Sherman Alexie once wrote about people’s response to the ending of his movie Smoke Signals, which is a story about a young Indian man whose estranged father dies. Alexie realized that the ending seemed “to affect everyone’s life. It’s been astonishing: I had no idea of the huge, aching, father wound, of all genders, colors, races,” Alexie said. What Alexie concludes is that peace comes only through forgiveness, an important life lesson indeed.
If we can judge by the current divorce rate, half of our students are likely to have issues with parental separation. As for me, when I was nine, my parents also divorced. It was not easy. Not long after that, I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time, not because it was assigned in school, but because I pulled it off the shelf at home. I wanted to read it. My mother was convinced that I wouldn’t understand it. I imagine she was thinking that I would not understand what happened to Mayella, and probably she didn’t care to explain rape to a ten-year-old. But it wasn’t Mayella’s situation that captivated me. It was the idea of Atticus Finch that held my imagination. It was Atticus Finch who was the salve to my aching father wound. To this day I have a special love for Atticus, though I have come to appreciate the Finch’s story in many other ways as well. I think it is not a coincidence that thousands of people have similar connections to Lee’s iconic novel, for it teaches us not only about a father’s love, but also about respect, honor, and yes, the effect of ignorance and racism. Through Maycomb’s characters, we are enriched, we are enlightened.
In her great young adult novel Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson’s main character Melinda Sordino wishes her biology teacher would teach them about more than just biology, more than just life cycles and reproduction. She is desperate to learn about something practical, like love and betrayal. Where is it that we learn about love, betrayal, honor, truth, courage, and more? By living certainly, but we also learn through the narratives of fictional characters; through their mistakes and struggles, we can discover truth.
It was Willa Cather who said “There are only two or three human stories and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” While she is probably right, we need new versions of old stories that we can more easily connect to. So while Sophocles warns us about the dangers of being too prideful, teenage boys may fail to recognize themselves in Oedipus and need Rick Riordan’s arrogant Ares to learn from and underdog hero Percy Jackson to be inspired by instead.
I don’t see this country’s patriarchy ending any time soon, and our boys will become the next CEOs, the next legislators. Our boys, the ones who even as juniors and seniors in high school still act buffoonish, perhaps in defense of the low self esteem they suffer from, believing themselves unworthy of their own intellect, need stories. They need heroes.
To even suggest that we remove fiction from the high school curriculum as Grant Wiggins does, seems absurd to me, for it is through narrative that we learn who we are. Through history, people have used narrative to instruct and unite, not only the old myths and oral histories, Bible parables, fables, and the like, but also our own family narratives. While Wiggins is not the first to make such a recommendation, I am concerned that his national credibility will lead some to blindly follow him. I hope that is not the case and that good teachers will recognize the folly of his notion.
So yes, as English teachers we should be incorporating interesting non fiction, thought provoking essays, and timely articles into our courses, but never to the exclusion of fiction, which, in its power to speak to our fundamental human nature, is unmatched. When parents’ influence continues to fail and aching father—and mother—wounds leave children without guidance, where else will our boys (and girls) learn the courage they will need to love and to live except through fiction?
Maybe Wiggins just wanted us to discuss the value of fiction, but I doubt it. Thanks to Patrick Higgins who got me thinking about this.