Surviving Serpent-Filled Seas of Epic Proportions. (Or Fifth-Period PE.)

When FETCHING came out, the very nice people at the International Reading Association asked me to write a guest post for their Reading Today Online blog. I’m now able to share it with you on my own blog:

Surviving Serpent-Filled Seas of Epic Proportions. (Or Fifth-Period PE.)

“All of life, it turns out, is explained in the eighth-grade English list.”

I wish those were my words, but they’re not. I found them in The Washington Post, in a column by Michael Gerson, titled “Life Lessons in an Eighth-Grade Reading List.” (http://tinyurl.com/az8rmrt). In it, he discusses bullying, injustice, and the torment of outcasts, all to the following point: “Young adults learn big lessons – such as how to cultivate courage and sympathy – through the eighth-grade reading list.”

As Gerson points out, very few of us can read “Lord of the Flies” and not be moved by the savagery; very few of us can read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and not feel a sense of awe and pride.

It’s an insightful article, and Gerson has a great point. Good fiction can give us hope, perspective, and understanding of the world and how it works; good books can not only change how we think, but how we feel. Literature can change lives.

Here’s how literature changed mine.

It wasn’t eighth-grade for me – I have to say that middle-school was more a study in social survival than great literature. It was in my ninth-grade English class, during a section on Western mythology. I had a wonderful teacher named Rudolfo whose lessons have stuck with me, in more ways than I could have predicted.

Every myth, he taught us, has the following elements:

Challenge: What problem is being presented? What does the character want or need that he or she doesn’t currently have?

Journey: What will the character have to do to change the situation or get what he/she wants or needs? How does the character plan to do that? What is the quest?

Obstacle(s):  What thing(s) – both direct and indirect – come up to complicate the quest?

Battle with obstacle: How does the character react to the obstacle?

Reward: The term is used very loosely, and doesn’t always mean a glory moment or a blatant victory, or even a happy ending. Rather, what has changed or been affected as a result of the above?

It was enlightening; when we applied it to the myths we were reading, a pattern definitely emerged. But then he had us take it a little further. Go home, he told us, and watch something on TV. It can be a sitcom, a drama, a movie. Dissect it. And see what you find. Sure enough, each of us found the parallels – whether it was an episode of Family Ties, or Knight Rider, or a storyline in General Hospital. I think someone even found the elements in a toilet-bowl cleaner commercial.

It was fascinating. I felt like I had been given a secret decoder ring to understanding the elements of a story. Rudolfo had demystified it all – from mythology to modern screenplays – he’d made it accessible, relatable, even fun.

But it was during a classroom discussion that he really made us think. Where were the stories in our own lives? What were the challenges each one of us had faced, and how had we managed the journey? What obstacles had come up, and how did we deal with the obstacles? What was the reward, and did it come in a different form than expected?

You may not think a bunch of awkward, ill-complexioned, gum-snapping fourteen-year-olds would have been able to pull all the elements of classical literature out of their own life experiences. But we did.  I’m not going to claim to remember everything that was brought up, but I do remember the experiences ran the gamut from seemingly ordinary (trying out for a soccer team, for example) to slightly heroic (standing up to a bully) to pretty tragic (losing a pet).

At the time, I was still recovering from the very “character-forming” years of middle school and had the self-esteem and confidence of a sand gnat. My brother had been put into a drug rehab a thousand miles away – I missed him. I was scared and full of angst. But Rudolfo gave me a different perspective. Maybe life was like an intricate myth, full of average monsters and everyday titans and little wars and nearly invisible victories, and maybe I just hadn’t gotten to the reward yet.

I know it’s not always so simplistic – in fact, my brother’s struggles with addiction have become a long-strung series of obstacles, perhaps more of an epic odyssey than a myth. But his journey isn’t over. Sometimes it’s a matter of keeping up the fight.

But Rudolfo made us more interesting. He not only taught us how to read a story, and even craft one, but he empowered us. He gave us a way to look at our young lives and our moments of turmoil – bullies, injustices, tragedies of varying degrees – and find real meaning. To this day, when I’m going through something tough, I see the value in what I learned from him. It helps to remind myself that maybe I’ve just come up against a new challenge. Or maybe I’ve hit the battle phase.  Maybe there will be some reward – if I can just get through the journey.

Sometimes I like to think we’re all just modern, ordinary, unromanticized, perhaps even Cheeto-eating versions of those gods and goddesses themselves. Sure, none of us wakes up every day feeling like some sort of glorious Greek deity, but it helps to know that if we don’t shy away from the uncomfortable, inevitable obstacles, we’re channeling a little bit of our own inner hero. #

Here’s a link to the much-more-professional-looking original post: http://www.reading.org/general/Publications/blog/engage/engage-single-post/engage/2011/10/13/in-other-words-surviving-serpent-filled-seas