Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Students Say the Darndest Things

I'm touched sometimes by what my students are willing to share in the writing and literature courses that I teach.  Sometimes it's precisely that fear of students oversharing, of taking a character or a scene in a book and reading it in a deeply personal (rather than analytical) way that makes me hesitate to teach certain texts, worried about the emotional reactions they might get from a small group of 18-21 year olds.

I'll never forget the moment that a student compared her own mother to the absent-minded Mrs. Pocket of Great Expectations, a woman with a whole slew of children all in varying stages of "tumbling up" who are left to their own devices, or that of a nanny, while the status-obsessed mother ignores the baby until the five-year-old sibling gently explains that the baby is going to hurt herself with a sharp utensil while the mother holds it on her lap.  A student raised her hand to make the comparison to her own prescription-drug-addled mother, who was too self-absorbed to worry about her children.  I became conscious of my gaping jaw and I tried to quickly redirect conversation before our discussion of parenting in Great Expectations became a therapy session on this one student's mommy-issues (of which there were obviously many).

Outside of class, my office-mates and I have experienced confessional moments during office-hours, which are both awkward and heartrending.  It's as though being a TA/grad student makes us older and wiser but also more approachable than a regular professor and suddenly we are hearing confessions about suicidal thoughts, stories about parents fighting and threatening to stop paying tuition, or spontaneous reports about how a student is coping with the aftermath of date rape.  We've been instructed on the proper system for dealing with such things--contacting advisors, recommending counseling sessions, following up via e-mail, and I've been impressed by the systems that the university has in place for dealing with students who are in crisis.

But what also amazes me are the smaller, quieter secrets that students will share in class.  Confessional moments that are not traumatic but are still personal, private, and really quite endearing.

One student wrote and shared in a reflection on media and advertising that when he sees ads featuring professional athletes, he still sometimes thinks that he's going to grow up and be one and it takes him a minute to remember that those dreams are over.

Students are often willing to talk about the holiday rituals in their own families, the changing relationships with high school friends, and their experiences of homesickness, in ways that surprise me with their candor and self-awareness.

But yesterday, during a discussion of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, one of my favorite students raised his hand and shared what might be the most endearing secret I have ever heard.

Keep in mind, these kids started reading Harry Potter when they were young--9 or 10 when the first book came out, so they sort of came of age alongside Harry Potter.  The first book opens with the orphaned Harry Potter living with his aunt, uncle, and cousin, in a very ordinary suburb of London.  His life is pretty miserable and he is forced to sleep in the cupboard under the stairs.  One his eleventh birthday, a letter arrives for him--addressed to Harry Potter, Cupboard Under the Stairs, followed by the address.  Naturally, his aunt and uncle become very nervous about this.  They destroy the letter, and the dozens that follow.  Eventually, though, a messenger arrives to bring Harry the news that he has been accepted to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  Such a letter arrives at the home of selected children who have been identified to have magical powers (whether their parents are wizards and witches or magic-less muggles) on their eleventh birthday and they enter Hogwarts the following autumn.

My student explained that on his eleventh birthday, he waited for that letter.  He hoped and hoped that a letter for Hogwarts was coming for him and when it didn't?  Well, it ended up being a pretty miserable birthday for him.

I loved that he felt comfortable sharing that story, that he had read a work of literature that had truly captured his imagination, and that all of us in the class could understand the similar feeling of getting lost in a book and wanting that world to come to life.

And I don't mean in the way of a Florida amusement park, although I'm not saying that I wouldn't like to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

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