English teacher Will Torrey on the capital-Q-questions of teaching
As Opening Day of the 2021-22 school year neared, I found myself especially eager to make a great plan for the first day of class for my two sections of seniors in English 4—one that would not only engage my students and encapsulate the goals of the course, but one that would help me answer—for them as well as myself—the capital-Q-questions I think of all the time:
Why do we talk about literature?
What’s the point of this class?
I thought for a long time about what to show, do, or discuss with my students on that first day. And finally, the day before the first day of class, I wheeled my one year-old son past the Organic Garden in his stroller and was reminded of a conversation I’d had the previous spring with my then-advisee Riley Baker ’21. On a day shortly before Commencement, Riley came back to dorm from working in Organic Garden and told me that while digging in the dirt, she’d been listening to an episode of the On Being podcast in which the host Krista Tippitt interviews the writer Ocean Vuong.
“Mr. Torrey,” she said, eyes bright. “It was, like, the most profound thing I’ve ever heard. You should listen to it; I think you’d love it.”
So I did listen to it, and it was profound, and I did love it.
And then I forgot all about it—until that sunny Labor Day afternoon a few months later.
“There it is,” I thought. “My plan.”
At the end of the interview—during which Vuong covers everything from his immigrant childhood in Hartford, Connecticut to the power of language and its capacity to evolve—Tippit references an essay of Voung’s, in which he, in the face of a family tragedy, embarks on a walk through Manhattan and can’t stop noticing, of all things, fire escapes. They are everywhere, Vuong writes, clinging to the sides of our homes, calling out to us “with the most visible human honesty: We are capable of disaster. And we are scared.” Vuong goes on to assert that literature—the poem, the story, the novel—is itself a form of fire escape, a safe haven that’s often ignored but always at hand, a place of intimate vulnerability where we, as readers, as people, can find refuge. We hurt, Vuong’s essay asserts, because we’re afraid to bear ourselves. But by studying the stories of others, by witnessing their pain and triumphs, we move toward a better understanding of ourselves and a solution to our common crisis of communication.
As soon as this seed of an idea had been planted, ideas for other pieces to discuss on the first day came to mind faster than I could process. By the time my first section rolled into my classroom the morning of September 7, I had a thick packet of readings for them: Barry Hannah’s “Water Liars,” George Saunders’s “Sticks,” a scene from Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. We dove in and enjoyed an intense (in a good way) seventy-five minutes of rapid-fire discussion.
For me, and I hope for my students, this first class was not just great, but wonderful. As I made my way home, I felt more excited about teaching than I had in some time—maybe since the beginning of the pandemic. I was excited to have connected with my students, and to watch them connect with the ideas buried in our readings. I was thrilled by how eager, how perceptive, even how open to being vulnerable they all were. But most of all, I was humbled. A five-minute conversation I had had with a student three months earlier had suddenly bloomed into the answers to my questions.
Why do we talk about literature?
To move toward a better understanding of ourselves and a solution to our common crisis of communication.
What is the point of this class?
To be a place of intimate vulnerability where we—as readers, as people—can find refuge, and bear ourselves.