Friday, September 25, 2009

Axing Frozen Seas

I love Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis. Love it. If you're unfamiliar, the main character, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning as a giant human-sized bug.

I can't explain why this tugs on my heart so much, except to say that I think it's one of the most gorgeous, odd, true, terribly sad accounts of what happens when disease, mental illness, or addiction changes us beyond recognition. It's about what happens to families when someone is sick, how it breaks and remolds everyone involved. And I love it.

My students, on the other hand, do not.

They have in the past. I taught a class where they ate.it.up. and wrote about it in their papers and I could feel in what they wrote that it felt true to them, that Kafka struck something.

But not this semester.

"This story sucks," they said at the end of class today, after a week of talking about it. I wish that sentence didn't bother me so much. I wish it didn't make me feel like weeping, like a failure. You can't teach when you feel like a weeping failure. I mean, you can. I did. But it's not easy.

And the thing is, I learned all this stuff today. Based on evidence they collected, I realized new ways to read the text. I learned that in a way, Gregor's demise can be seen as the first time he allows himself to be selfish, to demand what he needs and wants. I learned that the sister is an incredibly intuitive character who understands her family and what it needs and, perhaps, saves herself and her parents from a fate similar to Gregor's. I learned and I learned, and I told them all about it, asking them questions, showing them how to use their evidence to prove surprising arguments, and all but jumping up and down in front of the room with the pure joy of seeing something new in a text that I really love.

This story sucked. That was their response. I say "they," but I suppose I mean a few of them. One or two. But still, when I was dying to know how universal the negativity was, and I asked them to raise their hands if they even remotely liked it, only half of them did. Half. And most were tentative hands. And the week feels wasted. And I worry I'm making them hate reading instead of love it. And I think, for the hundredth thousandth time, about finding a new career.

But I don't want a new career. I like this job, more and more. And when I'm not standing in front of a class of rude (because it is rude, is it not?) students, it feels like what I was always meant to do. Pushing aside all the annoying business, I'm beyond blessed to have this job. And sometimes they love stuff, don't they? Doesn't it work sometimes? Today, I can't remember.

Kafka said this thing about literature that maybe you've heard: "A book should serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us."

So maybe they're all just frozen seas. Little frozen seas sitting in chairs.

7 comments:

Jamie said...

Yes, they were rude. I guess saying it sucks is better than zoning out and not saying anything at all?

I wouldn't read too much into the tepid hand raising. All of my class participation was tepid at best, but that was more about me than the teacher or the material. I was just a lot quieter about my passion for literature. I'd have to let things mull for a while, sometimes even years, before the ice would crack.

This post made me want to reread Metamorphosis. I know I've read it before, but I don't remember what I thought of it. Your passion for it makes me want to take another look.

Genevieve Beck said...

Makes me want to read it again. Sorry they didn't like it--that was definitely rude.
I am reminded of a senior movie we made with you pointing to a potato bug at the wedding of Jane and Raskolnikov saying, "Even Gregor made it." I so wish I knew where that was.

belann said...

As I have told you before, the one who said "it sucks" made everyone who loved it afraid to say so. Then you think everyone thought it sucked when it was really just the rude one.

Spencer G said...

I had such a similar experience teaching "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" to BYU freshmen. And while I know you're not partial to Mrs. Dillard, it is tough that those few can have a large, negative influence on the entire class. But the ending of your post almost made me cry. Loved it. Thanks.

Annie said...

Maybe they just need to experience life a little more before they appreciate it. I used to hate poetry. But after a little life experience, it feels like such a powerful, meaningful way to express thoughts. Now I love it. It just took a little living. I guess I was a frozen sea. Don't be discouraged--I guarantee there was at least one quiet kid who now loves Kafka.

Tia and Amara said...

I agree with mom. These are people just starting on adulthood, and it's hard to make waves still for most of them. Even the one who said it sucks could have had a strong gut reaction to it that disturbed him (or her) and didn't know how to express it.

Terry Earley said...

After your recent experience with your colleagues, you should re-read your thoughts here about how exciting it is the open literature for students -even the reluctant "rude" ones.