18.7.20

Reflecting On Being A Teen Reader: A Literacy Autobiography

Thinking back on who I was as a teen reader puts into focus why adolescents need to develop steady habits of reading.

Greig Roselli as a teenager sitting in his mom's boat on the Tchefuncte River reading Catch-22.

A Photograph of the Author as an Adolescent Reader

Taking A Course at Hunter College Encouraged Me To Think About the Adolescent Reader

During the Summer of Covid-19, I was planning to go to Chicago to learn about maps. But my plan was foiled, and I have been home this Summer like most of us. So. Never to sit idle for long, I enrolled in an Education class at Hunter College. Taking Adolescent Literacy, the professor has us plunging into the myriad forms of reading that we can have our students read, dissect, decode, translate, and take to sustaining levels of engagement. I love the course. It had me thinking of myself as a teen reader. So — I took a walk down memory lane, and I tried to envision who I was as a teen who read.

My Adolescent Experience in Literacy Began With An Ugly Divorce

My earliest memory as an adolescent reader stems from the transition I went to from Sixth to Seventh Grade. At that age, I was going through the expected change from a kid to a tween, and I had just gone through my parents' ugly divorce. In Fifth and Sixth grades, my academics had suffered, and I had achieved low scores in Math. I perceived myself as an average student even though I had read The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. I had devoured stories, such as Hans Christian Anderson's "The Tinder Box," which I would listen to in concert with the audio on a Fisher-Price record player. It played 45 records, and you could check them out from the library.

Reading instruction in middle and junior high school was based on reading comprehension and discussion of the book. But I would often read the entire book by myself and not pay attention to the homework and sometimes do poorly on the end-of-the-reading exam. We read Tuck Everlasting, My Brother Sam is Dead, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Hatchet, and Mrs. Frisby and The Rats of N.I.M.H. — books I liked but I wanted to get through them so I could read other books! So when the exam came, I often forgot vital details about the "class book" because I was not in sync with the rest of the class.

Adventures in Junior High School in South Louisiana

In South Louisiana, where I am from, the school system has a separate school for Seventh and Eighth Grade called Junior High School. I don't remember being especially advanced in reading, but I do remember enjoying reading for pleasure. I kept a personal journal as a kid. I always had a book to read, and we often made trips to the public library, and I was a frequent visitor to my school's library as well. In Seventh Grade, I remember getting into trouble for reading Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton in History class. The book was propped up on my lap, and the teacher caught me with my head down too often. I often attempted to read really long, "adult" books just for fun — Stephen King's The Stand, and the Jack Ryan books by Tom Clancy (e.g., Clear and Present Danger and The Hunt For Red October).

Growing up gay, it was through reading novels that I discovered in the library that I learned that people like me existed. For example, Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar was a thin volume I found in the library's fiction section. It's about a young gay man coming to terms with his sexuality in the 1950s and 60s. Even books that are not explicitly about being gay rang true for me nevertheless, as in Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, Fade by Robert Cormier, and Selected Poems by Walt Whitman. That began a lifelong fascination with L.G.B.T.Q.+ Fiction and with reading as a means of self-reflection and a catalyst for personal growth — a practice I still continue to this day. One of my favorite books is Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.

Challenging Me To Read a Non-American, Non-European Author Was an Illuminating Experience for a Fourteen-Year-Old

A photograph of Greig Roselli as a teenager reading out loud from the Gospel on Christmas morning.

On Christmas Day Mom Made
Us Read from the New Testament Recounting
the Gospel Narrative of Christ's Birth

I had a wake-up call, though, in high school, when a teacher told me to more carefully choose the books I read. I did not have a model for "close reading" — but in Ninth Grade, I joined my high school's "Library Committee" — an extracurricular club where we read a novel from the library's collection every two weeks. We met as a group to write book reviews and discuss the books. I remember I was told, "Read a book by a non-European, non-American author . . ." That was an intriguing challenge, so I read Nectar in a Sieve by Indian novelist Kamala Markandaya. I was struck by the description of poverty and despair. Still, the voice of the protagonist Rukhmani — stayed with me. Being a part of a club and having reading role models among my peers and other adults helped me to create a social experience around reading that I did not have. As a result, my performance in school improved. I made better grades in English, and I was bumped up to the Honors class in my Sophomore year.

