Saturday, February 13, 2016

When Someone Wants To Learn...

School was over, the meeting had been canceled, but still I lingered. My copy of Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, was missing. The copy in which I had kept copious notes, scribbles, and discussion points. The copy I discovered almost 15 years ago. The copy that changed my life. The story that took me to New York, Connecticut, Tennessee, and France; the book that led me to the author's personal diaries, to his home, to Doris his wife--my friend. And now the book was missing. No wonder I lingered. 

I sat at the desk (which I share with two other women), and opened the cupboard and drawers in which I rarely venture. This time, slightly despondent, a little crushed if all the memories within that book were gone as if cast out to sea on a leaky boat. Alas, I didn't find my treasure, but I found another.

In a box, in the cupboard, I found this copy of Viktor Frankl's Man Search For Meaning. It was thicker than most copies, bulging even, and I pulled it from its darkness. It was a rainbow! --of colored post-it notes, of written, treasured, and learned-from-passages from a man who knew what it was to suffer.

Ah, this student understood.

Understood the connection of book to body, to soul.

Man's Search for Meaning books are a class set, and students are not allowed to write in them--but how can we have a mind-meld, engagement with a book if we can't talk back? If we can't record the "Ah ha," the part that crushes our soul, the moment of epiphany, the experience is never complete. This is why this copy was sequestered safely away. The teacher didn't want to let this go; she knew it was a work of art, a testament to experience, an understanding transferred truth.

Once I had a student whose yellow post it notes took over her checked-out, school-owned copy of Man's Search for Meaning. When the time came to turn in the book---oh how I wished I'd said, "Keep it Lauren. I'll replace the book." It would have been the best $10 ever spent. Why did I fail her?

Because I'd fought to bring the book to my classroom; I'd special ordered the exact number of books I'd needed; I'd momentarily treasured the book more than the treasure the book had brought to a student who wanted to learn.

Many of my students are having the same wonderful experience with  Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed.

And so they asked, "We can't write notes in the book, right?

I wiggled uncomfortably and my face squenched in indecision.

"Well," I said, "the notes in a book are part of its history. I wouldn't mind if you underlined something really important or left a few thoughts for next year's readers."

The voice of the author, dead for many years, mingles with the voices of students-- a conversation still possible with words and a pen.

Billy Collins captured it best in his poem about annotation:

Marginalia by Billy Collins

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
Skirmishes against the author
Raging along the borders of every page
In tiny black script.

If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
They seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
"Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" -
That kind of thing.

I remember once looking up from my reading,
My thumb as a bookmark,
Trying to imagine what the person must look like

Who wrote "Don't be a ninny"
Alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
Needing to leave only their splayed footprints
Along the shore of the page.

One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.
Another notes the presence of "Irony"
Fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
"Absolutely," they shout

To Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
"Yes." "Bull's-eye." "My man!"
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points

Rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
Without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
In a margin, perhaps now
Is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
And reached for a pen if only to show
We did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
We pressed a thought into the wayside,
Planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
Jotted along the borders of the Gospels
Brief asides about the pains of copying,
A bird singing near their window,
Or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
Anonymous men catching a ride into the future
On a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
They say, until you have read him
Enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
The one that dangles from me like a locket,
Was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
One slow, hot summer.

I was just beginning high school then,
Reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
And I cannot tell you
How vastly my loneliness was deepened,
How poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
When I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
And next to them, written in soft pencil-
By a beautiful girl, I could tell,
Whom I would never meet-
"Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."