Teaching A Lesson Before Dying: Part 3

April 7, 2012

A Lesson Before Dying

Returning to our discussion of Gaines’ Lesson, I said that, even as they prepare the final version of their Salesman papers, they would need to draw on their journaling to begin planning their essays on Gaines’ novel.  To help them begin this process, I passed out their assignment sheet, which featured the following subjects as possible focuses for their essays:

  • The effects of racism on the American justice system
  • The relationship of liberty to literacy
  • The love story of Vivian and Grant
  • Grant: the man and the teacher
  • Jefferson: His transformation from “hog” to man
  • Reverend Ambrose, Grant, and the dynamics of faith and doubt
  • The women in Gaines’ novel

I then suggested that we spend our last hour talking about approaches to one or two of these overlapping subjects, focusing particularly on chapters 20-31, the ones we had not discussed.  By common consent, we began with “Grant: the man and the teacher.”  Reminding students that we saw a new Grant emerging at the end of our last session, I asked what evidence they saw of Grant’s effective teaching.  Kadrije mentioned the radio that Grant bought for Jefferson and his defense of this purchase in a confrontation with Reverend Ambrose, who calls it a “sin box” (181).  “So how can we consider a radio a teaching device?” I asked Kadrije.  She responded by reading key quotes from Grant’s defense:  “I found a way to reach him for the first time….He wants something of his own before he dies….The only thing that keeps him from thinking he is not a hog is that radio” (182, 183).

After commending Kadrije on her insights and evidence, I asked if anyone else could uncover some effective teaching that emerges, rather ironically, from his conflict with Reverend Ambrose.  “You recall,” I said, “that Ambrose wants Grant to teach Jefferson to pray, to kneel; Grant refuses, saying that he has tried to teach him to stand.  But what kinds of teachings does Grant share with Jefferson in the meetings that follow?”  Edita answered, referring to Grant’s lesson about heroism, his teaching Jefferson to be a hero; she then read some key quotes from the lesson: “A hero does for…people he loves because he knows it would make their lives better….You could give something to Emma, to me, to those children in the quarter” (191).  “Can you tell me what Grant has to say about Mr. Farrell’s slingshots?” I asked her.  “It’s a metaphor,” Edita explained; “Farrell turns rough wood into a beautiful slingshot handle; he wants Jefferson to “decide to become something else” (193).  “And what irony does this lesson have, given Grant’s recent fight with the Reverend?”  “Grant speaks like a pastor, teaching about love,” Edita answered.  “And what does Grant tell Jefferson as they walk around the day-room, Jefferson in shackles?”  Edita answered with another quotation from Grant: “I think it’s God that makes people care for people” (223).  Naturally, I had lots of praise for Edita, too.

Delighted by these insights, I asked the class what other brilliant teaching idea Grant has just before he begins this ‘sermon’ about love.  Several answered with “the pencil and diary.”  I then asked how this teaching strategy works, and how it relates to the “liberty and literacy” subject on their assignment sheet.  “What do we learn about Jefferson from his journaling, besides the obvious fact that he had minimal literacy skills?  What does he write about?”  These questions led to an array of answers: Jefferson’s dream about the execution, his feeling that God “just work for wite folks” (227), his gratitude to his teacher, his tearful response to the children who bring him pecans and kisses and marbles, the kisses he gives to Emma at her last visit, his admission that he “been shakin an shakin but im gon stay strong” (233).  I then asked what they would call a person who admits his fears but faces them, a person who can show tenderness to children, compassion for his godmother, and gratitude to the man who made him “think im somebody” (232).  Several answered instantly: “a man.”  “Yes,” I responded, “so what does Gaines suggest here about the power of writing?  Jefferson still wears chains, he still will die, but what has he achieved?”  “Freedom,” Fidan said.  “He has escaped the ‘hog’ identity.”

Thanking the class for their thoughtful responses, I encouraged them, as they began to draft on their chosen subject, to think about blending a critical theory or theories with their analysis.   For example, I noted that the subject of Jefferson as well as the first two subjects focus on racism and the justice system and on the relationship of literacy to liberty; therefore, these subjects might invite a Marxist reading of the novel, arguing that the injustices of capitalism appear in the arrogance of the ruling class and in their oppression of the proletariat or working class.  On the other hand, I said that if they chose to write about Grant, they could take a deconstructive approach, arguing that Grant’s transformation and its effects on Jefferson and the deputy Paul undercut the Marxist critique, showing that capitalist injustices can, eventually, be overcome.  Further, I suggested that a paper on Vivian and the other women in the novel would invite a feminist reading, stressing the failed attempts to silence women, and a paper on Grant and Reverend Ambrose could take a psychoanalytic approach, tracing the conflict between the agnostic and the man of faith as a clash between a ‘son’ and a surrogate father/authority figure.

Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo

February 16, 2012

Cover of Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo

Cover of Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo

In 2001, when assistant district attorney Philip Kearney left San Francisco for Kosova, he found himself driven by generous motives: he wanted to help “rebuild” this former Serbian province shattered by a decade of ethnic warfare (4). He would do that rebuilding “under the blue flag” of the UN, serving as a prosecutor of war criminals. But early in his brilliant book bearing the title above, Kearney acknowledges that his selfless wish to help heal the Balkans rooted in personal needs: his mission would help him to squelch the “feeling” that his life “was half over” yet he had not made his “mark” (2). He would fill the “hole” in his life, then, by helping Kosova restore the rule of law.

Early on, Kearney’s mission filled that hole, giving him a sense of “vigor and purpose” that he “hadn’t felt in years” (21). Yet after a year of service in Kosova, where Kearney found the justice system truly in “tatters” (14), one might have forgiven him had he returned to the comforts of San Francisco and written a judgmental book about the cowardice of some Kosovarans who won’t bear witness against murderers and rapists (84), and about the incorrigible corruption of some police and judges: “the same people who were supposed to be upholding the law were the people I needed to go after” (197).

But instead of complaining at home, Keaney stayed to pursue his mission, for the Balkans “had gotten into [his] blood” (224). Having lost himself in Kosovaran stories of suffering and endurance, of courage that sometimes overcomes terror, Kearney no longer had time to worry about making a mark.

Mesmerized by Kosovaran stories, Kearney quickly discovered the hatred—“still very real and still very alive”—that threads through both Albanian and Serbian narratives (39). Those hatreds, now and always, have made “retributive murder…commonplace” in the Balkans, and Kearney found in Kosova “no justice system to reign in the violence” (45). With no rule of law, either during or after the war, Kearney heard stories of Serbian death camps, where Albanian women suffered beatings and rapes daily (159), and of raids on Albanian homes, where rapes in front of family members preceded the lootings (108). Kearney also heard stories of Albanian retribution; one such case involved an Albanian with an AK-47 slaughtering a dozen Serbs, including a four-year-old boy, in front of a store (56). “Nobody here,” Kearney concludes, “has clean hands” (226).

To work toward ending this cycle of hatred and vengeance, Kearney used his Kosovaran courtroom to persuade both sides that “justice had to be blind—especially to ethnicity” (243). Sharing the UN’s commitment to “conquer ancient tribalism and replace it with the rule of law” (256), Kearney argued passionately that atrocities “committed either by military winners or losers” must be prosecuted by one high standard of human conduct, especially when committed “against the civilian population” (257, 259).

Amazingly, Kearney and his legal team won convictions against both Serbs and Albanians. Predictably, however, set-backs followed, like the acquittal of a Serb Kearney thought he had put away (268), and then the 2005 Supreme Court decision that “with the stroke of a pen” reversed “convictions we had fought so hard to achieve” (282). Yet even such reversals, Kearney hopes, persuades Serbs that international tribunals can be fair to “both sides of the conflict” (268).

Looking back on his mission, Kearney stresses two key lessons he hopes that we all take from his narrative: that “good governance takes time,” and that “our need to engage actively in the broader world” remains “stronger than ever” (294, 295).

Additional Links about Kearney

Radio interview with Philip Kearney and Verena Knaus, Here On Earth: Radio Without Borders, Wisconsin Public Radio, February 17, 2009

Interview with Philip Kearney, San Francisco Chronicle, March 1, 2009

Philip Kearney, Richard Reeves*, and Geoffrey Robinson^, Rising Above Oppression, Panel Discussion at Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, April 24, 2010

*Richard Reeves, Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin
 Airlift - June 1948 - May 1949 (Simon & Schuster; January 5, 2010)

^Geoffrey Robinson, "If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die": How Genocide
 Was Stopped in East Timor (Princeton University Press; November 16,
2009)

Religion & Spirituality

February 5, 2012

Today I rediscovered the difference between religion and spirituality.  Overlaps abound, of course, both rooted in a longing for connection to something larger than self, to an energy that intersects our illusion of time but lives beyond time.  But if one may draw inferences from the pages of history books, religion has too often been about buildings, codes of conduct, sacred spots—and therefore about disputes, exclusions, and executions.  Spirituality, in contrast, has always been about visions of unity, with that “energy,” yes, but also with Others, with critters, and with the earth, the garden that sustains us and honors our work.