I am lucky that I had excellent English teachers in high school that encouraged discussion about books. We were prompted to make connections to what we were reading. When we read Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, our teacher did an outstanding job of zooming out and said to us, "Okay. Don't get tripped up by the language. Well, this is a story about entering the woods, and the woods is a place of chaos, and the characters come out changed." As a teenager, I could relate to the theme of radical metamorphosis. At the end of the unit, we watched Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Pulitzer-award-winning musical Into the Woods. And later compared the text to Shakespeare — which turned out to be a beautiful text-to-text connection that I now use in my classroom.

As Adolescent Reader There Was a Disconnect Between "Reading for Pleasure" and "Reading to Succeed"

In Junior year, I did poorly on the standardized pre-tests in reading for the ACT., and SAT. While my classmates had taken test prep classes in the Summer, I was not prepared for the questions. My parents did not realize that I needed intervention because I was always doing something academic or doing my homework — and I made Bs and As consistently. In my parents' eyes, I was doing what I was supposed to do. I graduated from high school in 1998 with a G.P.A. just shy of a 3.5 by one-tenth of a point. I got into a small liberal arts college that focused more on writing and personality than test scores. But I sometimes wish that if I had been pushed harder in high school, my life would have turned out differently.

Who I Was As a Teen Reader Predicted Who I Became as an Adult

A Picture of the Author as a High School English Teacher (Greig Roselli)

A Picture of the Author as
a High School English Teacher

So here I am now in the Summer of 2020. My adolescence feels like a world lived in a different galaxy. And I am a teacher! As a classroom teacher, decades removed from my own youth, who I am as a teacher, surprises me. 

Working with teenagers, I put a lot of emphasis on independent reading. I use websites like newsela.com to foster a love of learning and academic choice. I can remember when I taught Sixth grade a kid told me, "Mr. Roselli — I never see you with a book. But you say you love to read." I think it's because he only saw me teaching, or grading, or talking, or going from one class to another, and he never saw me doing a silent sustained reading. And that really struck me, and it made me think, you know, we live in a society where silent sustained reading is seen as antisocial. 

In the very fast-paced world of teaching, counter-intuitively, teachers do not have time, often, to commit themselves to a meaningful text. So. Now. I do small things to show my own life in reading. For instance, I give my students a top ten list of my favorite books. Or, I do subtle stuff like actually read with them or have my current book on my desk (which is an explosive investigative report on the Matthew Sheppard murder entitled The Book of Matt)

As a teacher, I don't mind when kids go off track and read random texts independently. I keep a small classroom library, and I often use my own money to buy relevant books. For example, the novel The Hate U Give is a compelling read. It is told through the experience of a young Black girl who witnesses her best friend killed in a routine stopover by the police.

What's the takeaway? Who you were as an adolescent reader informs who you will become as an adult. And that's on period, boo.

PDF Copy for Printing

Stones of Erasmus TpT Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth, Higher Education, Adult Education, Homeschooler, Not Grade Specific - TeachersPayTeachers.com

11.7.20

Feast of Saint Benedict — Photos of Work and Community from My Time as a Benedictine Monk (c. 2004)

Today is the feast day of Saint Benedict of Nursia, famous cenobite who, 1,500 years ago, carved out a rule for people to live together in community, living by a rule of Ora et Labora. I have been rummaging through old thumb drives, hard drives, and forgotten folders on my Google Drive and I have managed to come across some interesting finds that date back a decade or so — back when my life was a Benedictine monk in south Louisiana.
I had a Canon Sure Shot camera back then — and I would get my hands on black and white film and take photos of life in action. These photos are of jobs that I undertook when I was a relatively young monk in temporary profession (which means I had not yet made my final vows). At twenty-five years of age, I had just made my profession, and my life was caught up in the rhythm of work and community living.
We had a small barbershop in the monastery. If someone wanted a haircut they asked Br. Elias or Fr. Ambrose — and voilà you got a haircut. No need for SuperCuts.
Dom Gregory DeWitt created this painting on wood of Christ's first haircut. 

***
Ideally, everything is provided for in Benedictine communities. People who become Benedictines often bring with them their skills. We had bread makers, honey maker, vintner, pianist, writer, and farmer. Famously, the community I lived in had hosted a Flemish monk who was a famed artist. This was in the 1940s and 50s. Dom Gregory Dewitt, O.S.B. painted the murals in the monks' refectory (e.g., the dining room) and the church. But he also painted small curiosities that one could still find. In the barbershop, where I had my haircut many times, there was a wonderful painting on wood of "Christ's First Haircut." It depicts an almost Norman Rockwell-esque version of the Holy Family. Christ has placed his halo on a nail so his father Joseph can cut his hair. Mary sits in a chair nearby sewing a piece of cloth, and an angel sweeps the floor!
Often we would have to go to the nearby town to run errands, or to bring older members of the community to a doctor's appointment or to go shopping for this, that, and any other thing.
 
