Friday, October 2, 2009

Of Mice & Men

Yesterday, I was privileged to have my first tutoring lesson with a young friend of mine, Alex, who at 18 is working towards finishing high school after dropping out a few years ago. I had offered to help him with his English, as he felt this would be one of his weakest subjects. His first assignment was to read John Steinbeck's "Of Mice & Men", and to write a paper on it's dominant themes of loneliness and isolation.

I have to say it was beyond exciting to be able to discuss this book with him. Alex does not see himself as a student, and does not read for pleasure. English Lit. is simply a hurdle on his road to a high school diploma. And yet, as we discussed the book, he began to open up and really think about the characters and the experiences they lived through. Alex understands loneliness as many of us can not. As we began to explore which characters lived lonely lives, and what devices Steinbeck uses to highlight their loneliness, Alex began to come alive. It was as if a light came on in his head and heart. Many of the terms meant little to him - I substituted "aloneness" for loneliness, and that seemed to help him identify the isolation of the characters. It was encouraging for him to see that he already understood the themes of the book, that the impact it had on him was important, that he could tell instinctively that a certain character was lonely or isolated. I think he is beginning to understand that his teacher is simply inviting him to be more thoughtful about what he understands concerning the theme and characters in the story. He is learning how to articulate how he knows what he knows, verbally with me and then in written form. None of this comes easy to him, but it was a wonderful encouragement for him to discover that he already had the essential knowledge and needed to learn how to translate that into something that someone else can share with him.

So often, the advancement of education is seens as a purely economical endeavor. Study after study suggests that more education equals a greater likelyhood of financial stability. Alex understands this, and his sole purpose for finishing his high school is getting a job. I can't help but think, however, that there is more to education than securing our financial futures.

Alex is being invited to enter into the worlds and stories of other people, to search and examine an existence outside of his own. He felt shaken by the conclusion fo the book, and although this was not part of the course work, we had a good discussion on the morality of the behaviour of the key characters. Is it okay to do wrong things with good intentions? If it is, and I give myself that freedom, will I give equal freedom to others, especially those who's decisions may affect me? Does honoring the intentions of an action justify the action itself? The questions became even more significant when directed towards the central themes - why are the characters lonely? Have any of them made choices that led to their own isolation? Are there choices they could have made to change their situations? Who has choices available to them, and who doesn't? Am I ever lonely, and if I am, is it ever by my own choice? Is it possible to feel helpless to change a situation when in reality change is within our grasp?

I want Alex to catch the "reading bug". I admit this shamelessly. I want to see him asking himself these questions, whether or not I agree with the answers he comes to. And I believe that the benefits to him extend far beyond economics. Books offer him the possibility of meeting a myriad of characters, people he may never meet on his own. Books will allow him to enter more deeply into people's hearts, motives, passions and thought processes. Things are much less simple when we take an extra step into someone's life and begin to understand that there is much we don't understand. The ending of "Of Mice & Men", if presented in a news headline, could easily inspire a quick and expedient judgment - judgment that is not so easy to come by when one has entered into the situation and the heart and mind of the people involved.

One of the greatest pleasures in life is being a part of another person's experiences in a positive way. I am feeling very grateful today. I do believe this calls for a celebration! Time to crack out one of my latest thrift store finds - "The Tin Drum" by Gunter Grass!
My Zimbio