I've got excellent students this summer, I do, and I'm not just saying that -- these are TAA students, and don't ask me what that stands for, because I don't know and they don't either. What it means is that Whirlpool shipped jobs to Mexico and so half of Pork Smith got laid off, and under some deal with the Federal Govt has come back to school on grant money. So long as they stay in school full-time every single semester, including both summer semesters, and don't fail more than one class -- they can only fail one class, their entire university career, and they have to maintain a C average -- then they get to keep getting the TAA grant.
But they can't lay out a semester, and that includes summers.
These are people who have worked the line since they were sixteen, seventeen years old -- many of them are now fifty, sixty years old. Few of them are stupid and all of them are working hard. They have formed study groups and they coach each other and they do all the work and they do not quit. I love these students.
But do they have a background in what they need to know to read novels and literature? Do they know zip about Western Culture?
I'm using True Grit as the novel in my Freshman Comp class. (You'll recollect I gave up on Major Barbara, b/c no one would read it, and the ones who would read it couldn't read it.)
Well, they're reading True Grit. And they like True Grit. None of them had ever heard of it, mind you, which was a bit of a shock to me -- I almost didn't teach it because I figured everyone would have read it already. I mean, we're living in Fort Smith, and, hell, the movie plays every six minutes on TMC. How could they not have read it already?
But no. They had no idea the book or the movie existed.
Anyway, about half the class read it before we got to it, and the rest like it well enough, though one was surprised when I said it was fiction. "But these places are all real!" she exclaimed.
Apparently only books about places like Oz and Hogwarts are fiction? Don't ask me.
But they're liking the book, we're doing fine, I'm talking to them about why we read literature, what it's for, how it isn't escape, how their mamas lied to them, how it's important business, the most important business, how it's the work of culture, my usual lecture on that, then I start to talk about why we write about literature, and how we do it, and I start on the example I had picked out, which I picked out because I figured it would be easy.
"Consider the cluster of images in the opening sections of the book," I said. "When Mattie says that her father is his brother's keeper, and says that Tom Cheney has a mark on his face like banished Cain, and that no one knows why Cheney shot the Senator, or the birddog, for that matter, or why he shot her father. What is up with that?"
They gazed at me blankly.
Not a one, apparently.
"What's the mark of Cain?" I asked. "Why's Cain got that mark?"
"Yeah," one student said. "I was wondering. What's that mean?"
I had meant it as a rhetorical question, but they were all gazing at me in frank puzzlement. I stared back, astounded. "Cain and Abel?" I said. "You know, the story of Cain and..."
They waited, interested.
"Who knows the story of Cain and Abel?" I asked. No one spoke. "Why did Cain kill Abel?" I asked. No one answered.
Then, in the third row, hesitantly, "Wasn't it because his father was going to sacrifice him? Or...send him away? Right?"
"No," I said. "No." I did not stomp up and down and yell Good Shit a Christian Nation My ASS!
Even though I wanted to.
No, I just told them the story of Cain and Abel.
About halfway through, one of them interrupted me: "I never heard this story before!" she marveled.
Another said, "This is a really good story!"
"Yeah," I said, wryly. "That Bible, it's got some cool stuff in it."
When I was done, I said, "Portis expects you to know this and pick up on it. It's an image cluster he--" (The poor schmuck, I did not add) "--expects his audience to have in their heads. So. What's this add to our text?"
And what's this mean, about teaching literature in this Christian Nation, when they do not, in fact, have the King James Bible -- or any Bible -- in their heads? When they have NEVER heard of Cain and Abel? At all?
Hell, most of them haven't even heard of Buffy anymore.
They're blank slates indeed, these folk.