 I invented "Book Face Friday" way before its adoption on social media. In this photograph, taken sometime in 2004, I had Br. Bernard take a photo with a cover of a book I was reading entitled "A Brief History of Everything".
***  
Sometimes in the evening after prayer, we would have small group activities, like one night a week, we did poetry readings. I don't remember much of what we read, but I remember it was heavily attended by some of the older community members, so it made me become more familiar with caring for Senior citizens. I fondly remember Fr. Dominic and Fr. Stan who were consistent members of our poetry reading sessions. Fr. Dominic had been poised to enter the world of operatic drama and singing but he ended up joining the community in the 1950s and was a strong supporter of Civil Rights and liturgical reform. He had a booming baritone voice, that he used proudly. I took him on many outings during my time, and while we were never really close friends, I think he appreciated how I initiated creativity and sparked his more associative thinking process. Fr. Stan had lived in New York for many years as a parish priest, but when he retired he came back to our community in Louisiana. I remember he was soft-spoken, sometimes passive-aggressive, but he was a writer, especially of poetry. I wonder where his writings are now and whether any of his stuff was published?
After dinner on Sundays, it was considered a more-or-less-leisure time. We could talk at table (while eating dinner), invite guests, and have a beer or a glass of wine. After dinner, each evening, one of us was assigned to wash dishes — which was a fun job — because we used this industrial strength dishwasher!
Outside of the monastery building were a set of benches where we could relax, talk, and if people were smokers, they could smoke.
Although most of us were not allowed to smoke, because the Abbot made a new rule saying younger members had to quit smoking, but those who had already developed the habit were silently allowed. Those were the rules.
 
 In the kitchen, we had a crew of workers, some from the outside, like this woman — her name is L. and I remember we used to talk a lot about her children.
For a couple of Summers, I was part of the camp program — where we had campers from across the state come in for weeks at a time; they stayed in a campground, replete with a chapel, cabins, swimming pool, dining area, and a Pavillion — about a quarter-mile from our community, but still on the property. On Sundays, the kids would come to the church for Mass and I would give a tour of the buildings, pointing out some of the features of Dom Gregory DeWitt's artwork. I love how in this photograph I have most of the kids' attention.
Lagniappe (More Photos)

2.7.20

Feeling Sentimental About Living in New York for Ten Years: A Journal & Rant (Writer's Diary #3209)

Spilling out of the Roosevelt Avenue/74th Street Station, it feels like I am in Queen's version of Times Square.
IRT Elevate Station Roosevelt Avenue/74th Street
View of the 74th Street Elevated IRT station on Roosevelt Avenue

I Like to Walk Through Diversity Plaza
The elevated IRT line that carries the purple-signed seven train runs above on Roosevelt Avenue. In contrast, a gaggle of lettered trains, M, R, F, and E run under Broadway. The station is not difficult to manage, but the architecture is a series of green-tinted grids and overhangs, steep ramps, and an ugly bus terminal named after Victor Moore. You can Google him if you want. He was a film actor from the silent era and early talkies. Apparently, there was a business arcade where the gangly bus terminal sits. And the arcade was named after Moore, and the name just stuck.

I like to walk through Diversity Plaza. The area used to have bus traffic, but the city turned it into a pedestrian mall. Local shop owners did not like it because they felt only foot traffic would not bring in a lot of business. Jackson Heights is a neighborhood of family-run businesses — a ton of Pakistani, Nepali, Bengali, Indian and other South Asian food shops and clothiers. You can buy a wedding dress on 75th street, order a momo, or eat at Jackson Diner — an all-you-can-eat spot that has delicious Saag Paneer.

I'm More Comfortable With Difference Than With Sameness
I feel comfortable in places filled with diversity. But I grew up in a primarily white-laden suburb of New Orleans. I was just looking through my old yearbooks on a recent trip home. In 1998 in south Louisiana, no one talked about diversity unless it was in biology class. We learned about the diversity of animal life on planet earth. Pick up a glob of mud from the nearby ditch, and you can find variety, my teacher said. Life is everywhere!

