Duality in Chains

I recently finished reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains with my 7th graders, a book about a teenage slave girl fighting to gain her own freedom at the same time the country was embroiled in the American Revolution. Liked most books that are required reading, especially historical fiction, it feel far outside the norm of the fiction I typically seek out—experimental horror by writers such as Robert Coover and Brian Evenson. Yet it easily qualifies as one of my favorite books, which goes to show that we should never discount something—a book, a movie, a band—just because it doesn’t fall under the umbrella of our usual preferences. Any work of art has the potential to transform.

 

First of all, Anderson is a fantastic stylist who packs evocative sensory details into every single scene: “Tongues of fog oozed across the water and curled around the bits of ice that floated past.” She weaves extended metaphors throughout the novel—bees, ashes, chains—which both act as a connective tissue binding us to the protagonist (Isabel) and also take on a slightly different nuance each time. The book is not without humor, either. At one point, Isabel’s master, a regular Cruella de Vil, pretends not to notice when her mouse hair eyebrow (supposedly a high fashion of the time) falls into her bread pudding.

 

What also resonated with me was the theme of moral duality. For instance, how do we explain why a nation fighting for its freedom can be indifferent to an individual’s freedom? How do we balance self-preservation (not necessarily life or death scenarios but financial, career, mental/physical health, etc.) with obligations to others? When should we put aside our own needs to help someone else, and when should we recognize that others are putting inappropriate or unrealistic demands on us and we should set boundaries so as to protect ourselves? These moral dilemmas—choosing between the “right” thing to do and the thing we need to do in the moment—are grappled with in surprising and unexpected ways throughout the book. We learn that there’s not always one answer—we must trust our instincts and let our inner compass guide us to the correct decision.

Exceeding expectations

Being an educator can be difficult, as there are so many circumstances you simply have no control over–a a student’s disposition, disabilities, learning environment, support system, etc. However, today was an encouraging one. First, a student who had been consistently a C student, at one point even failing math, is now making straight As. What makes the difference between then and now is not ability but attitude. He has discovered an intrinsic motivation that before was lacking and discovered that, in his words, “Not waiting until the last minute just makes everything easier.” Today, he asked me if his teacher would think it was weird if he asked for feedback on an assignment that wasn’t due for another two weeks. I replied, “No, I think your teacher would be thrilled.” It’s amazing to hear this from a 13-year-old, an age when abstract concepts such as work ethic and internal rewards are particularly difficult to grasp. Over the years I’ve heard the full spectrum of excuses from students, everything from “my dog is sick” to “my crab ate my homework” to (my personal favorite) “just a second, let me look for it”…shuffles through backpack pretending to look…”can’t find it, I’ll bring it next week?”…repeats same action next week. Not that these are bad kids–they’re all fantastic–and sometimes life does get in the way, even (and especially) for adults. But it’s encouraging and inspiring to see this type of turn-around in mindset from a student at an especially vulnerable age. Second, another student who has consistently lacked confidence, who states every comment as a question (“the answer is 4?”) and precedes every math problem with the statement, “I don’t know if I did this the right way,” today missed only 7 out of 47 questions on a (very difficult) timed math test, while previously she had missed nearly half the questions. Her score was better than even my very best math students! Third, a high-school student sent me two essays filled with so many fresh insights that they caused me to reflect on and reexamine my own life. None of these examples are meant to brag about my strengths as an educator. The kids did it themselves. What all of them show, though, is that anyone is capable of far exceeding expectations and making significant changes given the right attitude and opportunities.

Resisting closure in fiction

As a writer, I’ve always admired Joyce Carol Oates for her prolificness and ability to seamlessly shift through different genres. Reading her short story collection Heat for the first time, I’m truly inspired by her taut, concise writing, by the way her stories start on a mundane note of domestic everyday realities–house hunting, a woman tidying up the home as her daughter plays upstairs, a dinner invitation–and slowly creep under your skin, reaching truly surreal and unexpected places. What I love most is her willingness to end her stories with ambiguity or a moment of suspense, giving them a lifelike quality because after all life is in a constant state of flux and is never truly finished until of course it’s over. Most writers (myself included) feel the urge to tidy up, to end on a note of closure, but Oates is brave enough to resist that urge. What makes it work is that the characters are so fully realized and relatable that by the end of the story we can’t help but project into the future, inventing our own storylines to push them forward past the confines of the story itself.

Outrunning excuses

Yesterday I’d been planning to go for a hike. But one thing led to another and pretty soon I had less than an hour and a half until sundown. Since I don’t consider my hike complete until I get to the highest peak, which takes about two hours, I figured, “Why bother?” I’d just go the next day. But then I reconsidered–even just an hour is better than nothing, right? And maybe if I picked up my pace, did more jogging and less walking, took less breaks, I could still make it to the top. I did end up making it, and it turned out to be one of the most beautiful hikes I’d been on, as the setting sun cast the mountains in a red glow. I did end up getting caught in the dark before I’d made it home, but house lights and street lamps guided my path. The point of all this? Too often, we end up putting off something over and over because we think we don’t have enough time. This applies not only to exercise but creative pursuits like writing and making music and even just random items on our to-do lists. Even if you only have five minutes, at least do something. The only way we’ll fail to reach our goals is by doing nothing.