Life and literature -- Part One

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One of the classic debates in literary and artistic circles is whether life imitates art or art imitates life.

As a high school English teacher, I feel no more qualified to weigh in on this timeless question than the great minds of history who have attempted to answer it. However, working in such a profession during the past few years has given me a fresh perspective on this idea, especially after reflecting upon my interactions with certain students.

The way those students react to their assigned reading material often defines the level of job satisfaction for any given English teacher, and this was certainly the case for me.

Near the end of my second year teaching American literature in a private school in Georgia, I decided to teach Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” for the first time. This classic high school novel can be a challenge for some eleventh-graders, given that the plot is fairly slow to the boil and the dialogue and descriptive passages rely heavily on the reader’s understanding of symbolism and the Roaring Twenties.

However, once the students were introduced to the romantic obsessions of Jay Gatsby and the violent selfishness of Tom Buchanan, our classroom debates became lively and animated, everything an instructor would have wanted.

Much of our discussions revolved around the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway, and how he serves as an observant bystander, one who spends most of the tale watching the action unfold around him, rather than contributing to its various tragic deaths.

For me, Nick Carraway will always share a connection to one particular student, a quiet, respectful young man who struggled significantly with reading and writing. His name was Reuben, and he was from Savannah, Ga.

Savannah is a pulsating city, teeming with life. Its lush city squares are a deep, sage green and the region’s colorful cuisine and celebrated music are greatly inspired by a rich West African heritage.

Yet, Savannah also swarms with death. Countless slaves were brought into its port, which was captured during both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, and haunted graveyards continue to be a major tourist attraction in a city where the air can be almost suffocatingly humid. I considered it geographically, as well as culturally, hundreds of miles away from the refined suburbs of New York City and “The Great Gatsby.”

During the weeks we were reading Fitzgerald’s acclaimed novel, Reuben’s brother was killed in a drive-by shooting in Savannah. He was an innocent bystander at the wrong place and wrong time. Reuben missed several days of school as he returned to a city he hated to bury a brother he loved.

When he returned, Reuben was completely overwhelmed. Tragedy, it seems, rarely seems to fall upon students at the top of the class. I needed to find some way to help him finish our lengthy unit on “The Great Gatsby,” without feeding him to the literary wolves waiting for him in the pages of our class’s six-page exam on the topic.

I arranged for Reuben to spend part of a period with me in my office, discussing as much as we could from the test material. His answer to my question about Nick Carraway will stick with me for a long time.

I asked, “What might be the deeper meaning behind the character of Nick in the story, and what can we learn from him?”

Reuben responded, “Nick, man, he a bystander; he didn’t really wanna get involved but he couldn’t help it. You know? He couldn’t stop death.”

I listened as he continued.

“My brother was a bystander, too. It weren’t his fault. But I’m not going to just watch. I wanna get my mom outta Savannah so we don’t have to worry about that violence no more.”

Weeks later, Reuben returned to my office with a piece of paper. It was a typed poem, similar to an activity we had done during the previous semester.

Reuben told me he had written a sort of prayer in the form of a poem, a letter to his dead brother and he wanted to give the poem to his mother. Most amazingly, Reuben wanted me to proofread his text.

I sat there at my desk stunned and I read his poem, but I would have sooner taken my red pen to an original copy of the Constitution than correct his grammar or punctuation. Tears filled my eyes as I read words as sincere and heartfelt as any literature in our textbook, from the life of a burgeoning poet who was not simply imitating art, but creating it.

Martin Surridge is a former area resident who was a student at Walla Walla University before moving to Georgia.

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