I learned about difference in two ways, first — through reading. I had a teacher who said, try to read a non-European and non-American book. I read 'Nectar in a Sieve' by Kamala Markandaya. I was about sixteen years old when I read the novel, and I was struck by the description of poverty, despair. Still, the voice of the protagonist Rukhmani — stayed with me. Second — through my own coming to terms with my gayness. Growing up gay in South Louisiana was a don't ask don't tell society. Everyone knows it, but no one talks about it.

I have learned never to make assumptions about people. People have said to me, "You don't act gay." But how is a gay person supposed to act? So I understand when historically marginalized people, especially people of color, talk about microaggressions. I know what they are speaking about — because it rings true with my own experience.

Six Momos, Please
Greig Roselli Stands and Points to the Entrance of the Jackson Heights Post Office in Queens
I haven't finished my seltzer water!
I order six beef momos and a can of seltzer water for $6 from this place near Diversity Plaza. It's open late, and the dining area is small — I get a spot by the window. One thing I like about living in New York is that I can be anonymous. Or I can feel anonymous. I always felt growing up, someone wanted to know where you were from or what you were doing. Freedom is such a sweet taste in the mouth, but the flavor is so fleeting.

When you reach forty or so, they say that you begin to look for experiences that fill in the gap for things you did not get when you were growing up. So for me — it's enjoying quiet time. I was always looking for a hiding place as a kid to read a book or to be alone with my thoughts. But I was propelled to go outside! Be active. Be extroverted. Be aggressive. Play sports. Don't be such a wuss.
Once I walk beyond Diversity Plaza, Jackson Heights transforms into a dense, yet quiet residential block of six-story buildings and manicured gardens. It's funny to think that only in the early twentieth century Jackson Heights came to be. All of this where I walk was farmland. 

The advent of the IRT line from Manhattan in the 10s and 20s precipitated tremendous growth in western Queens. Queens is unlike Brooklyn — which had been its own city before New York annexed it in the 1890s. Most of what we call history is really recent. We call neighborhoods historic without realizing that time has a much more substantial, outstretched hand. I am never really tethered to a place. I keep my memories and my joys. But I am one to wander. So it's hard to believe that this month I will have lived in New York City for ten years! I moved here from New Orleans in 2010 — to pursue graduate studies at the New School for Social Research. After I finished my coursework, I just stayed. So here I am.

I'm Almost Home and My Feet Are Sore
A couple on a bike
Walking along 37th Avenue, the neighborhood opens up to a warm welcome of families, kids, people crisscrossing each other in soft, somnolence. In New York, we love how we promote unspoken conversations. A wink. A smile. A nod of the head. But a part of me often wants to join in on a conversation. Say hello. Make a new friend.

I arrive at home — it's a thirteen-minute walk from the station. But I feel tired, and my feet are sore. I love to take off my shoes and just throw them willy-nilly. What will happen when I have to share a space with someone I love? I go to sleep, and I have a mixture of dreams — one in which I am consoled and comforted; in another, I am sharing a bath with a lover — in another dream, I am running, running, running. Looking for a bus stop to take me home.

I don't want to wake up. But then I think. Tomorrow is Saturday. I don't have to work. I will stay in, eat Swedish meatballs, and watch re-runs of Dr. Who.

1.7.20

Students Are Off for Summer But Teachers Are Busy Working (Am I Right?)

Dear Followers, Teachers, Lovers, Learners, and Philosophy Sprinkles Makers! Summertime Means Busy-time for Educators (Am I Right?)

Greig Roselli does a bird's-eye-view selfie in the park
Bird's Eyeview Selfie in the Backyard

During the Summer students go on vacation, but teachers do not. How many of you are taking an extra class, learning a new skill to keep you sharp for next year, or taking on a Summer side job? I am in school so I can add to my certification! So — yeah, there is a lot of activity going on for school teachers in the Summer (even though naysayers will scoff — "Oh, teachers get two months off for Summer!".

Summer Freebie: To show you my appreciation here are two FREE quote posters to share in a Language Arts or Humanities classroom. The first is "live life to the fullest" inspirational poster from Auntie Mame and the other is more of a muse — a quote poster from Terry Pratchett's novel The Hogfather.

I am holding a sale this week on TpT to show off some new products in my Stones of Erasmus TpT store. Here's a preview of some new resources I just created:

  • Philosophy in the Classroom 16 Half-sheet "Freedom" Task Card SetEngage high schoolers with topics ranging from extrinsic and intrinsic freedoms, positive and negative liberty, and conversation starters on fighting for the right to be free (relevant for today, for sure).

