Back when I was teaching English to high school students in New York I struggled with their passive attitude. I would give them Great Works and they would dutifully discover Great Themes in them, and write the themes out for me in exams with introduction three body paragraphs and a conclusion. And in these essays surprise surprise Othello would turn out to be a tragic hero, doomed by his flaw, and Animal Farm a grim allegory of human cruelty as exacerbated by totalitarian institutions. But none of the student truly was challenged or engaged or shook, or exalted or terrified, or made to change his or her life. I would say “What question do you have for these great dead authors? What do You need to know?” but I never got the sort of answer I was looking for, or I should say, the sort of question.
My friend Lisa helped me out, or did when I explained the problem. The City had cleaned out an encampment of vagrants who lived beneath the abandoned hospital on Randall’s island. All of them had various mental health issues and some of them ended up as Lisa’s responsibility and one of these wrote. I obtained something written by one of Lisa’s charges. Here is a sample of it:
Don’t you know or do you know the Rat he came and the Mouse he asked do you know of Fen Oliso, and when they said Fen Oliso it was with the sort of voice you say when you say Fen Oliso, and they said “oho” “do you know?” “Fen Oliso?” “Fen Oliso” It’s the way you might say to Fen oliso said the mouse Fen Oliso said the Cat who lived in the Rat, I think I hear him, and the drip drip drip drip drip Fen drip drip drip drip Fen drip drip drip Oliso came to the house but you can’ let me in Fen Oliso i’ll be good and they came quickly as they could to keep it from be but Fen Oliso was there before they even knew
And so on for 900 tightly written pages.
Well I told my English honors students that the product of this mental patient was actually one of the great works of English literature and they should read it and come to class on Monday with their questions and their whole grade for the class would be based upon their class participation and I would judge that based on the quality of their questions.
And I waited because this would be the clearest sign of who would walk into my trap, because if they didn’t have the one question on this one what did they have?
Nobody said anything.
Did you do the reading?
We did the reading?
What are your questions?
We don’t have questions.
Why not. Why can’t you have questions? It’s impossible. I don’t believe you.
What question should we have.
What question should you have? It’s obvious.
Not to us. Tell us.
Fine I’ll tell you the question is obvious and if you don’t ask it you’re lying. “WHO IS FEN OLISO?”
Oh teacher it’s obvious. Fen’s the one who will come striding, striding, striding into this moment right now, right here with you and me and make everything all right.