite writer.   I knew that Lincoln at Gettysburg, Garry Wills’ much-admired book-length explication of the Gettysburg Address, had been one of those books they had all the freshmen read at a couple of prominent universities.    Obama was a fan of James Baldwin.  His “Notes of a Native Son” is widely anthologized in readers used in AP English Comp courses, and, though composed in 1955, many of its passages speak so profoundly to our current situation that they feel as though they could have been written last week.  I remember having my students buy Graham Greene’s Vietnam novel The Quiet American, but we never got around to that one.  There were a few other short pieces (essays and poems) by the likes of Reinhold Niebhur, W.E.B. DuBois, John Donne, Mark Twain, Judith Ortiz Cofer (God rest her soul), William Cullen Bryant, Robert Lowell, Thomas Hardy, and Wilfred Owen.  

I’m proud of that curriculum.   Just on substance (not necessarily my teaching), it might be the best course I’ve ever taught.   Thanks, Obama.

As part of the course description that appeared on my students’ fall term evaluations, I wrote,  “In all my pronouncements about the nature of this course, I expressed a hope that it would be about the literature, not about the President. Though some Obama talk has inevitably entered our discussion, I think we have done a pretty good job keeping the texts front and center. Still, I must say that the first term left me with the impression that whatever else may be said of the President, he has fine taste in literature.”

I’ll stand by that concluding statement today.  Moreover, I want to revisit some of those texts as I contemplate the next few years and the dreadfully bewildering turn our national politics have taken. 

The Plot Against America, though published in 2003, reentered the public mind this year.  In that book Roth vividly imagines a nightmarish “what if” scenario:  in 1940 isolationist Republicans persuade Charles Lindbergh to run for President.  Lindy beats Roosevelt, lets Hitler have his way in Europe, and initiates anti-Semitic policies in the U.S., policies that fall heavily on the young Philip Roth and the family of his childhood.   Some commentators found parallels between the scenario of that novel and Trump’s candidacy.   The day after the election, my mind turned to a particular passage from The Plot Against America, a passage that Roth himself helpfully quoted in a 2004 essay he wrote about the genesis of the novel:

Our lives as Americans are as precarious as anyone else's: all assurances are provisional, even here in a 200-year-old democracy. We are ambushed, even as free Americans in a powerful republic armed to the teeth, by the unpredictability that is history. May I conclude with a quotation from my book? ''And as Lindbergh’s election couldn’t have made clearer for me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as 'History,' harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.''

As chilling (and true, I think) as those words are, there’s something else in that book to remember, something to be inspired by.   Many veteran Roth readers remarked on how in that book, his parents, whom he had mocked and vilified in fiction in the past, become heroic.  Faced with injustice and under horrible pressure, they bear up and resist, even going so far as to put themselves at risk to rescue a neighborhood kid who is far away and in peril.  The fictional Roth says of his fictional father that he was “helplessly bonded to his better instincts and their excessive demands.”  Lord, help me be that sort of person the next four years.

In Lincoln at Gettysburg, Wills analyzes the speech as an example of classical funeral oratory, as an expression of intellectual trends of the Romantic era, as a distillation of ideological principles that Lincoln developed over his entire career, and as an example of brilliantly crafted rhetoric.   In the chapter entitled “Revolution in Thought” Wills thoroughly explores the famous line, “Our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  We know that the document Lincoln quotes was written by a slaveholder and many (myself included) will say we’re not really committed to that proposition even today, but most Americans probably read that line as being uncontroversial.  I know that’s how I have read it.  Even though we’re not yet committed to equality in fact, equality as a principle is routinely accepted as something we know we’re supposed to aspire to as a nation.   A widely accepted proposition.  Not so in Lincoln's time. According to Wills, to fully appreciate what the Gettysburg Address achieved, we have to imagine our way into the 1860s, before the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, when “all men are created equal” was a good line in a letter to King George but nowhere affirmed in the Constitution.   By declaring that principle “our supreme commitment”, Lincoln made what for many was a heretical assertion about the nation’s purpose and the war’s meaning.  As Wills puts it, “By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed.  Because of it, we live in a different America.”  

Why think about that this week?  Lincoln was so unpopular when he came into office that the nation literally split in half.   Trump is deeply unpopular and the nation is certainly divided.  Does that mean I think Trump will pull off something as gloriously transformative as the Gettysburg Address?  Not bloody likely.  The Checkers Speech would be a step up for him.   But it helps to think that in the midst of all the terrible things that may happen in the coming years, there will be visionaries among us who point the way toward living out our ideals.  I want to notice who they are and pay heed to them. 


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And, to conclude, here is Hemingway’s mortally wounded Robert Jordan, lying in wait to strike one last blow against the Spanish fascists before the bell tolls for him:  “The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for."