by Conor Friedersdorf
A reader writes:
The AP English teacher at my high school was a notorious dragon; for fun she also coached the debate team and regularly reduced the members to tears with her scathing critiques.
You had to take a test to be allowed into her AP level classes, write a paper, and if both were acceptable, she then interviewed you to see if she would accept you into her class. If the answer was yes, you then had to meet with the school counselor to make sure you could handle it. It was nerve-wracking, to say the least. So you can imagine our surprise when, on the first day of class, she instructed us to arrange our desks in a circle to facilitate discussion, she at a student's desk in the ring with the rest of us, and announced that we would spend the first semester on one book. Not the first week, the entire semester was to be completed devoted to one book, and she invidted us to guess which one. Smarty-pants that we were, the class guessed things like the Bible, the Complete Works of Shakespeare, the OED, etc.
Then she whips out Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, OH," a book most of us could have read in one night and delivered a five-page handwritten essay on the following day. To add insult to injury, it's a collection of short stories, many of which we had read for other English and comp classes. We were disappointed and grumbled, but soon ate our words, because this was a book that taught us to think.
Week by week we analyzed each character, line,and action. I don't know if you've ever read "Winesburg," but if you haven't you should. At it's heart, it's a story of human motivation, and how the little truths we cling to in life, like paper pills at the bottom of your pocket, can so easily become our things we wrap our lives around; sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Anderson takes stock "small-town American" characters, like the retired doctor, spinster schoolteacher, the local hermit, shopkeeper, etc., and makes them real, taking us into their hearts. He shows us we are all the sum of our experiences, and how understanding the motivations of others will lead us to a better understanding and acceptance of the people around us. I have taken this to heart in my own life - I may not like all the people in my world, but understanding how they got the way they are goes a long way towards tolerance. I think more about why someone is bitter, or mean, or just plain weird, rather than dismissing them outright. In my work, I deal with a lot of crazy people - the mentally ill, alcoholics, drug addict, habitual liars, criminals, people with chronic pain; most of whom are uneducated or undereducated, and so used to being devalued that anger and defensiveness are second nature. Winesburg taught me to look beneath the surface and seek common ground - as one character puts it, "I want someone to love and I want someone to love me." Isn't that what we all want, in the end.
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