Reading the paper this morning, I was struck by this quote:
“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
Are you touched by this as I am? It’s from Aeschylus, whom I have not read, nor, I suspect, have many of us. Robert F. Kennedy quoted this passage in his address to people in Indianapolis the night after Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed. (I read about this short, impromptu speech in Daniel Ruth’s column in The Tampa Bay Times, Thursday, April 5, 2018, 9A.)
I’m not proposing that all our young people should read Aeschylus in school when there is so much else they much digest before they’re eighteen. But . . . I find myself wishing we had time for such eloquent wisdom.
More poetry, gracefully taught and willingly received. More art in its historical context. More essays and speeches of great import — Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Mark Antony’s plea steeped in irony and rhetorical device, Frederick Douglas’s impassioned appeals for justice. Surely those would be of more use to our children than Great Expectations. Sure, I loved that book, but I was an English major. How my students struggled with the nineteenth century diction, pacing, and dilemmas.
As another example, when I first taught high school English, I was required to help my students read Moby Dick. I had only just read it myself, and my students simply could not read well enough to find any joy, or comprehension, in such a dense tome. So I proudly got permission to buy my students Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.
This novel, written in the late twentieth century, does not match Aeschylus in eloquence, but it does demonstrate evil and pain, courage and healing, and perseverance in the face of great threat, devastating betrayal, and terrible fear.
And, as you may know, Ender experiences pain, “drop by drop upon the heart,” and comes through as a wise and compassionate soul. And all of this demonstrated in prose my students could handle.
I seem to be wandering from my appreciation of Aeschylus, but I’m not abandoning it. I sit here comfortably beyond being told what to read by a teacher who seems to have no notion of how difficult it is to concentrate on an incomprehensible, irrelevant text when my hormones are raging and in thirty minutes I can meet my friends in the lunch hall. But imagine a classroom where such a quote comes to young people, with meaning, with relevance. It makes me want to be in the classroom again. I’d toss out Great Expectations and share Martin Luther King’s and Robert F. Kennedy’s speeches, in context, and maybe throw in a little Aeschylus, too. And at the same time, find the despair and the wisdom in contemporary texts like Ender’s Game.