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Be happy with your choices

By Kay McSpadden
Guest columnist

Every year when my seniors begin our literature unit on the theme of identity, I think about Linda. Linda was an exceptionally bright girl who seemed to know exactly who she was. Extroverted and well-liked, she always came to class prepared to jump into discussions in a meaningful way, accepting criticism as well as dishing out pointed commentary to sloppy thinkers.

Her enthusiasm for literature and the sort of analytical thinking and self-reflection it inspires seemed perfect for someone planning a career in the humanities. But Linda told me at the end of the school year that she was taking her father’s advice and majoring in chemistry.

“But do you like chemistry?” I asked, and she shrugged and said, “It will be a good living.”

It was, too. After graduating from college, Linda worked for several years making far more money as a chemist than I will ever make as a public high school teacher.

If money were the only measure of a “good living,” then Linda would probably still be working in business. However, the next time I saw her, she was finishing up her seminary degree and looking forward to being ordained as a Presbyterian minister. Working as a chemist, she told me, had not made her happy and had been a waste of her passion and energy, a detour in the path to finding the identity she wanted.

Cautionary tale for today

Linda’s story serves as a cautionary tale about one of the big pushes in education today. From the White House to local school boards, the current buzzword is STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math. Those four disciplines are being funded and staffed in increasing measures, often at the expense of other subjects in school.

Proponents argue that STEM is where future jobs will be and where students should aim. I’m skeptical that anyone can predict job prospects very far into the future. Better to teach students to be agile critical thinkers, regardless of the academic area, knowing that good thinkers will be able to adapt and learn the specific skills necessary for the jobs none of us can yet imagine.

Those critical thinking skills can be taught as well in an English class as in a chemistry lab. And just as important, pressuring students to narrow their vision of themselves is unwise – and ultimately unsuccessful.

This year my seniors watched the Italian film “Il Postino” as part of our identity unit. The main character, Mario, lives in a quaint island fishing village. Being a fisherman is not Mario’s vision for himself, so when a position for a temporary postman opens up, he is glad to take it, even though the only person on the island receiving mail is the famous poet Pablo Neruda, exiled from Chile for his political activism.

Most of the movie involves the unlikely friendship that springs up between Mario and Neruda. One is a barely literate postman, the other a celebrated poet, but their appreciation for poetry unites them. When Mario plagiarizes Neruda’s poetry to woo the woman of his dreams, he explains, “Poetry doesn’t belong to the poet but to those who need it.”

By a happy coincidence, the unit on identity is in April, National Poetry Month. Despite studying poetry throughout school, too many adults think of poetry as something effete, removed from their own existence, only having value if it is useful, just as Mario uses Neruda’s poetry to speak for him to the woman he loves.

My seniors know better. The teenagers watching the movie were quickly charmed by Mario’s discovery of the pleasure of metaphors and his trust in the power of language. His struggle to find his identity is one they recognize, waiting, as they are, to spread their own wings and learn to fly.

The poetry of life

My younger students are less sanguine. The freshmen in my creative writing classes often groan when I tell them we will be writing poetry, as if I were making them do brain surgery or learn ballroom dancing. Poets, they assume, aren’t people like them but geniuses writing stuff too hard to understand.

I tell them that good poems connect the writer to the reader. Poems too dense to be understood are simply incomplete.

With a little practice, these very young students start to see themselves as poets – as people with something valuable to say. It’s an identity they eventually embrace, publishing a class anthology and sharing their poems in a coffeehouse reading at the end of the course.

I have no idea if any of them will ever write another poem after they leave my class or if they will continue to think of themselves as poets. But that doesn’t matter.

Whether they end up chemists or poets, I want them to be successful – and happy with their choice.

Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C., and author of “Notes from a Classroom: Reflections on Teaching.” Write her at kmcspadden@comporium.net.
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