Friday, April 20, 2007

"Human Barometer" or My Students' Sadness

I'm not sure how I failed to realize how difficult it would be to teach Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close this week.

The novel deals with the coping strategies of a nine-year old boy, Oskar Schell, who has lost his dad to the collapse of the Trade Towers on 9/11, and his heartbreaking musings are woven with the first-person narratives of his grandparents, who escaped Nazi Germany and survived the Dresden bombings.

He's a precocious narrator, and some of my students found him a bit unbelievable. He's a vegan. And he knows about Susan Sontag. He's an atheist who argues with is mother that his father does not have a spirit, but only "cells":

"He had cells, and now there on rooftops, and in the river, and in the lungs of millions of people around New York, who breathe him every time they speak!"

His wisdom is hard to bear, hard to believe.

At any rate, one of the really interesting aspects of the novel is that Oskar didn't "witness" the falling of the Towers, and because he's not allowed to watch television, he's been largely protected from the media coverage of the day. But he comes home early from school that day, he hears a series of phone messages from his father, who calls from the Tower.

This "deferred" experience of the day--and the many images he collects in his scrapbook of Stuff That Happened to Me illustrates his removed "experience" of the day. And it reminds me of how we tend, these days, to "experience" what we see, even if we have not been touched by it, first hand.

It's like how those of us who evacuated before the storm nonetheless felt we "experienced" it via the images we saw on TV, via the nightmares we still have, via its aftermath; how those of us who have read about Cho, have watched the footage aired, have taught or attended college classes this week feel somehow impacted, ourselves. We feel injured by our knowledge. Even when our experience is not first-hand.

So I'm thinking about all of this before class, and I'm trying to find a way to teach this text--with its non-linear plot, its media and pop-culture references, its thick sadness. I write chapter summaries that don't help. I read reviews that do nothing for me. I panic a bit: how the f-- am I going to teach this book?

I'm a much better writing teacher than I am a lit-teacher. Because I have "affairs" with books, I don't particularly like the idea of deconstructing them in literary terms. I rarely use terms like "theme," "plot," "point of view," etc. when I teach. I ask questions like, "How would you describe Oskar to one of your friends?" or, "When you put this book down, did you want to pick it back up again or not?" It makes for some strange classes, but I like to think that my students benefit from this approach. It's an intro course designed for non-majors, after all. And in not separating them from the text through lofty discussions of craft, I like to think that I get them interested in simply engaging with a story--in losing themselves in a book.

I don't always succeed.

Yesterday I was afraid to have my students "lose themselves" in Extremely Loud... particularly after the events of the week. As I prepared, I found myself coming up with "sanitary" questions of the exact sort that I ordinarily avoid. "What themes does the novel address?" "Where can we see foreshadowing used?" Ugh.

Finally, I realized that I simply needed to "go there."

And when I came across the website for the American Theatre's Literature to Life program, which offers teaching materials designed to accompany the stage-version of the novel, I decided to use a classroom activity called the "Human Barometer":

'Distribute small strips of paper to the students and have them write down at least two things that they have encountered in life which make them sad; they should write each thing on a separate piece of paper. Encourage the students to think of things that are unique to them; they should be descriptive and detailed in writing them down. Collect the strips of paper and gather them into a hat or a basket. Clear out the room of desks and explain to the students that the classroom and their movements within it will now represent a "human barometer." Explain that one side of the room will represent "very sad," the opposite side will represent "not at all sad," and the middle will represent "somewhat sad. Explain that you will read off their strips of paper one at a time and that they should place themselves on the "human barometer" according to how the statement affects them. Begin to read off the statements, allowing time for the students to move. Encourage them to think critically about the degree of sadness that the statement evokes in them'

But first:

When I arrived at class, my students seemed beleaguered, already. They had to turn in a paper, so I'd expected that. I began by mentioning how it seemed somehow both appropriate and awful that our discussion of the novel came after the shootings, and I shared a bit of my own feelings about the week.

"I don't know about you all, but being in a classroom this week. I've made the mistake of paying attention to the news this week, and of course the shootings have been all over, so teaching--and an English classroom at that--has been kind of strange. When I learned that Cho was an English major and that his teachers had recognized troubling signs in his writing (and, by the way, I made the mistake of reading his plays: bad), I just couldn't help thinking about what that must have been like. And then it's somehow not that hard to imagine because we see it all over the TV and the newspaper, and we hear his voice and the cell-phone recordings of the bullets, and we watch him stare us down in his 'self-portrait with gun' and we can imagine it, somehow, easily, if we try. I mean, it was a classroom, like this one, maybe, who knows, and it was a class, like this one. And so I'm teaching and I'm thinking about how my students feel, and what they are thinking, and I'm looking at the doors and the windows in the room and thinking, 'Gosh, how would I get out,' and 'Gee, I wonder if I can lock that door,' and then I realize that I'm in a classroom, you know. I mean how messed up is it that we think about these things in a classroom?"

