Friday, April 13, 2007

Keepin' It Real: An Homage to Kurt Vonnegut

It’s May of 1981, and I’m teaching a developmental English Class (that’s code for “last chance to graduate”) to New York City inner city high school seniors. That year, my second of teaching ever, I was juggling five preps, moderating student council, coaching the track team, running Friday night Bingo and taking evening classes at Columbia University for my Master's.

Sunday mornings after morning prayers, I would get out and walk to fool myself into thinking that I was taking care of me. On one particularly cold February morning, I am walking on the deserted streets of the Upper East Side and Kurt Vonnegut passes me! Eyes down, smoking a cigarette, he was probably coming out of the corner deli from buying his Sunday Times. Just that very week, I was teaching his short story, “Who Am I This Time?” to my seniors. It’s a quirky story about a small town community theatre group that selects shows and casts in the role of the leading man, an introverted, socially maladjusted bumpkin. He transforms and truly becomes the character; Romeo, Stanley Kowalski, Henry IV, etc. It’s a great story (made into a short movie with Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken).
So after reversing direction and stalking Vonnegut for about 7 blocks, I finally get up enough guts to stop him.

“Mr. Vonnegut, I’m a teacher in Harlem and I’m trying to make your short story 'Who Am I this Time?' relevant to my students. Can you give me some pointers?”

I’m fully ready for him to invite me into his house for a pedantic review of plot and character development. I’m fully ready to invite him into the nearest diner for discussions of theme and overarching social implications of the piece. He stops, looks at me as if I am truly a nut, then smiles. He shifts the newspaper under his other arm and puts a hand on my shoulder and says: “Tell them it’s a real story, because it is. Now start to figure out what real means and you’ll do a great job teaching that and everything else you might end up teaching.” And he walks away, touching the wallet in his back pocket to make sure it’s still there.

And that really has been the touchstone of so much of my pedagogy and classroom planning; trying to figure out what’s “real” from the students’ perspective and teaching accordingly.

That’s a real story, whatever “real” means.

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