American culture is divided. This is not a secret; as educators, though we can see the division in every aspect of our society, we especially notice in education. And our students are divided as well. High school hallways are very political; our students want to “make America great again” and they want to take a knee. The daily Pledge of Allegiance has become a stressful time for students and teachers alike as the boundaries between respect and freedom blur. So, we attempt to refocus.
Forthe last twelve years, I have included Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried in my AP Literature and Composition class. This is a summer reading assignment that we use to learn how to approach all literature. My students are learning a new way to read, a new way to look critically at everything around them. This is a season of growth for them when they begin to see things through new eyes. Every September, my students and I embark on a lengthy discussion as they ask questions of each other, of me, of the book, of Tim O’Brien. This year, one of my classes has been stuck on why. I will admit that the questions behind the Vietnam War have come up more than I would like…we are, after all, studying literature. But, they want to know why did the US even get involved in Vietnam? Why didn’t we support our troops? Why was there so much controversy? Why did these men (characters to my students) have to die? Why does war have to destroy innocence? Why is a question, the root of many questions, O’Brien does not seek to address in his novel. In a speech at Florida Gulf Coast University in 2012, I heard O’Brien answer the question inadvertently when he said, “Vietnam was certain death for uncertain reasons.”
Yesterday, my students realized they were asking the wrong question. We have discussed every aspect of this novel, from its structure to its symbols, the metaphoric names of characters, motifs, and thematic threads. They realized the thing they really want to know is how. How can they make this stop? How can they save the lives of the Curt Lemons, Ted Lavenders, Kiowas, Tim O’Briens who are still stepping into battle? They were surprised by the answer they found within the novel. Kindness. They were embarrassed to even consider kindness a solution. They felt like “hippies.” They worried they were being naïve. One student explained that we are so used to hearing the negative that we all feel immature, like children, when we ask people to just be kind to each other. They talked about the many ways kindness is not valued in their lives, media, social media, families, and government – local to national. As silly as they felt, they came to terms with the idea that if everyone embraced the childlike wonder of kindness, our world would be a safer, happier place. At the same time, they acknowledged that if any one does not adopt kindness, it won’t work. It seems a solution that could work on a personal level, but would fail on a global level.
I am proud of my students and their understanding of this piece of O’Brien’s novel, their understanding of how literature can guide humanity as well as reflect it, their understanding of their places in the world. These are seniors in high school. They will soon be our decision makers, our leaders, our future. Today, I am thinking about what we are teaching our students, what we owe them, and really what we owe each other. Even if Tim O’Brien said it first, I believe my students may have said it best – and I like to think he would be proud of them. There is a character in The Things They Carried, Henry Dobbins, who can easily fade into the background among the noise and imagery and pain of the war stories; he is one a reader loves though, one you would like to meet. He is kind. As simple as it seems, my students stumbled on an answer. I’m going to be a little naïve today, embrace my childlike nature, and be kind. I owe it to my students. And myself.