Lessons from The Black Snake

While some English teachers shy away from it, I love poetry. Every year I teach two of my favorites, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. I never lose interest in them, and while teaching, of course, I become the student, too, seeing these poets and their work through the eyes of my high schoolers. I practice beginner’s mind, according to Zen, coming back to these poems with a fresh perspective that deepens my understanding.

Most recently, I’ve come back to Mary Oliver’s “The Black Snake,” a poem included my textbook for English 9. This was my introduction to Oliver, the first poem I ever read by her. When she died this past January, the language and imagery of this poem flooded my thoughts, and rightly so, because it’s a poem about death. Its suddenness. Its terrible weight. Its certain coming. Those are the words, especially, that I couldn’t shake.

a black snake on the road

To summarize, the poem relates finding a dead snake killed in the road by a truck. The poet uses some interesting and ironic imagery, describing the snake as both “beautiful as a dead brother” and “useless as an old bicycle tire.” The speaker, who is moved by the snake’s death, going so far as to place it at the edge of the road, uses the snake to reflect on the nature of death. “Its suddenness. Its terrible weight. Its certain coming.” It’s heavy stuff. But she also writes about that instinct, that something deep inside us, keeping our thoughts of impending death at bay. In the poem, she calls it the “light at the center of every cell.”

When I taught this poem a couple weeks ago, the students seemed captivated. Maybe it was the topic, since the day before we were discussing a rather innocent poem, Vachel Lindsay’s “An Indian Summer Day on the Prairie,” and now we had moved on to something more serious. Or maybe I simply lucked out, chancing upon the right words to draw them into the lesson. I spoke about the likelihood of dying in a car crash versus a plane crash—how driving is probably the most dangerous thing we do—and statistically far and away more dangerous. Yet, we all showed up to school, most likely without giving a second thought to our possible death that morning. And yet again, statistically speaking, there were probably several people who didn’t make it to their destinations and already died that day. But all of us, everyone in the classroom that morning, we safely “crossed the road,” unlike the snake in the poem.

At the time, although my students didn’t know it, my beginner’s mind was in overdrive, because I hadn’t preplanned these remarks. Sure, I had written “discuss the poem” into my lesson plans, but I hadn’t worked out my comments or the connections I wanted to make with my students. It was happening in the moment, as I read the body language of my classroom full of students. At least one student, too, had recently been affected by the sudden death of her grandmother. She had missed an entire week of school, and as I spoke, that consideration twined itself around my thoughts. When I taught the poem in the afternoon class, some of the magic of the earlier class had already faded, because now I had hoped to recreate the script from earlier, expecting a certain outcome that would either fail or succeed. That afternoon class was good, but it was different, having become a more deliberate act by then. The beginner’s mind had passed.

The next day we moved on to more poetry, but the lessons from the black snake don’t end there. This past week, when the Notre Dame cathedral burned, the poem was on my mind again. This time, as a reminder, of the things we often take for granted, the things we assume will be around generation after generation, but then suddenly disappear. The Twin Towers obviously come to mind, but Notre Dame seemed immortal, having been around for so many centuries. It’s easy to assume, like the black snake, that crossing the road, that moving forward, there’s nothing to worry about. But then a fire brings sudden and certain devastation, reminding us once again of the true nature of our world. As Robert Frost has said, nothing gold can stay. That’s the dark reality of the black snake, but the other lesson is that our indomitable spirit, the light at the center of every cell says, no matter that reality, we cannot remain curled up, hidden away from the world. We continue to move forward, and most of us, maybe with a little more caution, always cross the road again.

The Things We Carry

I had just enrolled in the graduate program at The Ohio State University when I read “How to Tell a True War Story” for the first time. The author, Tim O’Brien, was unknown to me, but I found the story, included in the book I’d be using to teach freshman composition, both fascinating and challenging. O’Brien tells the story of Curt Lemon, a Vietnam soldier who steps on a landmine, exploding high into the trees of the jungle. But the story isn’t really about Curt, but rather how the remaining soldiers cope with his death. And the narrator readily admits, the details of the story, well, they aren’t necessarily true, but stretched and edited and even changed to better get at the real truth, which is the feelings these soldiers carried through Vietnam.

Soon I encountered another story also by Tim O’Brien, “On the Rainy River,” anthologized in a book I was hoping to give my students as a supplement to the required reading. Here, O’Brien tells the story of a young man, barely out of high school, who drives to the edge of Canada hoping to dodge the Vietnam draft. It’s a surreal story that gave me chills. By the time I had read The Things They Carried, the novel comprised of woven short stories about Vietnam and the proper place where these two stories reside, I had fallen hard for O’Brien. My final semester teaching freshman composition, I taught the entire novel for the first time.