16 Half-sheet "Freedom Task Cards" set on TpT

  • A Serial Killer and a Hypocritical Grandmother: Conduct a short story discussion with High School students on Flannery O'Connor's explosive short fiction "A Good Man is Hard to Find"

"A Good Man is Hard to Find" Short Story Discussion Guide on TpT

Two-product Nietzsche bundle includes "The Greatest Weight" and "The Madman"

The story of the ancient trickster hero Sisyphus who cheats death is a famous Greek myth

PDF Copy for Printing

17.6.20

Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" Is As Relevant Today As It Was in 1955 (When It Was First Published)

There are a few short stories I keep coming back to in my life. I first read Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" in college. I was hooked. And don't read this blog post if you have not read the story. Here is a copy so you can return here after you've read it. You're welcome.
A black, empty vehicle idles in the driveway.
Photo by Anton Kraev on Unsplash
Reading "A Good Man is Hard to Find" in College
My professor, Sr. Jeanne d'Arc Kernion, was a senior Catholic Nun with a doctorate in English. She had been the mother superior of her monastery until it had dwindled in numbers. She was one of the few sisters left — her motherhouse was in Atchinson, Kansas — but she stayed in Louisiana until she retired a few years ago. She was one of the best English teachers I ever had because her instruction came with a love of fiction. She was always reading a new novel every week — and I felt like, for her, talking about fiction was as easy as making one's coffee with warm milk in the morning. I took her Contemporary Fiction course — which was a way for her to teach college-age students many of her favorite works of fiction she could cram into a semester.

Coming from the South We All Knew Someone Like the Grandmother (And More Spoilers!)
We read O'Connor in that class — and I think for me, at nineteen or twenty years old, I knew people like the Grandmother. So she wasn't that shocking. In the South, we had grandmothers before anyone ever heard of a "Karen"! I also remember being attuned to O'Connor's insertions of absurd details. For example, a monkey is tied to a Chinaberry tree in the story. Who does that? And the unnamed mother has a face, according to the text, as innocent as a cabbage! Those strange details hooked me to O'Connor's fictional world, which is why I devoured her other stories and two works of fiction with delight.

O'Connor's fictional world is inter-connected — while her stories do not feature repeat characters and there isn't overarching worldbuilding inherent to her storytelling — it is evident that the universe of the Grandmother and the Misfit are the same universe as Hazel Motes in Wise Blood and Mr. Shiflet in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." The universal theme that connects all of O'Connor's fiction is that our lives of dreary banality can often become undone by the macabre to shake us out of our complacency. In "A Good Man" — it's the innocent family vacation that ultimately turns deadly that shakes the reader out of their complacency. But, as you notice, if you've read the story repeatedly, O'Connor has signposted the narrative with heavy-handed hints that something awful is just around the corner.

O'Connor's Foreshadowing Technique is in Retrospect Obvious, But No One Gets it At First
I'm a high school English teacher, and I often teach the short story to Ninth and Tenth graders. I like to read the story out loud, and I have different students read different parts. I tend to read the narration. No one gets the foreshadowing until the end. Most of my students are surprised when I remind them that the Grandmother reads about the Misfit in the newspaper — it's mentioned in the first paragraph! And a quarter of the way in — Red Sammy's wife talks about a murderer attacking her restaurant. And there are other less than obvious hints. The Grandmother complains that she should dress formally for the car ride in case anyone who would find her dead on the roadside would know right away she was a lady!

Spoiler Alert! And Why People Don't See the Misfit Coming
There is also symbolic foreshadowing of the Grandmother pointing out to June Star and John Wesley a cotton field cemetery dotted with five or six grave markings. Oh no. In the end — the body count is six dead. I am assuming you, my reader, have read the short story, or you wouldn't be reading my review — but now I know you will return to the text and find the examples I just pointed out to you. My students are often shocked. And I think it says a lot about O'Connor's craft as a writer. She does not write a stray sentence. Every word, every line, is purposeful — even the details, that on first reading, seem redundant, at the end are memorable and shocking. Ironically, the Grandmother would worry about what her corpse looked like — as if people would wonder whether her dress color matched her hat! But it's those details that stick with us, the absurd and zany happenings of the Grandmother's storytelling and the insouciant children, June Starr and John Wesley — that catch our attention, and we are drawn into their world that by the end, we forget there is a Misfit on the loose. We don't see him coming.

