Inspiration and “Other” Things

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is a lovely book with so many lovely moments in it. The loveliest of all, however, is when Santiago, our hero, tells Fatima, the woman he loves, that he loves her because “the entire universe conspired” to help him find her. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how I sometimes feel about teaching.

AlchemistSometimes I really think that the universe has a hand in pulling things together for me in the classroom. My line of thought is not unprecedented, by the way. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, has spoken at length about the conversations she has with her own creativity. Here, she discusses talking the work of waiting for inspiration. In this TED talk she discusses not only her battles with creativity, but the battle waged by others as well. Where Gilbert really gets it right, I think, is in talking about creativity, or genius, or whatever you want to call it, as something external from the self. Because that’s how I feel this week: like the universe (or the muses, or whatever) has gifted me with some great teaching moments.

Here’s what we’re up to:

  1. The kids still don’t know about the forthcoming project – right now, I’m just setting the stage.
  2. We’re discussing part 1 of Wide Sargasso Sea  – and here’s where things really start to get good. We paired the first 25 pages or so, where we get to meet Antoinette (later, Bertha), with an excerpt from Jane Eyre. They read the part with Jane and Rochester’s first attempt at a wedding, Mr. Mason’s objection, and then the meeting with Bertha, who bites Rochester, and behaves, generally speaking, like an animal. The wonderful thing, the thing I was really hoping for, was that they totally got the racism that is endemic to Jane Eyre‘s description of Bertha; the idea that she is described as an animal simply because she is Creole was not lost on them. They now understand that Wide Sargasso Sea is more than a prequel – it’s part of a conversation with a classic text.
  3. We watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” – and they loved it. They understood, as I dreamed they would, not only the connection between the issues of race and stereotyping that she brings up, but also the issue of power that is associated with having a voice and being able to tell your story. Students made connections on a micro level, talking about how it’s important to always get to mom or dad before a sibling does when something breaks in the house, but also on a macro level, pointing out that the story of a war is always told by the victors. These are the connections that will provide context for the moment when they begin to tell their own stories.
  4. Here’s where the universe really stepped in to help me out – the Adichie talk is designed to set the stage for the introduction of Serial as part of our study. I frame it as the type of reclaiming that she advocates, and as a way of mitigating the danger of hearing only one side. As we speak (well, as I type), Adnan Syed is wrapping up his 5-day post-conviction hearing. The kids are deeply intrigued by Syed’s story – at the time of his arrest, he was their age; that in and of itself is compelling to them. That Serial has, in many ways, proven my point about the value of telling your own story, has only helped to rope them in more. I’m hoping that seeing the power of Koenig’s podcast will give them a sense of agency as we move forward.
  5. Finally, Beyoncé. Last weekend, just before the Superbowl, Beyoncé released her (controversial) video for her (controversial) new song, “Formation.” Dr. Yaba Blay, a scholar who researches color politics, has written a fascinating article addressing Beyoncé’s use of (and identification as) “Creole” within the song. In the context of Wide Sargasso Sea, being Creole is troubling and problematic. In Beyoncé’s song, it is proudly proclaimed. In Dr. Blay’s estimation, to claim herself as Creole, Beyoncé must deny, to some degree, her Blackness. Here’s the incredible thing: in the mid-19th century, Charlotte Brontë describes a Creole woman as an animal, and it’s accepted. By the mid-2oth century, Jean Rhys takes up the reins and deals with that same Creole woman’s internalized self-hate because of her society’s racism. In 2016, Beyoncé claims a Creole heritage, and the power of her voice (both literally and figuratively), changes the course of the conversation completely. In a unit that seeks to study not only race in history and literature, but the power of being the one to tell your own story, Beyoncé and Dr. Blay have handed me a wonderful discussion opportunity.

So I guess this is what Coelho and Gilbert are talking about – when the universe conspires in your favor, or the muses stop by for a visit, wonderful things can happen. I can’t wait to see the kids’ reaction when I start class on Wednesday (after a long Presidents’ weekend) by talking about Beyoncé.

Until next time,

Mrs. K


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