Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Creature Speaks: Why I Still Teach Frankenstein


“Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous” (Shelley 84).  In the 1800s, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein as the answer to a bet made on a stormy night.  She and several companions told ghost stories and dared each other to come up with the scariest.  Out of Shelley’s tormented personal life, the creature and Victor Frankenstein were born. Why does the modern person still read Frankenstein? While Frankenstein and the creature symbolized Shelley’s own personal life, the modern reader finds him/herself mirrored in the classic pages: the creature speaks for humankind.  
The creature never asked to be “born.” Similarly, society’s “minorities” or “others” do not request minority status, with the accompanying loathing and discrimination. Society created these “creatures” by dictating what is normal and acceptable, thereby, making anyone who falls outside those strictures an outsider. When the creator abhors what he/she created, why would his/her creation not also feel loathing? The creation simply imitates his/her creator: “You tell me I am not normal and, therefore, unacceptable? You tell me I cannot be part of your society or enjoy the same privileges? Then why should I care for you or your world? You turn me into a stereotype, an other, a creature—then I will become how you see me.” When love and acceptance are denied, especially when it is actively sought, humans tend to react antagonistically. Love and kindness can cross all boundaries and turn all society’s “monsters” into humans.
However, when parents cannot or will not embrace their children, those children lash out or act our their negative feelings. If my own parent cannot receive me, how can I accept myself or anyone else—or hope to find acceptance with anyone else? Children may then become violent toward others or themselves. We see this behavior with the creature. His “parent” ran away upon first glimpsing his physically ugly “child.” Victor Frankenstein immediately begins wallowing in self-pity and disappointment the creature did not look or behave exactly the way Victor dreamed. While he occasionally blames himself for the creature’s later actions, Victor spends most of the rest of the novel vacillating between martyrdom and intense hatred for his creation. How many times do parents react the same way about their children? Yes, there are certain tools parents can utilize to raise productive, empathetic people, but children are still going to choose their own paths. They’re going to sometimes behave poorly and make poor decisions and act ugly towards others and on and on; however, by treating them as the embodiment of our hopes and dreams instead of individuals, we risk furthering harming and alienating them. Parents turn their creations into creatures by not seeing them as people worthy of love and respect—not for the accolades they can bring their parents, but rather for simply existing.
Frankenstein still resonates with the modern reader because the Creature symbolizes everyone who has been marginalized: Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, homosexuals, women—everyone. If one believes in God, He lovingly created all. Is He the type to simply create something, then throw it away or ignore it? No. Humans push aside the creation based on shallow reasons: skin color, religious differences, and sexual preferences. Those reasons are just as simplistic and ludicrous as society fearing and loathing the Creature because of his hideous appearance. They refused to look past that façade and see the beauty burning within. Humans continue to perpetrate this travesty. Humans refuse to look past the minor differences and find the beauty inherent in most other humans. We may not believe in the same form of God, but that does not negate my belief God loves us all. We may not have the same skin color or speak the same language, but that does not negate God loves us all. You may choose someone of the same gender with which to have a relationship, but that does not negate God loves us all. Humanity’s weaknesses magnify the differences between us. Looking for reasons to discard people becomes much easier than looking for reasons to accept them. God did not tenderly and thoughtfully form humans and throw them away when they became ugly—even though He knew they would become hideous. Instead, He looks past the exterior and sees the heart. As beings created in His image, we should strive to emulate our creator. There, and only there, is where one may find true, lasting beauty.
Every chance I get, I will continue teaching Frankenstein because it can still speak to a modern audience. With public shaming, bullying, and discrimination seemingly on the rise, our society needs to listen to the Creature. He represents every person society pushes to the fringes; he represents every child seen as not good enough by society; he represents every human made to feel ugly and unlovable. As Mary Shelley quotes in her book, “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould me man?” (Paradise Lost, X, 743-744). The creature did not ask to be molded, but it lay in Victor’s hands to help him on a path to creativity or a path to destruction. Victor chose irresponsibility and hatred, which paved the way to his and the creature’s destruction. As parents, educators, and citizens, we also have that power. If society continues to destroy each other, we can only blame ourselves, not our “creatures.” 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Wordsworth's "The World is Too Much With Us"

The World Is Too Much With Us BY WILLIAM WORDSWORTH

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

I asked a trusted colleague of mine if I should use some of my blogs to share my passion and thoughts on the literature I have taught (sometimes for many years). He thought it would be a interesting (is that positive or negative connotation?) idea. Who knows if I’ll have an audience, but I’ll try pushing my thoughts into the ether. Any analysis I write is distilled from my own reading and interpretation, my college classes, my conversations with others, and research I do to make sure I’m “right” (when I’m stuck).