The Things They Carried Book Cover

Fast forward, almost twenty years. Eventually I knew The Things They Carried would end up in my high school curriculum. When I ordered brand new textbooks a few years back, I was also offered copies of O’Brien’s novel. I jumped at the chance, eager to dive right in, but wary, too, knowing that the subject matter is sometimes graphic and provocative. The stories cover, among many other things, witnessing death for the first time, not living up to your parents’ expectations, and facing the despair that comes with failure. Tough stuff, not only for high school students, but adults, too. O’Brien has said in interviews that he wrote this novel for adults, and he’s surprised so many young people are reading it in their English classes. I’d say, however, that’s where the book belongs. Like the characters in the novel, my students carry so many things, often traumatic and disturbing, that I can’t see.

Reactions to the book have been positive. Having carried this book for a long time now, I’m still intrigued. I’m still trying to make sense of it, noticing again and again its beauty, complexity, and pattern. It has had such an effect on me, so much so that for the past two weeks, I’ve been listening to the book on Audible, mostly while driving back and forth to work. It’s only deepened my love. Last Thursday, while driving the dozen or so miles to soccer practice, I said to my son, who’s a Breaking Bad fan, that’s Bryan Cranston reading the novel. I can’t think of anyone else I would rather hear deliver the novel, and before we had parked the car, Nate had already asked if there was a copy of the book at home.

Next week, my students begin new material, moving on from their study of the novel, but I hope some of them carry it with them longer. Not long ago, I felt fortunate to hear Tim O’Brien give a reading in Binghamton on a rainy Saturday night in March. My wife, who came along with me, found herself captivated by his sincerity. In his remarks about The Things They Carried, he said, “A story helps us to feel and not just to think. It appeals to our whole being, our emotions and our intellect.” With that in mind, as a culminating activity, I assigned my classes the task of writing about something they have carried. It didn’t need to be a physical object, necessarily, but I told them it couldn’t be their phone. In the past, students have written about so many interesting things—a long held depression, the suicide of a close relative, and objects, too, such as a wallet passed down from father to son or a simple smooth stone that touching lightly provides comfort. I’m always surprised by what they share with me, and I’d like to think that reading the novel inspires the courage for students to tell their own stories. It’s my hope, at least, that as O’Brien said, students will see that telling stories helps us feel with a deeper understanding.

Since I always show my students a model essay, here’s mine. Those who have been reading my posts for the past few months will probably recognize some common themes.

The Pen I’ve Carried for Over One Hundred Days

It doesn’t seem like much, but for me it’s a big deal.  I’ve been carrying the same pen around with me for over two marking periods.  Over one hundred days. And no, the pen is nothing special. On the first day of school, before all the students—all of you—arrived, I went to a meeting empty handed, and someone lent me a black plastic pen, which I promptly bogarted upon leaving the meeting.  It was shiny. It had black ink. It had a push-button tip. It felt comfortable. Most importantly, I later realized, it had a clip where I could attach it to my shirt. I think it was a promotional giveaway, too, because it also sports a little PSEA logo, which is the teacher’s state union organization to which almost all teachers belong.

 
Somehow, the pen has stayed with me.  That’s unusual. And we’ve grown quite close.  It may be in my school bag with all the papers I need to grade.  Ugh. Other times it’s in my pants pocket, safely out of sight but right where I need it.  Usually, I clip it to my shirt, and I’ve found I like it there. It’s handy. It makes me feel prepared.  I’m ready to sign my name to that all important pink pass, to write one hundred at the top of a perfect paper, or to copy that ten word vocabulary bellringer assignment. And the clip, the ALMIGHTY CLIP atop the black plastic pen, has made it possible, at least it feels that way. It is the scabbard to my pen sword. When I have that pen clipped to my shirt, I am prepared for battle.


But all joking aside, though, there is an important lesson I’ve taken away from carrying that pen. I’ve always been a teacher that burns through boxes of pens like a wildfire. I typically lose them left and right, hand them out like candy at a parade, and generally buy them in bulk at the beginning of each school year.  But this year, something clicked, and I’ve used almost one pen exclusively; and although I’ve almost lost it a few times, it’s still with me. For me, I guess, it proves that I’m capable of changing something about myself, getting better at something that I failed at, miserably.  It reminds me of that line we read from Thoreau’s Walden, that this may be the year that drowns all your muskrats. Those lost pens, year after year, in a way were some of my muskrats. And yes, there are still other muskrats to be drowned but carrying the pen—weirdly enough—makes me feel better about it all.