First, a sidebar. If you stopped by here last time because of the sudden attention the great singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell gave this blog on his Facebook page, thank you! (I seriously don’t think I’ve ever been given a greater compliment). I hope that you stick around and feel free to share your thoughts with me. This posting is about another topic, but I don’t think it’s entirely unrelated.
I want to make sure everyone appreciates how much I love my students. I truly have fun in class with them and I frequently find myself knocked-over by their insightfulness. Getting the Ph.D was quite often a drag, but it was totally worth it.
This past week, we discussed three short stories, each wildly distinct from the others. I was purposefully trying to disorient them and worked all week to keep them in that state. Please don’t call the authorities on me, but I’m convinced that this is the heart of education. Constructive confusion is the way to enlightenment. I believe this deeply and I cherish the struggle it brings.
In the middle of the week, we read and discussed Bernard Malamud’s great short story “Angel Levine.” I feel a special duty to make my students read at least one thing by Malamud each semester. His legacy is sadly eroding and if English professors don’t make people read him, no one will. A couple of years ago, I went to a major literature conference and attended the Malamud panel. I was the only member of the audience until some elderly gentleman joined us, I think out of pity. From that moment on, I decided to keep his work alive as much as my limited ability would allow.
At any rate, “Angel Levine” is a lovely tale about Manischewitz, an elderly Jewish man who, like Job, falls upon inexplicably hard times. He prays for deliverance and lo and behold an angel appears. The problem is that the angel is a former Jewish man named Alexander Levine and is now an African-American angel who lives in Harlem and is in a probationary period. Thus, the protagonist has doubts, as you might imagine. This angel contradicts his expectations in every imaginable way. Yet, he must overcome his doubt in order to believe before the angel can help him. This is the story’s central dilemma.
I always like to start with a question, so I had my students write for five minutes about why we suffer. Their answers were quite intelligent and often profound and they found the connection to the story themselves. We had great discussions about this fine piece of literature. I was happy that they had experienced the story in the way that I had hoped.
As the day went on and I taught the story in my subsequent classes something dawned on me. They were also seeing the story in ways that went beyond my hopes. The story came alive through their eyes and I was seeing it anew with each class that had engaged with it. Their unique perspectives had brought something to the tale that was new for me and, in turn, made it richer.
By the second class, I began to see the story as not only a modern Job-like morality tale, but also as a literacy narrative, much like Malamud’s great story “A Summer’s Reading.” Manischewitz’s dilemma is one of broadening his mind. His “sin,” if he has one, is that he sees the world only as it exists in front of his face. When he has to leave his neighborhood and make the arduous journey to Harlem to find the angel, he is, in essence, beginning the process of opening himself up to new experiences. In the end, his world is richer not only because of his faith, but because of his willingness to explore it.
Then I became aware, to my horror, that I was Manischewitz! I was the one who had come to class already knowing what I knew about this story. In leaving my own certitudes and following the bread-trail my students were leaving, I found new meaning in the story. Like our downtrodden hero, I too had grown. It was wonderful. But, like all wonderful things, it was also scary.
It was so wonderful, that I went all mushy with my class. I confessed to them the impact the story has had on my life. I had unwittingly scheduled this reading for this week 2 months ago and had no way of knowing that it would be waiting for me at a special moment in my life. As I shared with some detail in my previous post about Rodney Crowell (if those readers are still with me, thank you!), I’ve reached a point at which I’m starting to feel the gravity of my move from Cleveland. Like my re-discovery of Crowell’s music, re-reading this great story really meant something to me. This time, I felt the suffering in a new way and, more importantly, I felt the conviction that belief is risky. To believe in something, anything, is to risk something. Manischewitz risked his perception of the world and the afterlife to believe in his angel. I’m left to ponder what it is that I am willing to risk. I, like my students, am still disoriented and struggling to right myself. I suspect this is a life-long condition. I am still learning.