Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A letter to my high school English teacher

[Note: This is a letter for my high school English teacher, but I can't find an easy way to get in contact with her. If I could, I would have sent this to her, first. Some parts are cut for the sake of politeness; at other points, I provide extra context for readers who are not my high school English teacher.]

I am at the beach for the weekend; I have gone "downy ocean" as you would have said in your lesson on dialect. In addition to the library books I'm reading, I wanted to bring an old, small paperback work of fiction that would be safe to read on the beach; I brought One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It's pretty good. There are a lot of elements of the story that I wouldn't have noticed or appreciated if I hadn't taken your ninth grade honors English class. I hated that class.


In the first week of school, you made us take qualifying exams so that we could decide if we wanted to stay in your class. You graded harshly. When I complained of having gotten a D, a 66, on the first exam, a lot of my classmates told me that I shouldn't; I had gotten a very high grade, relatively. About half of the class quit and went to the next-easiest English class. Those of us who stayed were apprehensive.


After reading Of Mice and Men, we had to write essays about the book. [If you have not read it, at the end of Of Mice and Men, the main character, George, kills his best friend, Lennie, rather than have Lennie die at the hands of a mob. When I read it, I thought it was the saddest, most pointless ending to any book I had read.] I wrote that I didn't like it because I'm a Christian, and so I believe that God works everything out in the end. We have a hope for heaven, where things will be as they ought to be. Stories ought to end with a positive resolution. I didn't like Of Mice and Men because it didn't mean anything to me, I didn't learn anything from it; I didn't see any virtue rewarded in it, and it didn't entertain me. I forget what you said about that essay, but I remember getting a bad grade on it. I think it was around then that I tried to get out of your class, to join the regular English class, but it was already filled with students who had previously left your class.

I remember when you gave us assignments on "situational ethics"—my words, not yours. We had to consider various bizarre situations: ten people in a cave, with a fat man blocking the exit, or people on a lifeboat deciding who to eat first, or a person standing at a track switch as a trolly approached, with the trolley about to run someone over or to go off a cliff, depending on how the track switch was thrown. We had to write essays in which we considered possible choices in these scenarios and whether they're right or wrong: is it acceptable for the spelunkers to blow up the fat man with a stick of dynamite, so that they could escape? I thought, at the time, that you were trying to undermine my belief in a God with a set of absolute laws, and that you were trying to make me into a moral relativist. Maybe you were.

When considering whether throwing the track switch is right or wrong, everyone ought to be able to provide a better justification for their decision than "because God says so" or "because it's right". Everyone needs to be able to apply moral reasoning to difficult problems. As I recall, my answer to my ethical dilemma is that if one had faith, God would intervene to resolve the scene.

It's not right for a public school teacher to impose beliefs on students, or to undermine their spirituality, and you certainly did this at times. Regardless, I'm glad you made me write essays about ethics. When I stopped thinking that God exists, I needed a way to figure out how to live a good and meaningful life. Those assignments helped me think about meaning and morality on real, human terms. You did more than any other teacher I have had, in public grade school, or all through college, to prepare me for life as a non-believer.

One time, you criticized a student for starting an essay with "I feel". You made it clear to all of us that starting an essay with "I think", "I feel", or "I believe" is immediate justification for an F; our personal beliefs don't matter as much as whether we can explain them and defend them. I am prone to starting essays with "I think" to relativize what I'm writing, out of some fear of being wrong. Whenever I'm tempted to write "I think" I remember your rule and I find another way to phrase my text.

In reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, I've been paying attention to how Miss Ratched, "Big Nurse", a woman, is at the top of the social structure of the ward, then the other nurses, then the black orderlies; the white male patients are at the bottom; in the ward, mental illness is more significant than race or gender in determining class. Chief Bromden is an unreliable narrator; Kesey uses Bromden's narration to emphasize that all stories are perspectival. Bromden's fear of the Combine, the personification of machines and social systems, is a dominant theme. (I've only read fifty pages of the book so far.)

When I was taking your class, I asked why we had to study literature. I understood that reading and writing are important, but I wasn't expecting understanding literature to be part of my job, in the same way that math and science would be.

I don't think anymore that God exists. I used to think that he could define meaning, he would tell stories that we fit into. As I passed through doubt, I read apologetics, then Christian philosophy, Kierkegaard, trying to make sense of God. I read secular philosophers, trying to find a solid, objective purpose in life. The philosophers that I look to now don't write dense logical prose like Hegel, they tell stories. I read fiction because it lets me practice understanding the world and deciding how I want to live in it. And, I don't just read fiction that's supposed to mean something big, I'm reading fiction for fun; fun matters.

After I finished the school year in which I took your class, I spoke ill of you to other people, calling you mean and crazy. I am sorry for that; please forgive me. I could bring up other grievances about that class, but I won't. You challenged me, you made me think. I don't think this was part of your job, but you made me question my beliefs, and I'm glad, now, that I had that practice.


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