The Currency of Human Contact

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

In the wake of yesterday's tragedy in Las Vegas, there have been an awful lot of articles, posts, and opinions all over the internet. Really, it's to the point where I am scaling back my already-scaled-back time on social media.

This evening, I saw one thing online, though, that really got me. It was this:

So many people expressed their agreement with this.

And I agree, too.

As a Catholic school teacher, we are lucky to have those extra opportunities to teach empathy in our classrooms through our faith formation classes and service learning.

But the more I thought about when I teach empathy, the more I realized --

it's novels.
it's short stories.
it's poems.

I teach empathy to my precious kids through literature.

I have better discussions with my students over literature than I do any other time of the day.

In "The Kid Nobody Could Handle," Kurt Vonnegut taught us to identify those who feel unloved and reach out to them, because everyone needs a connection.

In Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt taught us that some decisions that people have to make are not always black and white.

In The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton taught us not to judge people by what they look like on the outside.

In "The Raven," Edgar Allan Poe taught us how to sympathize with someone who has lost his love.

And, of course, in To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee taught us what can happen when we allow prejudices of any kind to infect our society. She also taught us what it means to be honest, fair, and good.

My friends, we teach empathy through literature. We teach empathy through examining these beautiful and broken characters and putting ourselves in their shoes.

And thank God for it. Thank God for these writers whose magic words allow me to have these life-changing conversations with my kids. (No exaggeration.)

The realization that I teach empathy through literature both warmed by book-loving heart and it also gutted me.

Because I remembered:

A couple of weeks ago, I had dinner with my "little sister" J. As I often do when I see her, I was asking her about school.

Me: What are you guys reading right now?
J: Nothing really.
Me: What do you mean?
J: Well, we get these sheets, and we read them and answer questions about them. And then we get another sheet.
Me: What are the sheets about?
J: Like history and stuff.
Me: Wait ... you mean you get passages about things, read them, and answer questions? Like on the standardized test?
J: Yeah. We fill in the bubbles.
Me: Okay. But, like, what are you READING?
J: Nothing. We haven't even gone to the library yet this school year.

I do not mean this as any sort of indictment against teachers or how they run their classrooms, as I know just how many regulations and restrictions teachers face from the state. I simply share this information because it made me sad. Jailuh is in eighth grade. I teach eighth grade. So far this school year, my eighth grade students have read Vonnegut, Stephen King, and Patricia McKissack, among others. They are gearing up for a fall of Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, W.W. Jacobs, and Guy de Maupassant. And it's not because I'm awesome, trust me. I am mediocre at best. It's just that my job is teaching English.

But, guys, I tell you, reading this stuff with the kids -- it's BEAUTIFUL.

I don't know any other way to describe it. It makes my life.

The conversations we have about plots and characters and ideas are just amazing. And, like I said, it's how we learn empathy. It's stories.

"Stories are the creative conversation of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact." -- Robert McKee

Our children love stories. We love stories. There is no amount of passages we can read or bubbles that we can fill in that can take the place of stories.

"Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion." -- Barry Lopez

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