"No Ghosts or Gays." Yona from Yellow Springs Taught American Lit Today!
I should take some time and work this letter out a little more carefully, but I cannot.
I've just come from a first year writing class. We spend the first dozen weeks reading articles and writing about them. And then, in this last unit, we explore poetry and fiction, as a way to get our first semester writers ready for the challenges of their intro to lit course, a required course in the humanities.
I won't bore you with the readings we covered today; they're just your typical freshman-level, big-ass-anthology sorts of things, the kind of short fiction and poetry that English teachers teach to students who don't want to read or think.
I assigned three poems and a story last week and today we sat down in our classroom to talk about them.
I asked some questions. "What about the main character? Why is he so tormented?"
"What about his fear of his friend, his inability to meet him face to face?"
I had already done the thing all English profs have to do when they teach lit, encourage students to use their creative and critical thinking abilities. After all, wasn't it Wordsworth who said the world is something we half perceive and half create? So I remind them, "Come on. Just try out some ideas. What do you think the story's about? What makes the main character want to avoid his friend?"
Quiet. That's okay. I'm patient.
Finally, one young man in the back raises his hand: "Maybe his friend's a vampire."
Now, I guess I should set this up better. The story is set in 1990s America. It takes place in a remarkably normal suburb, with people who have normal names, do normal things. It's a happy place. Any angst is sort of benign. It's a subdued and subtle piece that is probably just about loneliness.
Then another student raises his hand. "Or a ghost."
"Wait," I said. "What?"
"Maybe his friend's a vampire and he doesn't want to get killed."
"Or his friend is dead and a ghost, and that frightens him."
Heads begin to nod in the classroom. They're latching on to this.
"Well," I said. "What evidence do you have for these ideas? Remember when we talked about the claims we make earlier; you must have textual evidence to support any claim you make."
"Maybe his friend is gay," someone suddenly offers, and the heads nod again.
"Evidence?" I say. "Okay, you think the friend is gay. Why? Is there anything in the text that would support that, anything the author has done with language, any scene, any dialogue, any actions that would suggest the main character's friend is gay. Anything from the title?"
There's quiet for a minute. Some students flip pages. I look up at the clock. It seems to have stopped moving.
A girl in the back raises her hand. "Maybe the main character is a ghost."
Another girl beside her says, "Yeah, or maybe he realized he's gay."
The clock starts moving backwards.