The Grandmother's Actions Are the Biggest Red Flag
Yes, people don't see the Misfit coming, and they miss the textual clues that point to a potential dumpster fire. Yet — the sticking point is that it's all the Grandmother's fault! I think many readers see the Grandmother as goofy and a nag — slightly annoying and hypocritical. But there is also something else about the Grandmother that bothers me (besides being an archetypical Southern nag).

She doesn't think about the ramifications of her actions. If you chart it out, the entire story is the Grandmother's series of mistakes that lead to her and her family's death. And she is oblivious to her moral responsibility in this fate until the end — when in the story's climactic moment, she sees the Misfit and reaches out to him and says he is one of her own babies. I think the Grandmother sees that she is about to die, but she also, in a flash, has a revelation about her own broken, human condition.

People sometimes quip that before you die your life flashes before your eyes. But for the Grandmother — I think — she sees everything she did wrong in painstaking detail. She saw how she didn't want to go on the vacation, and when she reluctantly went, she hid the cat in her basket so no one would find out. She never thinks that perhaps her son, in reserving a motel room, would need to know that there was a cat on board. She ironically is worried that in her absence, the cat will accidentally turn on the gas burner and asphyxiate itself. When in truth, her caviler attitude is one step that brings her to her own death. Telling her son and family that she knows the location of a house with a secret door — I won't riddle you with all of the details — she forces everyone to go on a wild goose chase, which eventually leads them off the beaten path and lost. The Grandmother realizes that she has no idea how to find the house — that's it's not in Georgia — but in Tennessee — and in that moment instead coming clean with everyone she jostles the basket with Pitty Sing the cat — who jumps out in a rube-goldberg scenario that causes the Father to lose control of the car and crash it.

You may miss it if you have only read the story once — but there is a moment when the Grandmother is crouched in the fetal position, another foreshadowing of her death? She fantasizes that she is injured, so her son will have pity on her rather than become angry about leading the family astray. Now — it is perhaps easy to whisk away the Grandmother's action as just a senile senior citizen. But if we take the Grandmother to court, it becomes clear that this is a person who would rather be hurt, to be injured, to put her family in danger, rather than act honestly and allow her words to match her actions.

The Grandmother's Racist Microaggressions Should Also Be Considered
Take her behavior earlier in the story when she and Red Sammy, the Bar-b-que restaurant owner, are railing on about the moral degradation of society. But the Grandmother enjoys touting moral platitudes, but easily her actions belie her words. She thinks nothing of taking a photograph of a little black child she sees on the side of the road, not wearing pants (or, as we say in the South, britches). And she thinks nothing of telling her grandchildren a story loaded with racist innuendo about Black people.

O'Connor inserts these insensitivities into the mouth of the Grandmother because it is another way to show that this is a person who does not reflect on the implications of their actions — at all. But the Grandmother is also a person who very easily will point the finger at someone else. So when the Misfit and his henchman find the Grandmother and her family stuck on the side of the road, again, the Grandmother does not hesitate to endanger her family further when she recognizes him and shouts out his name. I should add here that I am not a criminal murderer, but if I were, I certainly would not want a witness to recognize me and shout my name, for all to hear — especially if I am a recently escaped federal prisoner. Now I do not mean to suggest that the Grandmother directly planned and caused her and her family's demise — but I will argue that O'Connor is suggesting that much of society's problems lie in an inability to truly and authentically reflect on our actions.

O'Connor's Story is Radically Relevant in Our Times that Does Not Seem Much Different from 1955
Returning to the racist and demeaning behavior of the Grandmother — she has probably never been put to task for how she talks about and treats people of color. She has become smug in her moral uprightness that she is unable, or unwilling, to see her participation in oppressing those that are not like her. An inability to appreciate difference, to see color, to see racial division is why, O'Connor's short story, is relevant for today — written over fifty years ago, its portrayal of a white person who cannot zoom out and see how she is part of a bigger problem painfully rings true in the recent events surrounding the death of George Floyd.

Black Americans have rallied together and protested the murder of an innocent Black man at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. And cries have been shouted across the nation that we as a people, must come to terms with our conflicted relationship to race in this country. The axial moment of "A Good Man" is that the Grandmother only comes to realize her cooperation at the moment of her death — as I mentioned earlier in this blog post. The Misfit shoots her twice in the heart — which is telling — because the heart is the symbol of emotion and love. And the Misfit shot her in a moment of recoil when the Grandmother, in an almost tender moment of love, reaches out to him and calls him her child.

