Stockings?

pantyhoseAs a teacher, I used to attempt to guess which stories would resonate most with my students; I’m over that now.  My accuracy at predicting what a particular reader may like is decent based on years of experience, but it is far from formulaic.  So much depends on the culture of a group at that time, on that day, in that moment.

The title of this blog relates to a short piece I used with my AP Literature class, Tim O’Brien’s “Stockings.”  Although the particular group of students has since graduated (well, all but one who took my class early), they still reference or joke about this story.  In fact, #Stockings was in the running to go on the back of our fictionalized class t-shirts.

In the short story from The Things They Carried, Henry Dobbins uses his girlfriend’s stockings as a type of talisman–a charm to protect him from the horrors of war, Like many of us in Vietnam, Dobbins felt the pull of superstition, and he believed firmly and resolutely in the protective power of the stockings. They were like body armor, he thought.

What was it about this story, or these stockings, that enraptured this group of students?  Truth be told–it was that they were split between understanding the need a soldier might have for comfort and feeling like the fact that he was cuddling an undergarment of sorts, was too strange, too creepy, too sexual.  Until the last day of school, they argued about if the protagonist was a bizarre sicko or just a bit strange and caught up in the survival tactics of war.  So perhaps the suggestion to avoid “stockings” is a way to say: Listen to all views.  Pay attention. Believe in the magic of the world, even if it makes you uncomfortable.  Or maybe it’s just hilarious–an inside joke for the ages.

Considering this now, the conversation, and the fact that they voted that this be the title of their former teacher’s blog, is a testament to the power of classroom culture and community.  Sharing stories, the right ones, have sticking power–long past a due date or requirement.  The key, for those of us who live in the world of public education, is to figure out how to support those kinds of vibrant communities for all teachers and for all students.  Those classrooms should be protected, wrapped up and secure, so they can be like Henry, “always there when you needed him, a believer in the virtues of simplicity and directness and hard labor.”

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Curious? A welcome and an explanation…

I am a teacher.  Whether I currently have an assigned group of students that I “own” or whether I’m working in education or not, the role of “teacher” has always defined a large portion of my personal identity.  And like most great ideas, the one to write a blog, to share my thinking through writing, began with students.

Last year, I was working as a high school English teacher.  As I observed what was happening in my school community, in my hometown, and across my state, I remarked that I wish I had a forum to be a truth-teller… a place where I could express some of what was rattling around in my brain.

“Dugan, you should just blog about it” was the response.  And yet, as a public school employee, I didn’t feel safe enough to do that.  One brilliant student, and another IT savvy neighbor, went as far as to share ways that I could write anonymously… you know like protesters in China and Syria were doing to stay alive.  But this didn’t feel appropriate.  I wasn’t blogging anonymously to protect my life, but to protect my status in my school community.  And what kind of hypocrite would I have been?  Telling students that writing was “thinking out loud” and to be truthful, when I was going to hide behind hidden IP addresses and dummy accounts?

So I waited.  And I did more thinking.

Then, I decided to leave my post as a classroom teacher and begin a new role.  Surprisingly, this has allowed me to reevaluate the purpose I have in writing, and as always, those same students have challenged me to “Just do it already.”

My Facebook group page with my former students from AP Literature even had a role in the title of this new endeavor.  I asked for suggestions, an industrious student created a poll, and the title was born.  “Chiaroscuro in Real Life” was a close second, for the record.

The reason behind the title will be coming soon.  As will continued musings about teaching, education reform, school communities, growing teacher leaders, and of course, books.  After all, I’m an English teacher.