On the Fourth of July, I traditionally put aside any doubts I may harbor about the actions of my government and celebrate my good fortune at being born in the United States of America. This year was rich for me in new ways, and when I sang with others in my choir a lovely version of "America the Beautiful," I experienced again the feeling of little American flags popping out of my ears.
I was reminded of this patriotism several times over the past few weeks when I enjoyed the privilege of teaching English in summer school to ninth- and tenth-grade students. We always joke about my courses being called "Death 1" because so much of the assigned poetry and other literary selections deal with sad situations, though we know that great writing often comes out of tragedy or grief, so this is natural. Over the past few terms of my summer school experience, in addition to poetry, short stories and some works of Shakespeare, we have read such novels as Ellison's "The Invisible Man," Coetze's "Waiting for the Barbarians," Greene's "The Quiet American" and Buck's "The Good Earth." None of these are "uppers," but all deal with the ways in which human beings are shaped by their cultures.
This summer my ninth-graders tackled Ishmael Beah's frightening yet wonderful memoir, "A Long Way Gone," and my tenth-graders ploughed through Joyce's "Dubliners." As we finished up the term last week, we embarked upon a discussion of some of the term's recurring themes, and although these works and others we read reflect vastly different eras and styles, one theme predominated: Most of the protagonists experienced conflict with their cultural environments and had great difficulty in escaping the confines of their surroundings.
Ishmael Beah was wrenched from a gentle village existence in Sierra Leone and conscripted to be a boy soldier. His account of the gruesome and unbelievable acts he and other innocent boys were forced to commit (with the aid of drugs) is riveting and shocking. It poses a paradox worthy of thought in an often terrifying world: How are gentle people capable of such hideous deeds, and then how do they ever move back into a relatively normal life?
You can hear Beah at the Sun Valley Writers' Conference (in August) and perhaps ask him that question, though it may be unanswerable. One of the strongest ideas of our class discussions was how trapped these boys were, how unable they were to escape from the violence around them. I can't help but identify with the dire environments in other contemporary cultures and appreciate how fortunate we are to be surrounded by the beauty and relative safety of the Wood River Valley. That is on my gratitude list every day.
When my tenth-graders read most of "Dubliners," stories of turn-of-the century Dublin, a similar conclusion emerged. Of course, anyone who reads Joyce knows how disenchanted he became with his home city, and his view of life there is certainly colored by his distaste of the culture around him. Almost all of his characters are trapped, whether by a lack of money, the limits of class, the confines of moral conventions and responsibilities, the lure of alcoholism as an escape (ensuring even more powerlessness) or by the meanness of human behavior in people in control. They desire escape, but are, for the most part, sufficiently paralyzed by convention that they cannot leave. All in all, this book is not an upper, either. Again, it reminded me of the mobility I have even now in my life, to live where I want, do what I want (in a positive manner), be with people I love and enjoy the skills I can still use. Even if my life has not been picture perfect, I have had the power to change and to choose the paths I took.
Our children and their children are blessed to be raised in a country that offers options. We can move, whether it be from our hometown or up the social ladder. While I craved adventure and travel from my lower-middle-class existence, it was not out of distaste for my friends, family and the morals with which I was raised. I always wanted to see the world but go home after my adventures, something many people around the world are unable to imagine after exile or imprisonment. We are also free to travel in safety (Ishmael barely survives his trip to the United States after rehabilitation.) How fortunate we are. How fortunate indeed—to be free!