A few weeks ago, I gave my literature students the review sheet for their final exam. It had the usual terms over poetry and drama and the list of poems, plays and stories we’d read that they should be familiar with. Then last week, I told them to take out their study guides and tear them up.
I told them that their final would be to answer one question: Why is literature important? At first, they were relieved, but then when I explained that the required essay would involve in depth soul-searching, they started to panic.
So, what happened?
With Star Wars being released, several students touched on the fact that good books mean good movies. Others commented on how they hated literature in high school but found a new appreciation for it in their current college course, (sucking up, I know, but still, I’ll take what I can get).
What I loved the most was when their writing about writing became passionate. When they were able to discuss how amazing it was to read the poetry of Iraq veterans and how seeing war through poetic imagery had not only given them a glimpse into the horrors of war, but had allowed them to peek into the souls of men and women who had experienced things that no person should ever have to experience.
They talked about vicariously experiencing freezing to death in the Yukon, about walking in the woods with the devil, stoning a neighbor to death and cutting an old man with a “vulture” eye up and hiding him under the floorboards.
They talked about how disturbing a story about a young man turning into a giant, repulsive bug is, and yet how the story of Gregor Samsa helped them to understand what it must feel like to have people shun you just because you’re different or you’re sick or you’re poor.
They talked about the amazing poetry of Shane Koyczan, and how they’d hated poetry but how he brought it to life for them. They talked out how it made them feel things from their childhoods that they thought had been swept away but, as it turns out, had only been waiting in some corner of their minds for some light to be shed on the still painful names they were called and the shame of being picked last, or not at all.
All semester, I’d tried to teach with passion. To share my love of words and the fact that words CAN change hearts, and if words can change hearts, they can change the world.
At the beginning of the semester, many students said they hated reading, especially academic reading, and I can’t say that I blame them. (To this day I have to read “The Metamorphosis” in bits or I’ll literally need anti-nausea medicine).
For a teacher, spreading passion is what it’s all about. The words that form in our minds, the words we speak and the ones we wish we could take back, are what make us who we are, and when we read someone else’s words, it’s almost like cannibalism. We’re not tasting a person’s body, we’re tasting their mind, their soul, their experiences. We’re growing exponentially by reading the words of those who have lived before us and of those who lived before them.
Some would say that these are dark and difficult times in which we’re living. But the truth is that every era has its own shades of hope and despair. The key to dispelling the dark is to find the passion that was born out of each generation. To learn from it. To feel it.
Why is literature important?
Because we are meant to feel the emotions of many lifetimes, but we are only given one.