Very often when I’m figuring out what to teach, I find myself going outside of the classroom English textbook. In this feature, I take a look at those reading selections.
When I choose reading material for my advanced English class, I try to strike a balance between finding things my students may like and relate to and things with literary merit. Around this time of year, we read and discuss essays and short stories that center around the idea of identity, and one of my favorite essays to talk about is Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self.” A story of overcoming childhood trauma, Walker wirtes about how she was badly injured by a BB gun her brother fired when she was a girl (yes, “you’ll shoot your eye out”) and the effect that had on her self-perception through the rest of her childhood, into adolescence, and even into adulthood.
It’s a layered piece, as she makes points about how we look at people based on their physical appearance, what that does to how we look at ourselves, and looks at its everlasting effects. Walker expresses how she hates her eye and even rages against it, cursing it as if it’s not simply a physical trait but as the major antagonist in her life. In fact, it’s so much of a villain that she seems to see a problem more than anyone else (people tell her that she “hasn’t changed” as a result of the accident). Eventually, things improve. The scar on her eye improves and … well, she becomes Alice Walker.
But as she relates toward the end, there is a lingering sense of something wrong, which rears its head when her young daughter innocently looks at her eye:
One day when I am putting Rebecca down for her nap, she suddenly focuses on my eye. Something inside me cringes, gets ready to try to protect myself. All children are cruel about physical differences, I know from experience, and that they don’t always mean to be is another matter. I assume Rebecca will be the same. But no-o-o-o. She studies my face intently as we stand, her inside and me outside her crib. She even holds my face maternally between her dimpled little hands. Then, looking every bit as serious and lawyerlike as her father, she says, as if it may just possibly have slipped my attention: Mommy, there’s a world in your eye.” (As in, “Don’t be alarmed, or do anything crazy.”) And then, gently, but with great interest: “Mommy, where did you get that world in your eye?”
I first read this during the fall of my freshman year of college. I think that I remember appreciating it but in the haze and blur of that first semester, didn’t cherish it. When I came across the essay in an anthology a few years ago, I reread it, remembered what I liked about it, and assigned it. What amazes me whenever my students read and discuss it is that because it is so layered, there are different discussions almost every time. You can look at it from the perspective of a woman, someone who is black, someone who has suffered a trauma, someone who has been a victim, or someone who has triumphed over adversity.
This year’s classes took time on the point that Walker makes about how kids can be cruel toward one another and had a serious discussion about that cruelty, and by extension, bullying. I got to see how both boys and girls have a different perspective on the cruelty of other kids; moreover, I got to see the girls in the class completely school the boys on what it really is like to put up with their peers’ crap. In fact, at one point, one of the girls laid into a guy across the room, saying, “You really have NO idea what it’s like. You can’t just ‘ignore’ it or ‘get over it.'” And his statement hadn’t come from any sort of meanness, but from the naivete that comes with being a teenage boy. Granted, we didn’t have some sort of movie moment where everyone walked out of the room smiling at one another while Simple Minds played, but I could tell (or maybe I’m just projecting here, but I thought I could tell) that the class had come upon the answer to that age old English class question: “Why are we reading this?” You know, aside from the fact that I could use it to show them what a well-crafted essay looks like and how a writer can find and use literary devices (symbolism, metaphor, allusion, etc.) in real life. Which, when you think of it, is why we assign the literature we assign in the first place.