"'She would have been a good woman,' the Misfit said, 'if there had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life'"
I think readers miss something relevant to what happens after the Misfit kills the Grandmother. The Misfit is taken back by his violence and is shaken more than he would typically be, wiping his glasses of the blood of the woman he has just shot. His henchman criticizes him, and he retorts, it is no real pleasure in life. And at that moment he says, perhaps, the most quotable line from the story — "'She would have been a good woman,' the Misfit said, 'if it had. been somebody to shoot her every minute of her life.'" I read this to say, that the Misfit recognizes that it was something good, something preternaturally good, about the Grandmother's final action, that causes him to recoil like a snake and kill her.

I think of a person tending to a wounded dog — and the dog, not recognizing the person's kindness, bites him. The Misfit has had a life of criminality, disavowal of goodness, and a childhood deprived of love and care. In the Misfit, we see a man who has indeed been a "miss fit." He does not fit into society's fabric, so he has isolated himself and chosen a life of delinquency. It is hinted that he killed his own family. And that his father physically abused him.

When O'Connor Alludes to Jesus She is Being More than Just Religious
And the Misfit's theological discussion with his Grandmother — that Jesus threw it all off balance is telling. The Misfit cannot accept a person like Jesus because the Misfit's own life has been absent of the kind of love that Jesus represents. In fact, in an almost desiring way, the Misfit wishes he had seen the person of Jesus with his own eyes and witnessed his miracles. He would have to see it to believe it. But isn't that the final irony of this messed up tale? That a racist, empty-headed, middle-class, commodity obsessed, superficial white woman becomes a beacon of love that infiltrates the misfit's hardened heart. Let that sink in.

Now we don't know what happens to the Misfit. Because the story ends. And as a teaching tip — have your students continue the story! And you may be aware that O'Connor herself gave a rendering of what she believed will become of the Misfit. She sees the Grandmother's action as a moment of grace that plants itself in the heart of the misfit that will grow like a mustard seed into a crow-filled tree! That's an interesting visual metaphor, the action of grace. And I get it. Grace (or call it a moment of aesthetic judgment) is this instantaneous moment of undeserved love — or mercy — that humans are capable of — but we often do not consider it — taken in more by reports of humanity's baser nature or propensity for violence and harm.

So how are we to come away with this story? What is the message that it leaves us with, ultimately? I think the message of "A Good Man is Hard to find" is that "the good" is something that does not come out of moral uprightness or outward bearing signs of good behavior. Do you remember who says the title of the story? It's Red Sammy — and he certainly is not the paragon of a good man. Or is he?

Goodness is Not a Polite Profile But an Eruption
In this story, the good cannot be a profile we affix to a person. As when we say, "Oh, he's good because of XYZ." Goodness is an eruption, a sudden moment of grace that can spring up when we least expect it — come in at a moment of otherwise sheer terror to open up the world anew. Perhaps the Misfit is right — Jesus threw the world off balance. Jesus — here — being an analog for that which comes into the world, despite its own gnarly roughness, and can shine forth.

Isn't it absurd that in O'Connor's worldview, that turns out to be a miserly old woman? I guess that is the truth of "A Good Man is Hard to Find". So now. I try to judge people less harshly. I also try to be more aware of my own words and how they match my actions. When I first read the story with Sister Jean d'Arc, I saw myself as a good man. I was in school, and I tried my best to go to Church, to help others. But I feel like this story is about how the usual trappings of goodness often don't reveal our true selves. For example — remember bratty June Starr and John Wesley? In the story, the children, even though they are spoiled brats and do not show respect to their elders, see the adults' hypocrisy. The family in this story do not listen to one another. They regularly talk over one another — and I think O'Connor presents us with this family for a reason. For they are not unlike many families I know — or the family I come from — in which we often bicker and complain, but rarely take a breath, and achieve quiet. And listen.

Advertisement for a TpT Short Discussion Guide: A Good Man is Hard to Find Made by Stones of Erasmus © 2020

12.6.20

Journal & Rant: Quotation On Owning Property (And How This Aphorism Unnerves Me)

