On teaching in an age of mass destruction

I have never not taught in an age of mass destruction.

That statement makes me sound more unique than I am; more than one teacher can make this sad claim. Yet, it is true. I did my student teaching/intern semester the same semester as the Columbine shootings. The year I taught high school was the same year as 9/11. My fifteen years of teaching has been punctuated by Virginia Tech, the 7/7 bombings, two wars, and numerous other school shootings. At some point at the beginning of next term, our college will review our active shooter policies–something I specifically brought up to my department head after the shootings at a community college in Oregon–, and somewhere in the back of my memory is still what to do in the case of an anthrax delivery because I got that training in 2001 as did everyone else in the school system I taught in.

Mostly, I don’t force my students to discuss these issues, particularly if the conversation is far afield from our current lessons. Fifteen years of teaching has taught me that no one reacts the same way to these events, and not everyone wants to discuss them in a classroom setting. It’s hard for me to navigate the conflicting emotions of a such a class when it does come up. In 2001, I spent 9/11 teaching the prologue to the Canterbury Tales. I couldn’t think of anything else to do besides the lesson I had planned. Watching TV was out of the question. I had a classroom in a portable, and the television I had only got one Spanish language channel. Five minutes made me realize that I couldn’t handle watching what was happening, and so I taught in the face of horror.

Yet, even though I mostly likely won’t discuss what happened in Paris this weekend with my students in two of my classes tomorrow, in one of them it is unavoidable since we’re reading Ian McEwan’s 2005 novel Saturday. An homage to both Mrs Dalloway and Howards EndSaturday is one of the first post 9/11 novels. It’s a novel about the aftermath of trauma, of how we both do and don’t see the world differently in the wake of mass terrorism events like 9/11, 7/7, and now Paris. It’s about the broken echoes of culture, about the longing for community, of connectivity with the human race. As one of my students said this weekend, this novel hits too close to home right now. Yet, it’s also about what art, literature, and music can do to heal, to restore. In the improbable turn in the dramatic home invasion sequence–which get to on Thursday–, one of the main characters recites a poem and illuminates the world for one hopelessly broken character. A poem saves them. As the novel repeats, “there is grandeur in this view of life,” a line from Darwin’s The Origin of the Species.

I imagine my 1915 counterpart, a facet of the main character of Saturday’s musings, with a teaching career buttressed by the first modern war in South Africa and a year into the horrors of the First World War, felt much the same way–how do you make literature matter in a world that seems bent on destruction? I don’t have answer to this question, although I believe literature matters deeply. Tomorrow, we’ll spend most of our time on the text itself, on the way McEwan etches out a picture of cosmopolitan family life. But since over half the class plans on teaching, we’ll discuss the fact that they too will be teaching in an era of mass destruction and that they will have to figure out how to navigate such topics when what they really want to do is go get a hug from their mothers and hide under the bed clothes so they can pretend that it’s only a nightmare, a phantasmagoria from the netherworld.



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