My work with Catholic schools has forced me to travel to an extent that I never imagined in my happily sedate teacher’s life. I often compare today’s anonymous mode of travel, whether on land or through the air, with something like the Canterbury Tales. In those times, odd assortments of people going the same way would travel together for protection and possibly just because the long road ahead was weary and lonely otherwise. Conversation, story-telling, and games would naturally arise. Not that everyone enjoyed the association –what do a world-traveling adventurous knight, a foul-mouthed, low-class miller and a graduate student from Oxford have in common? But they were human, and so naturally they sought each other’s company and conversed. How different we are today. We travel in planes carrying hundreds of people, most of whom seem to feel like me — I’ve got my own business to attend to, I just hope the people next to me don’t want to start a conversation.
But thoughts like this often convince me to get out of myself, to at least show myself open to conversation with my traveling neighbors, once in awhile even to be the annoying one who might start a conversation. On the shuttle to the airport after enjoying last summer’s Circe conference in Houston, I introduced myself to the woman next to me. It turned out she had also been at the conference, which meant we had an educator’s love in common, at least. When she told me that she had been a teacher and administrator at an inner city Los Angeles school for 14 years, her story became very interesting.
She taught middle school English classes in this tough environment. What sorts of literature did she read with that group of kids, I asked? None, she said. None? They didn’t have a literature component in their English curriculum, she replied. They were supposed to spend all their time working on sentence structure and informational pieces. How atrocious! English without stories? She agreed, so strongly, in fact, that she defied the system and read stories like Beowulf to them. How did they react? They loved it, she said. I was not surprised, but still delighted to hear confirmed that the great stories can really move kids of any social or ethnic background.
She went on. She figured out that discipline was only a problem because she had four or five confirmed trouble makers. So she divided the class into the two groups and taught them separately (no doubt completely against “The Rules”). This allowed her to do what she wanted with the willing students, and give a different kind of attention to the difficult ones. She and her husband took a dramatic step — they brought the difficult kids on a weekend trip to a mountain cabin. Southern California is amazing in that you can go from the ocean beach through the parched desert to the cool, forested, often snow-capped mountains in about three hours. The kids had never imagined a place of such natural beauty. They had hardly ever been out of their small city block area before. She and her husband served them steak — she recalled how amazed they were at the taste of something so ordinary for most of us, yet completely beyond the range of their imagination.
Because she was limited in the story-telling she could get away with in the classroom, she started an after-school Shakespeare club. Almost all of her kids participated. They read and studied and memorized Macbeth. After the performance, she told me with tears in her eyes, she was rewarded by the thanks of a gangster father and his tattooed 13-year old son who wept together over how well he had done.
People often assume that classical literature is elitist, by which they seem to imagine that is only for kids from wealthy and well-educated families. The truth is quite the contrary. All human beings benefit from having imaginations expanded and aroused by sharing in the best stories of the ages, as mine has been by Chaucer and Homer and Tolkien. But the more one’s personal life is deprived of beautiful things, of good character, of adventure, the more necessary immersion in classical literature is. In my more suspicious moments, I can imagine that those who make The Rules are conspiring by their reverse elitism to keep the underprivileged from any contact with the authors I love. For only then would they be able to imagine a different life, one to strive for, one to challenge their passive acceptance of the “real world”, and to inspire them enter into the real adventure of making a better life.