I probably shouldn’t be telling this story. This story will probably get me in trouble, but it’s a really good one, so I feel compelled to tell it. I’ll just have to make it vague in places, but here it goes . . .
I was talking to another teacher about the books that I teach in my classroom and after I mentioned The Great Gatsby, this teacher responded, “I hated that book. I thought it was awful.”
The comment was something that I had heard a few times before for a number of reasons, so I took a stab at the usual suspects, “Was it the language? The ending? The plot? The -”
The other teacher cut me off and said, “It was FILLED with SIN!”
And I was taken aback a bit, but mostly due to the pronunciation of “sin” because it came off like a Baptist preacher on a hot July Sunday – that little extra syllable that makes it “sin-ah.” Something about the statement made me smile. It was so absurd.
After missing only one beat, I replied, “Well, yeah, isn’t that kind of the point?”
The teacher then really laid into the issue, “There isn’t one good person in the entire book! Everyone is cheating on each other and just out for money.”
I didn’t miss a beat this time. If anything, the comment gave me more time to construct my argument. “But the book is about how we as Americans want wealth, but then we see these people who are wealthy and they still want more. It criticizes the American Dream of wanting more and more and shows that we need to reevaluate and find new goals that don’t involve THINGS.”
I was about to go into an explanation about how this person was interpreting the book from a strictly moral criticism angle and that is fine, and the book has a strong moral message if one looks a bit deeper. And I wanted to say that from this person’s interpretation, the Bible shouldn’t be read either because it is filled with SIN. Everyone in that book does something terrible except Christ, so does the evil that men do invalidate the Bible? Of course not, because we are to learn from the bad things people do in order to make ourselves better.
Instead, this teacher decided to stop the conversation with, “I just think it’s really corrupt” which didn’t address any of my comments or my ideas. I realized then that I wasn’t going to win or change minds, so I walked away from it.
But that’s not what makes this story great.
A few weeks later, I was talking about wrestling with a friend of mine. I haven’t watched wrestling regularly in five years or so, but I still keep up with things from time to time and I can talk late 90s/early 2000s wrestling and 2006-2008 wrestling like a pro. In the middle of our conversation, the Anti-Gatsby teacher overheard us and looked at me in astonishment.
“YOU watch WRESTLING?!” this teacher’s jaw dropped.
And I wondered, “Do you think that I only read? That I only care about classic literature? I’ve never presented myself as a snob or as someone who was unapproachable, so why would anyone be surprised that I used to watch wrestling?”
I replied, “I am large. I contain multitudes.”
And to me, quoting Walt Whitman to the question “You watch wrestling?” is perhaps the most perfect response an English teacher can have to someone who doesn’t appreciate reading.
Hell, maybe that’s why I’m apparently not approachable.
In the end, I relayed this story to my juniors and I was delighted to find them using “I am large. I contain multitudes” in arguments. They embraced that they can be nerdy and contradictory and that they can love so many different things in this world. On their finals, I asked the question “what is the most important thing you’ve learned this year” and many responded “I am large. I contain multitudes.”
And if I can only teach them one thing, I’m glad that it is a Whitman quote that they can live by.