The following essay is one I wrote as an example for students. I gave myself the same time limit they had—I think it was 45 minutes this time. While I typed it for safe-keeping, I kept the typos since it was a first draft. Students were able to talk to each other and annotate the prompt ahead of time, so I did the same. I’ve read this poem many times, but, for some reason, this year I had an epiphany. This is my interpretation of Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much With Us.”

Return to Nature
            “Great God!” interjects William Wordsworth in his sonnet “The World is Too Much With Us,” a poem exploring the issue foremost in a Romantic’s mind: how to extract oneself from the world and draw closer to nature.  Wordsworth uses the formality of the sonnet form and his language to lend a serious tone to the issue, but his passion spills forth in his diction and use of figurative language.
            The form of the sonnet lends structure and formality to any topic.  In the octave, Wordsworth spells forth the issue: man does not turn to nature as a source of strength; rather, man simply sees nature as a source for goods.  He rapes nature of her bounty and preoccupies himself with “Getting and spending.” Man sees “Little…in Nature that is ours.” While these statements seem melodramatic, they adequately sum up the reactionary attitude of the Romantics during the nineteenth century.  Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, man was thrust from a mostly agrarian society into a largely industrial and suburban one.  Society began redefining itself.  City populations seemed to explode overnight—those explosions brought rises in poverty, filthy living conditions, and crime.  How does one find time to appreciate nature when one must fight for every morsel of food, or when one must slave away at a low-paying job just to support ones family?  As more factories spill pollutants into the air, how does one draw a clean breath, much less pause to notice as the “Sea bares her bosom to the moon”?  Instead, man is “out of tune” with nature.  Nature “moves us not”.  Society removed itself from the source of inspiration, imagination, and truth…without a source, how does man find direction for his life?    
            In the sestet, Wordsworth addresses that question: How does man find direction since he has turned from nature?  He shifts his focus from “us” to “I”: his answer is to throw off the shackles of modern society and return to a simpler state.  He provides this answer in the middle of line 9.  The reader sees a dash followed by “Great God!” This dash feels like a mental inhalation before his passionate exclamation.  Wordsworth clearly and formally states his issue in the octave, but after he states his case, he explodes into the sestet.  His ardor for Nature and all she offers rushes forth in a torrent of words: “I’d rather be/A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn.” Wordsworth would rather return to older, seemingly outdated beliefs and practices so that he might “Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn.” He goes on to allude to Proteus and Triton, two Greek gods.  These allusions illuminate another Romantic characteristic: looking to the distant past.  Technology can lead to a brave new world, but one cannot forget the knowledge of the past.  In addition, one should not view nature with a jaded or greedy eye—one should still be able to see nature with a Romantic, simplistic soul, to see “Proteus rising from the sea” instead of seeing only the rich resources one can glean from the ocean.  In society’s quest for evolution, mankind should never forget to stand “on a pleasant lea” and simply listen to “old Triton blow his wreathed horn.”
Wordsworth begins his sonnet with a formal tone, but his passion for his subject bursts forth in the sestet.  His poem shows one man’s solution to the overwhelming problem facing modern society: failure to truly appreciate nature.  

