Sunday, January 30, 2011

gray matters

In his closing argument to the jury, To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch says that whether Tom Robinson is guilty is “as simple as black and white.” This was a quote that many students brought up in discussion recently. They liked it for the double meaning: there was Tom’s factual story and the Ewells’ made-up version; there was also Tom’s damning blackness and the Ewells’ whiteness, their only asset. My students are adept at seeing two sides of an issue. They often don’t explore the other side much, but they’re capable of citing what it is. What they’re less capable of is recognizing, and reconciling, the gray areas.

For instance, students were bursting with questions and comments the day after they learned that the story’s town drunk, Dolphus Raymond, was not a drunk at all. When he offers a sip from his brown bag to a child with a stomachache, and the child, along with my sophomore readers, learn that the contents are actually Coca-Cola, he instantly becomes complex. He “perpetrate[s] fraud against himself” because he loves and lives with a black woman and their “mixed childen”—a fact that that townspeople simply couldn’t wrap their minds around unless he was a drunk. So he gives them an excuse, and they leave him alone.

My students suddenly thought this man was fantastic. Dolphus was morally above the petty citizens of Maycomb, determined to love the woman he wants, and content to share his secret with two children. They beamed and chuckled and added positive comments under “Dolphus Raymond” on their notes.

Until Stacey had a question. “Wait a minute—what was that part earlier,” she began, as she thumbed through the pages, “about his fiance shooting herself?” Another student chimed in: “Yeah, wasn’t he having an affair with the black woman?”

“It sounds that way,” I said. Thirty-nine teenagers stared at me in silence.

Then came the confusion: Why did he get engaged to the white woman if he didn’t love her? Is that why the town doesn’t like him? Are you sure he had an affair? Maybe we misread it. How could he? But he’s so nice to the kids!

After a barrage of questions and pages flipping, they stared at me again, awaiting a simple answer. I said something about the possibility of him being flawed like the rest of us, and the sophomores seemed perturbed. No one answered my leading questions (“Can Dolphus be an admirable character without being perfect?”), and they began choosing other plot points for discussion.

A few days later, in my freshman reading class, I leaned over Abe, an English-language learner, to check his reading summary, where he’d scratched a blurb about the main character being bisexual. I was still reading when he looked up at me and whispered earnestly, “I didn’t put the g-word because I didn’t want to get in trouble.”

“The g-word?”

“Yeah. So I put ‘bisexual’ instead.”

“Do you mean ‘gay’?”


Abe is in one of my two classes who have been reminded many times not to call each other gay. I explained the difference between describing someone as gay because they are (okay) and calling someone gay as an insult (not okay). He said that he understood, and he seemed relieved to have received a whispered, good-natured explanation rather than the red-faced fury that usually arises when the so-called “g-word” comes up in class.

Abe’s sweeping application of the “don’t say ‘gay’” rule and the sophomores’ bewilderment over Dolphus’ complicated character are just two examples of the torrent of false dichotomies I witness frequently swirling about the classroom. I’ve begun wondering lately, especially amidst the reinvigorated political hype following the State of the Union address, whether our society is breeding a culture of this-or-that thinkers. In my experience, seeing complicated issues as merely black and white or right and wrong is a practice of the ignorant. In children, it’s expected, but as they grow and receive new and conflicting ideas, those stimulating shades of gray emerge. Open-mindedness means using those gray areas as starting points for discussion rather than viewing them as threatening hypotheticals.

But that’s not what’s rewarded with ratings on television or with votes on Capitol Hill.

What I see in students is a hunger for gray, with trepidation about how to approach it. For many, school will be their only opportunity for really complicated, confounding conversations; yet, school so often stifles that middle ground between two (or more) truths with its prefab curricula. Kids who try to deconstruct their teacher’s message are often ill-equipped to do so, interrupting with misinformation or being argumentative in nature. Thus, opportunities for light to be shed are lost amidst the struggle to maintain classroom order and stick to a schedule.

I’m guilty of the well-meaning promotion of either/or as well. When we read Julius Caesar this semester, I will likely pose this question at some point: betrayal is bad, but when is it good? I’ll feel smug about stretching their minds a bit—encouraging them to assign positive possibilities to a word with negative connotations. But how far will that really take them? It’s still portraying something—in the case of Caesar, killing one’s best friend—as either bad or good. Black or white.

I recently attended a lecture by the political activist and author Angela Davis. She received several audience questions at the end that sought simple answers for complicated issues. Davis ended up repeating the same message about “dwelling in the tension”—being okay in that space between two opposing forces. Wanting to close prisons doesn’t mean she has no concern for accountability of criminals, she said. Being angry at Obama over the escalation in Afghanistan doesn’t mean she no longer supports him or can’t continue to be elated about having a black President.

I thought about my students as she spoke, and I vowed to spend my last semester with them in that muddy middle ground, where things aren’t so clear and learning can be downright exhilarating.


Anonymous said...

One of the quotes I post in my room from time to time is Keat's definition of "negative capability," the ability to exist in a world of uncertainty without always grasping for reason. What I like about teaching "The Odyssey" is watching the kids see what a jerk Odysseus is, a character we have deemed an"epic hero." I think what we do as literature teachers is guide kids through these scenarios and force them to use their judgment, but reserve the right to change their view once more is learned.
Ryan Somerville

J. Everitt said...

Ah, the wonders of the teenaged mind. In science, students will often marry themselves to their hypothesis so closely that they will continue to support it even if the data is completely opposite. Couple that with trouble asking questions at all (where is your sense of wonder?) and the mildly underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex (judgement and reasoning) and you're left with a dilemma: Where do I focus my energy?

Do we focus on asking the questions or do we focus on answering questions without being married to the answer? It's troublesome, but it's also developmental. Some students have no trouble asking their own questions so they need to be focused on letting the evidence, rather than preconceptions, guide their answers. Others just need coaching as to asking the question to begin with and need heavy guidance to simply wonder about the world. In any given class, both of these types of students appear.

When teaching literature, how do you balance the kids who wonder about the characters and their actions and those who simply read the story without questioning the motives or behavior of anyone, the mood created within a given scene, or the premises behind their own actions that mirror anything within the story?

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