Saturday, March 29, 2014

Why We Need Literature and Art

Post by John Staber: John is in his 6th year of teaching English at Bettendorf High School. You can follow him on twitter @jstaber

My mother was an artist. One of her paintings hangs from the wall of my home. It’s a painting of her father holding her little sister on his lap—the muted colors convey the day’s toil on my grandpa’s face. His eyes are bordered by blue shadows that secretly tell the viewer that the day has been hard. It’s titled Padre y Nina.  My mother majored in art but only completed her junior year, giving up her aspirations to become an art teacher in order to start raising her children.

To pass what little time she had to herself, she read voraciously. I can still see her sitting on the couch, her legs curled up underneath her, a book in hand, and the pages feathered out before her. I was accustomed to this image, and perhaps took it for granted. In these sparse moments she had to herself, she would escape into a separate world. For her, literature was being present in the moment of the words. She taught me how to read by simply showing me how to do it: by sitting on the couch with a book.  She took to art in the same way by gazing at a piece and looking beyond the surface for meaning. I learned to appreciate art and literature by simply watching her. I learned what the power to be still and in the moment can do: illuminate a life beyond the surface of things.  

While pursuing a lack-luster degree in business at the University of Iowa, I can remember picking up the phone and having extended conversations with my mother about books. I enjoyed those conversations; and in my classroom, I try to instill that same sense of passion about literature into my students, that same sense of enjoying literature for the sake that it is meant to be enjoyed. I learned how to discuss literature from these conversations just as much as I did in any classroom.  I learned that literature is communication.  Yet, those conversations would end much sooner than I ever could’ve expected.

On Mother’s Day weekend of 2009, my dad called to tell me that my mother had been taken to the hospital in order to have fluid drained from her heart. Only days after, she was diagnosed with stage four, non-small cell lung cancer—the kind smokers get, except my mother never held a cigarette in her hand, let alone one perched upon her lips. She had a total of fourteen tumors, all lighting up her body like a constellation in the night sky. Days after, she called to tell me that she had at most  two years to live, which I later found out was a motherly fib. In fact, she had been told to expect six months to a year, with six months being the more reliable figure. She was simply softening the blow. A few days later, I turned twenty-nine.

I began the 2008/2009 school year as a brand spanking new teacher, equipped with all the naivety that comes with such an experience. I experienced the birth of my first child—my daughter—and all the sleepless nights that eventually came along with her, and I ended the year with the news that my mother would most likely not be around the following summer.  In the end, cancer took her in only thirteen months’ time—seven months longer than her oncologists originally gave her. She was, and remains to this day, the most stubborn person I have ever known. But cancer is relentless, even for the most hardheaded. By the time it was over, she was a shadow of her former self, both physically and mentally. I can remember the smoky silhouette of her poor excuse of a body lying on the make-shift hospital bed near the bay windows of my parents’ living room. I can remember her thin figure taking shape beneath the white quilt and not knowing whether that was a person or simply nature’s perverse version of one. I still remember sitting with my family and watching the final rise and fall of her chest, exhaling her final moments out into oblivion, while we exhaled what could no longer be said.

She died on June 13th, 2010 at 9:22 pm.  It was raining. I was thirty years old.

When I lost my mother to cancer, it was the first major loss I had ever experienced. I was fortunate enough that it came later in my life than earlier. Watching someone deteriorate from terminal cancer is one long process of grieving. When she died, I lost more than simply a family member and the bond that ties a mother and son: I lost a sense of communication. I didn’t get to have those conversations about books, art, and film like I was able to have with her, and I was reluctant to have them with anyone else.

But I find that I have those conversations more and more with my students.  In some ways, although it can never replace it, the conversations I have with my students regarding literature and why we read it, fill the void of communication I once felt deeply from the loss of my mother.  I call them conversations because I like to think I provide enough space in my classroom in which students feel a sense of ownership over the day’s discussion on whatever text we’re studying. At least that’s what I attempt to create.

Unfortunately, many of the students I encounter on a daily basis did not grow up in the world I did. Fewer than ever are coming from households where a parent is curled up on the couch, a book in hand, with the pages fanning the air; and the reasons are numerous.  I was fortunate, but many of my students are not.
I wonder what my mother would say about the world my students are going to inherit. I certainly wonder what she would say about the world my daughter and son are going to inherit. I wonder that most of all. With the increasing emphasis on a world driven by technology, tweets, and a constant bombardment of notifications, I find that my students (and present company included) are not living in the moment, but more often through the moments trapped between layers of microchips, processors, and a 4.5 inch glass screen. Don’t get me wrong: I like technology. I like my iPhone, I like my iPad, but I don’t like how this digital dependency has fragmented my attention to the world around me.

In a recent article in Time, Kate Pickert discusses the art of mindfulness practices.  Essentially, meditation: the art of emptying the mind of thoughts or the concentration of the mind on one thing. I am not one to believe in any one method as the magic bullet to our problems. Instead, I know that the myriad of problems we face in education today can only be met with a myriad of solutions enacted by a myriad of people. But, I must say that this idea of mindfulness, the ability to empty the mind in order to concentrate on one thing, is maybe just what we need most as a society in order to simply provide balance to an utterly chaotic world. Perhaps, in order to get my students to think critical thoughts, I need them to get rid of some first.

My mother would certainly say that technology is not the answer to any one educational woe we are experiencing. Part of the answer? Sure—I would argue that it has its place. But so do the quiet, introspective moments that literature, writing, and art inspire. Those contemplative moments which are woven in and out of the words on a page, the introspective alone time that simply viewing a painting can provide, have their place in our lives and in our students’ lives most of all. And this is why we need literature and art more than ever in today’s classroom. As an artist, I think my mother would certainly agree.

1 comment:

  1. So, so powerful, John. Thanks for sharing about your mother. What a beautiful picture of words you paint of her.