My husband suggested that I might want to write a humorous story to break up the tone of my posts. I wish I could do that, because I gain insight from humorous stories too. But, unfortunately, I’m not Erma Bombeck, or Mark Twain. I wish I were. I may at some point be able to craft a humorous story, but not today. Today I’m writing about how something I’ve been reading helped me understand something that happened that has been a puzzle until now.
Have you ever read a book or a story that affected you so deeply that you continued to think about it long after you finished the last page? I have several on my list. Many of them have made me laugh or cry. They certainly made me think. That’s why reading is dangerous.
When I get emotional while reading, I’m usually alone. Which is the way I prefer it. When you cry in public it makes everyone uncomfortable. This story is about what happened one day, when I was teaching English. I hadn’t thought about that incident for years until this morning.
I was reading the book, The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brene’ Brown for my up coming book club meeting. In today’s section, Brene’ was relating an incident when she felt deep shame over a response to one of her blog posts, and how she dealt with it. (In case you don’t know about her, she researches the effects of shame on us and how vulnerability can lead us to wholehearted living.) While I was reading, I was reminded of this incident in my English class and thought I’d relate it to you.
The class was American Lit. We were reading the account of Olaudah Equiano, a slave who later bought his freedom to become an abolitionist in England. The section titled, “The Middle Passage”, describes his capture and trip across the Atlantic to one of the Caribbean islands. It’s a harrowing story, so much like the account in Roots, which made me stop reading the book for several days until I could recover enough to pick it up again. The slaves are whipped and crammed into tight quarters. The description of the callousness of the captors, the beatings, filth and stench were so real for me, that I was deeply affected. When I was reading it at home, I thought, I hope I can get through reading this in class without crying. Of course, I couldn’t.
My students were understandably concerned. I think it’s sad that crying in public is not okay.
The classroom became deadly silent. They didn’t know what to do with a teacher who was crying over a passage in the story.
One of the braver students asked me, “Miss, why are you crying?”
I had no idea what to say, but honesty seemed the best policy. “I’m crying because I feel bad about what happened to the slaves.”
“You mean, like you had something to do with it?”
“Yes, I guess. I feel bad that the whites treated the slaves so badly.”
“But, Miss, you weren’t there. You didn’t do it?”
“You’re right,” I said. “I still feel bad.” Then I wiped my eyes and blew my nose and we continued discussing the selection.
It’s important for you to know, that I was teaching in a school that has an over 90 percent population of Mexican/American students. The school is on a border town in Southern Arizona. Those students understand persecution. I don’t know if the fact that I’m white and I was crying about what happened to the slaves so long ago affected my students or not. I think it did. I hope it did.
I write about this incident because, I think it’s important to write about the good and the bad things about being human. Some of the biggest insights have come to me when I’m reading about a person or character’s greatest struggles. As a writer, though, it’s hard to dig down deep and write about those most painful feelings. At least it is for me. I can write about them all day in my journal, but if I know someone’s going to read them, well that’s a different matter. The thing is, that’s why I should dig down and write about the pain, because someone’s going to read it and gain insight. That’s what Olaudah Equiano did, that’s what Brene’ Brown does.
I’ve been doing a lot of personal work lately. Reading Brene’ Brown’s book is just one aspect of the work. It’s helping me see that if we keep secret our wounded places, it can destroy us. On the other hand if we share them, we can help someone we don’t even know. Olaudah Equiano helped people understand what it was like to be captured, tortured, and transported to a far off place and be sold into slavery. His was one of the first slave stories. Many more came after. Who knows maybe his story touched enough people who saw how wrong slavery was and they started the Abolitionist movement.
I guess that’s why I read. Because I’m looking for insight into myself and into what it means to be human.That’s also why I write. It’s part of my process of healing and understanding.
What books or stories prompted you to think long after the reading was finished?