Friday, October 9, 2015

I'm Not a Hero

I just finished a pre-K teacher’s article about lockdown drills (“Rehearsing for Death,” Launa Hall, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/rehearsing-for-death-a-pre-k-teacher-on-the-trouble-with-lockdown-drills/2014/10/28/4ab456ea-5eb2-11e4-9f3a-7e28799e0549_story.html). She wrote on choosing her words carefully to communicate the import yet not terrify her tiny students, students we hope still retain a shred of innocence. Hall focuses on her diction when talking to her students, using “activity” and not “game” to convey a more serious tone. Not saying “police” because “some little kids find police officers scary, and I can’t risk introducing tears.” She also doesn’t use “quiet” for fear students will “shush” each other. She doesn’t need quiet for these drills; she needs silence: “As silent as children who aren’t there at all.” She then recounts an atypical lockdown drill. She discusses the importance of body language and following protocol. She paints a vivid picture of cramming “16 tiny bodies” and two adults into a closet. She ends with a powerful couple paragraphs about lockdown drills focusing on the wrong issue: “It’s time to stop rehearsing our deaths and start screaming” about gun control.

Of course as I read the article, I vividly imagined the tiny babies crammed into a closet and silently awaiting a potential shooter, but as a teacher of 11+ years, I also thought of my own large babies—and how my classes run 20-32 students.

I have taught 8th-12th grade and participated in many, many drills: tornado, fire, lockdown. I have learned protocols and code words for three different schools. I have learned to walk into my classroom each year (and I’ve have many different rooms) and immediately mentally assess furniture placement and how that will affect my students during drills—and where I can pack their bodies.

For fire drills, we simply try to file out the nearest door and congregate in one place so I can insure they all make it out. In two of my schools, I was almost always the last one out so I could sweep the bathrooms and watch for stragglers.

And, I silently and selfishly pray I’ll never actually have to be the last one out in a real fire. I think of my own family dependent on me. I also think of the new limitations lupus has placed on my physical abilities.

For tornado drills, I watch my large athletes sitting with their backs to me as they ludicrously try to make themselves too small for a tornado to swallow them whole. I make eye contact with my fellow teachers as we stand and pace the halls to ensure our students have assumed the position. We also try to maintain order and quiet in the midst of teens who are weary of the drills, who are bored of the routine, and who make jokes to hide the fact they know tornados are a reality in our state. As I look at my comrades in arms, we all silently acknowledge our standing and pacing puts us at the most risk—we also know our hallways are not truly safe. I personally know my 5’5”, 119 lb frame would never be able to shield all my children. Most of them outweigh me and are taller than I. Sure, I can separate them when they fight (many times just by raising my voice), but how do I save them from a force of nature?

And again, I silently and selfishly pray I’ll never actually have to throw myself over them in a tornado. I think of my own family and my physical limitations. I recognize my mental toughness but my physical weakness.

For lockdown drills, the reality is even more sobering. I have had at least three rooms with an entire wall of external windows (one the 1st floor; one on the second, with a building of equal height within shooting distance and facing my room; one on the 3rd floor). I have had to coldly calculate how many students could fit under and behind my desk and how many could fit behind a barricade of student desks. I have had to look at my students and logically plan how to pack them into a corner for maximum protection. I have had to ruthlessly threaten them for making noise and not taking this seriously. I know teens tend to have an invincibility complex, but I have read books (fiction and nonfiction) about shootings. I know way too many real-life examples. The names of towns and schools run through my mind as I coldly tell my students to stay down and stay quiet. I’m good in crises (so far), but I also shut down emotion. I cannot spare feelings when I have to ponder if I would actually throw myself in front of my students and face down a shooter. Would I really die for these children? I do love them, but what about my own family? What about my own life?

Finally, I silently and selfishly pray I’ll never actually have to stare down the barrel of a gun and choose between my life and my students’. I remember my family and my physical limitations. I feel gutless and cowardly for not delusionally and perkily stating I would lay down my body and life for my students. I’m too much a calculated realist.

I love teaching; I’ve said that many times. But, while I figuratively kill myself making sure my students are prepared for their futures, making sure they leave my class with more knowledge and maybe more wisdom and empathy, I don’t think I should have to entertain the scenario of laying down my life for them. Why should I have to weigh the value of their lives over my own child’s—and my life? I don’t want to be a hero. I simply want to teach.

Honestly, I have no idea how I would react in any of these situations. I am only human, and too many factors keep me from knowing I’d be a hero. I am only a teacher, which is everything and nothing.