Eric, one of my favorite students chimes in, "Well we're just on the second floor here so it wouldn't be too far to jump."

We all laugh, uncomfortably.

"Anyway," I say. "That's just how I've been feeling. And today I got an email from the UNO administration with an attachment containing 'discussion ideas' which I suppose I am supposed to use..."

I read: "Acknowledge the event: introduce the opportunity by briefly acknowledging the tragic event and suggesting that it might be helpful to share personal reactions."

No one says anything at first. Then Mike, whom I can always count on to talk (sometimes too much) says, "I mean, this idea that this has something to do with our society or something is ridiculous. This guy was no different that the guy who holed himself up in the tower at UT. He was psychotic, and that's not new; it's been happening for a long time."

Brandy: "But it's not the same because he was younger. It's like they keep getting younger."

We go on like this for a while, and then one of my students says something I've heard a couple of times this week: "I'm surprised it didn't happen here first. I mean, after the storm and all."

John: "Yeah, and in Louisiana, like everyone and their granddad has a gun."

We do the gun-control debate, and not surprisingly, in the Sportsman's Paradise, none of the students sees a connection.

We talk about the University's plan to "text message" us in the event of a similar event. None of us is encouraged. We talk about how in New Orleans, we never feel really safe and so we just kind of go on. "It's almost like we're used to this by now," a student says, and I say, "How sad." I ask if anyone has anything else they'd like to add, and then Omar, my Saudi student who rarely speaks unless called upon asks, "May I ask how he was able to purchase the gun?" Someone explains the brief background check and we all kind of sigh, collectively.

"Sadness" served at the segue to the "Human Barometer" activity. I explained that I didn't really know how to avoid indulging in a bit of sadness as we discussed the novel, so I'd planned a "weird" activity. "Humor me," I said.

We performed the exercise, and it went better than I could have imagined. They all were engaged in the activity, and they even said they "liked it." Afterwards, we took a break, and then we came back and talked about the novel as an illustration of a young boy coping with his own sadness. It still wasn't the best of discussions--this class as a whole has never quite "turned on," which I suspect may be partly due to its being held from 7-10 pm and many of my students' having full-time jobs.

At any rate, I thought I'd share Oskar's sadness, which I read aloud before the activity, and then my students':

Oskar Schell in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close:

'The next morning I told Mom I couldn't go to school again. She asked what was wrong. I told her, "The same thing that's always wrong." "You're sick?" "I'm sad." "About Dad?""About everything."She sat down on the bed next to me, even though I knew she was in a hurry. "What's everything?" I started counting on my fingers: "The meat and dairy products in our refrigerator, fist fights, car accidents, Larry--" "Who's Larry?" "The homeless guy in front of the Museum of Natural History who always says 'I promise it's for food' after he asks for money." She turned around and I zipped her dress while I kept counting, "How you don't know who Larry is, even though you probably see him all the time, how Buckminster just sleeps and eats and goes to the bathroom and has no raison d'etre, the short ugly guy with no neck who takes tickets at the IMAX theater, how the sun is going to explode one day, how every birthday I always get at least one thing I already have, poor people who get fat because they eat junk food because it's cheaper . . ." That was when I ran out of fingers, but my list was just getting started, and I wanted it to be long, because I knew she wouldn't leave while I was still going. ". . .domesticated animals, how I have a domesticated animal, nightmares, Microsoft Windows, old people who sit around all day because no one remembers to spend time with them and they're embarrassed to ask people to spend time with them, secrets, dial phones, how Chinese waitresses smile even when there's nothing funny or happy, and also how Chinese people own Mexican restaurants but Mexican people never own Chinese restaurants, mirrors, tape decks, my unpopularity at school, Grandma's coupons, storage facilities, people who don't know what the internet is, bad handwriting, beautiful songs, how there won't be humans in fifty years--" "Who said there won't be humans in fifty years?" I asked her, "Are you an optimist or a pessimist?" She looked at her watch and said, "I'm optimistic." "Then I have some bad news for you, because humans are going to destroy each other as soon as it becomes easy enough to, which will be very soon." "Why do beautiful songs make you sad?" "Because they aren't true." "Never?" "Nothing is beautiful and true."'

My students' sadness:

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