06 March 2009

When Words are Personal

Sometimes I forget that what I do can impact people in a very real way. I teach literature, after all. And, while I know that there have been books that changed my life, made me more of who I am today, I don't necessarily believe that it works that way for everyone. I don't believe in any inherent quality in books or stories that has that kind of power.

But then today, one of my students came up to me after class. We're reading The English Patient, this beautifully lush novel about identity and love and words and war, and my student is worried. Because in just over a month, her boyfriend will ship off to Iraq. In just over a month, the horrors that the novel depicts in poetically horrific language might become her horrors.

But she doesn't want to be rude, so she asks if it would be ok if she needs to step outside of class sometimes to get her bearings.

Just two days ago, we read a story from The Things They Carried. It's a story about the awful weight of war, the pointlessness of death, the end of moralizing stories. It's a story about a boy (because they were almost all boys over in 'Nam) who got his head blown off taking a piss. "Zapped while zipping," the story tells us. It's a story I've always loved for its ability to strip any of the romantic trappings away from war and heroism, combat and death. It has always seemed to me strangely innocent in its rawness. But it's a story that my student had to read knowing that her own reality would be intersecting with that fiction in very real ways very soon.

I forget sometimes that words matter. It's funny, really, considering that what I do is deal in words because I do think they matter.

I forget sometimes that I cannot control context, and so I selected a couple of war stories, because I happened to "like" them, for my class to read while we are in the midst of two wars. I'm conscious of the wars. I've had students who were about to leave, who had just come back from the hell that was Fallujah (where his base camp had a banner that said "will today be the day"). And yet, I so easily forgot to include that in my thinking, in my planning.

I know that The English Patient is about more than WWII, just as The Things They Carried is about more than Vietnam, but that isn't really going to help the young woman who sits in the front left side of my classroom. For her, those stories are going to be about her war, her boyfriend's war.

And every time she steps out of the classroom, I'll know it was just a little too much.

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