He who has the property in the soil has the same up to the sky.
Arrow Magazine Advert 1950s
Property Rights Are Not Something to Argue About With Americans
     I found the above aphorism in a quote book from England published in 1856. It would not be hard to convince a mogul in the real estate business that the above aphorism is a truth worth considering. In the United States, property ownership is next to godliness. Don't mess with someone's land. Ever since Europeans set their toe on the Americas, men were imbued with insane logic that what they claimed from the crown and God was rightfully their property. The Native Americans? Puh-shah — we came, we saw, we converted them to Christianity. Freedom, baby! Manifest destiny! But why is this concept of land ownership so ingrained in American culture? And why is it a dangerous thought? And should we reconsider it?
But What Do I Own, Really?
     As a teenager, I was suspicious of most things (as is usual for a teen). I remember telling my aunt who had come over for dinner that "I'd never own a house." She laughed. And then spent the remainder of our mirliton stuffed with hamburger meat as to why I should reconsider my statement. And now at forty years old, I still don't own property. I have no land deeds to my name. Nah dah
     My landlessness is probably due to the fact that I live in New York City where no one in my income bracket owns a piece of property unless they inherited it — or live three states out from the city center. And I am comfortable with renting. And I don't own a car, either, because I live in a neighborhood close to a commuter train, subway station, and bus lines. But I also choose to live in New York — yet it is not where I was born — that would be the South  and certainly in South Louisiana to be middle class, to be white, to be American — is to own a house. 
     In fact, right after Hurricane Katrina, property values were ridiculously low. The government was literally giving land away in a program called "The Road Home"  to anyone who would grab it (taken from folks who had lost their mortgage because of displacement or who did not have the capital to rebuild). I never bought one of those post-Katrina properties but I know a few folks who did and they act like they got a great deal. But what if you lost your property, do you still have the sky? There is a Massasoit saying that goes something like how can we claim we own land when it belongs to Mother Nature — "How can one man say it belongs only to him?". I am amazed by how in radical ways, changing the perspective we have on private land ownership can change how we live together in a community. 
      For example, changing a busy avenue to a pedestrian mall during this recent Cornavirus epidemic has transformed my neighborhood. Where you would normally see cars buzzing down a busy thoroughfare a broad avenue turns into a long park for people to safely social distance and get fresh air! But I also live in a neighborhood bereft of public green space despite the fact that many of the apartments in my neighborhood are historic "garden apartments" — boasting gorgeous park spaces within the confines of private, closed-off buildings. Take a moment and think about how your city or neighborhood would drastically change if even a half percent of private land was open to the public. If you are pessimistic about this prospect then you are missing the opportunity to create connections between others that are desperately needed in this country.  
And How Land Ownership Ties Into Racial Ideology in America
     The same aunt who rattled off arguments to me as to why I should own a house finally bought a house. She had rented for years — but I think she resented this fact (and now, oddly, she sends me Facebook messages of black people who apparently are against the Black Lives Movement. As if she has found a treasure worth saving. "See," she thinks. "Greig will abandon his liberal ways once he sees a black person agrees with me!" She bought her house in a mixed neighborhood; she exclaims to me uncomfortably how much she loves her "black neighbors" — as if she is surprised by the comfort and safety she feels. 
      My aunt sees herself as an underdog — like a lot of white people who have a not-so-thinly-veiled disgust for any movement that touts racial equality. See. She just bought that house and has come to peace with living in close proximity to people who do not look like her. It doesn't matter that she is over sixty and will have the house paid off in forty years! She has a house. 
      But a mortgage scares the heck out of me. If I lose my job or if my income suddenly plummets it sucks that I would have to move and find cheaper housing but if I had a mortgage what would I do? I honestly believe homeownership, despite its risks, makes a certain group of American white people satisfied — they've achieved the American dream. And those Facebook messages? They're rants about how George Floyd was a criminal and no one wants to admit it and that it's hypocritical to have a funeral for him with such grand public attendance because we are in the middle of a pandemic. I can't make this stuff up.
Racism Is Bad — Until It Affects Me Personally
     I feel like people, a lot of people, do not understand racism and its ugly tentacles and how racism stretches out and chokes, black people, and white people — and brown people. As James Baldwin mentions in a documentary, I Am Not Your Negroe, made a few years ago that garnered Academy Award accolades — Baldwin's words are the voiceover of the documentary overlayed with archival material of our country's racial history, tied to recent events — there are no white people. Ever. White is just a metaphor for power and it is Chase Manhattan Bank. The same people you probably owe your mortgage to.
     So. How do I feel about the aphorism, now? Do I own the same property up to the sky? I am going to replace the quote with a different one and make it a mantra: "Leave the earth as you found it". If leaving my mark on the world means the suffering of someone else, then I want no part in it. I say that knowing full well, I am caught up in a system that is totally against this notion — but I want to believe it and as long as I am still alive I refuse to stop fighting for this belief. 
Source: Macdonnel, David Evans. A manual of quotations, by E.H. Michelsen. United Kingdom, n.p, 1856.