Friday, February 18, 2011

"All right then, I'll go to hell."

There are so many times as a teacher, just as there are so many times in any job, that involve going through the motions. There are just so many subject-predicate-complete thought sessions and so many Gift of the Magi readings one can do before it becomes pretty much rote. (If you're wondering, the numbers are four and two, respectively.)

But occasionally I'm reminded of what I love about being an English teacher This always happens when I teach Huck Finn. (My late uncle Charles, perhaps incidentally, was one of the world's great Twain collectors; his widow sold his stash to a Japanese collector for $3 million.) I learned to love Twain at a young age; all the Cornman men in my dad's generation strove for that dry, ironic wit and more than anything else when I was a kid I wanted to make people laugh like my dad did. (Yeah, I'm still trying.) (A sidebar: Uncle Charles had a tabby cat named Tearalong the Dotted Lion.)

More than that, I agree with Hemingway that "all American literature begins" with Huck Finn. Huck is the American literary hero, I think, plucky and rebellious and with a great, great heart. It's a shame that so many people can't see past the fact that Huck (the boy) is a racist (since that's all he's ever learned) to see that Huck (the book) is a powerful statement against racism. I've taught American lit in English 11 for a dozen years, and I always, always teach Huck; one student's mother in St. Augustine initially didn't want her son to read the book because of that word, but I explained how I would approach it and the background work I wold do in my introduction, and he read it and it was fine.

More than any other literary scene I love the part we got to today, where Huck's written a letter to Miss Watson to turn Jim in and believes he has to mail it or he'll be punished forever for the "evil" of helping Jim escape. He takes a deep breath and says, "All right then, I'll go to hell" and the reader knows in that moment that Huck's heart is much wiser and stronger than his head.

...and I teach my butt off on this chapter, better, I think, than on anything else I do, making it come alive, explaining the stakes and the significance and why Huck is such a terrific kid, and hoping my enthusiasm is catching.

Here in Korea, as at the vocational high school in Florida, and even with the "bright" kids at the Catholic school, I have to wonder if the kids are getting it. They're attentive, but are they going, "Yeah, yeah... what's the old man on about this time?"

But all you can do as a teacher is to try to connect with the students and lay out the information as clearly and interestingly as you can.

And hope.

1 comment:

George Kozak said...

I bet you heard that a Publisher is reprinting Huck Finn in a new edition without the "N" word. I was watching The Late Show with Craig Fergusen one night and he had Cornell West as his guest. Cornell West said that to change the book would be to deny the past and weaken the statement that Mark Twain was trying to make against the rasim of his time. If yo uhaven't seen it, you may want to catch it on You tube. People try to deny the past, yet the still try to revive it. For instance, a Missouri State Senator wants to repeal child labor laws for these "harsh economic times", and an Arizona State Senator wants to pass a law that will only allow people to run for office if they can produce an original birth certificate signed by the delivering doctor (an official health department document will not do)..."Sigh"