Fellowship of the Lord's People

Logo for Bashkësia e Popullit të Zotit (Fellowship of the Lord's People)

I experienced such spirituality this morning, when I attended a service at the Bashkësia e Popullit të Zotit (Fellowship of the Lord’s People)** in Pristina.  Centered on the Protestant Christian faith, the Fellowship offered plenty of religion in the best sense of the word, as reflected primarily in the sermon on Revelations 2 and the charge to show love for Jesus by doing his work.  But I found myself moved primarily by the spirituality in the room, a communal unity engendered by guitars, keyboards, and singing, by story-centered pleas—offered in Albanian and in English—to support on-going efforts to relieve poverty and suffering, and by the blend of humanity—Albanians, Germans, Canadians, Americans, women and men, kids and parents, babies and elders, black and white—eating bread together in peace.

Black Elk with wife and daughter, c. 1890-1910

Black Elk with wife and daughter, c. 1890-1910 (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

After the service, I found more such spirituality in John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks and in N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, works I will read with my Pristina students. Having interviewed Black Elk in 1930, Nebraska poet John Neihardt then wrote his book celebrating the vision of world unity this Lakota holy man experienced as a boy, a vision that empowered Black Elk to preserve his people from the relentless westward movement of the Wasishus on their “iron road” and on the mounts of the US Cavalry.  By securing his “nation’s circle,” Black Elk would also unite animals and people “like relatives”; he would then ensure that the “hoop” of his people blend with the hoops of all peoples, forming “one circle” around the “holy” tree of life.

Bringing his love and respect for his grandmother to her grave on Rainy Mountain, N. Scott Momaday offers an equally passionate vision of unity, focusing not on what might have been but on what was, the “courage and pride” of the Kiowa people, great “horsemen,” warriors, and artists who derived their power from the Tai-me, the sacred Sun Dance doll.  Kiowas expressed this spirituality not only in dance and in “reverence for the sun” but also in their love “for the eagle and the elk, the badger and the bear,’ for the “billowing clouds” whose shadows “move upon the grain like water,” for the Big Horn River, for the Devil’s Tower, where “in the birth of time the core of the earth had broken through.”  And they prayed.  Momaday recalls the last time he saw his grandmother: “She prayed standing beside her bed at night, naked to the waist….Her long black hair…lay upon her shoulders and across her breasts like a shawl.”

Devil's Tower, c. 1900, US Geological Survey, Photographer: N. Dalton

Devil's Tower, c. 1900, US Geological Survey, Photographer: N. Dalton (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

Of course, Black Elk’s vision of unity never came true, and the Kiowas one day “surrendered to soldiers at Fort Sill.” Deprived of their Sun Dance, many spent the rest of their days with “the affliction of defeat,” tormented by a far darker vision of “deicide,” their nation crushed by another with “Manifest Destiny,” religion at its worst.

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**Links related to the Fellowship of the Lord’s People:

Feminist Theory, Flexibility, and a Trip to the Mall

January 30, 2012

In preparing for this teaching adventure, I completed all readings and drew up my syllabi before leaving MSU, but today I began preparing class sessions, which begin February 15.

Of course, my syllabi notwithstanding, flexibility will be key.  I won’t know until I meet my students exactly what they need or how far they have progressed as MA students.  The first unit in my 20th-century American lit class will, I hope, allow for such flexibility.

For the first nine weeks, the students will explore a single broad theme, “Marriage, Family, and the American Dream,” a theme that will give continuity to their work and facilitate comparative analysis.  To sharpen that thematic focus, the first week will feature feminist theory applied to Susan Glaspell’s one-act play Trifles, to Zora Neale Hurston’s short story “Sweat,” and to Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story “Sexy.”

If it turns out that students already have a good grounding in early feminists and theorists such as Wollstonecraft, Fuller, Woolf, Beauvoir, Ellman, and Showalter, then we can jump right into these three works, which span the century: 1916 for Glaspell, 1926 for Hurston, 1999 for Lahiri.  On the other hand, if the students lack this theoretical background, then I will introduce the feminist critique of the patriarchal order and its oppression and suppression of women, and I will sketch gynocriticism as a framework for evaluating works written by women.

Either way, these works will help experienced readers review feminist theories and reading strategies, or provide more inexperienced students access to female characters who suffer physical and psychic battering or sexual objectification, yet who overcome brutish husbands or hypocritical lovers with their intelligence and strength.

Their triumphs over the patriarchal order also involve breaking laws or ignoring social mores, so we should have some interesting class discussions accounting for our sympathy and admiration for characters that conventional patriarchs might label as criminals or sluts.  To help students to discover the ambiguity surrounding each woman’s situation and their own ambivalence in responding to the women’s actions, I will rely on journaling prompts as homework and on small group work so that students may arrive inductively at their feminist insights.

After spending the morning planning approaches to this great stuff, I set out with Dave McTier to enjoy the sun and to visit Albi Mall (see gallery below).  I enjoyed the sun but much prefer the old markets all over town to the glitz of the mall.

**Click on the first picture to scroll through the gallery in a larger format.