Sometimes I see things that aren’t pretty, and I like them better than things that are. I prefer this photograph
for example, of this corner in this tiny public bathroom–so tiny you can’t even close the door all the way when you’re in it. I like it because it feels empty even without any space to speak of and because there are two toilet paper rolls, one new, one old. I like that the attempt at modernization is evident, that–in that sense–a moment in time, perhaps even a thought, is captured. I like it better than, say, gorgeously staged food popping off a white wooden palette in a kitchen somewhere in Sweden. I am infinitely bored by those things. Sure, crisply saturated color and white make fine friends, but why would you want your truth to look like everyone else’s? I guess this is why I don’t like fiction.
You like, I have to imagine, the “artfulness” of fiction, the way a story can be told so realistically and well that it becomes fully individualized. I find it a distraction to the art of real life. When I was younger I became fascinated by non-fiction, in literature, on film. I sat in the bookstore and paged through books by Magnum photographers–Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, W. Eugene Smith–and other documentarians too. I was fascinated by Robert Frank‘s series “The Americans”, Diane Arbus‘ photos of deviant lifestyles, and the achingly beautiful color of William Eggleston‘s work, before anyone even imagined a virtual filter or an Instagram account. I admired their guts, their desire to often be in the wrong place to look at the world the right way. Once I understood it, how it worked, I couldn’t see the world in the same way again. The way education is supposed to work, if we do it right. Right?
Part of what I wanted to teach when I became a teacher was how to look at the world the right way, and largely it didn’t matter what that way was as long as it was through a new lens. The problem is that the process, as we’ve discovered, is long and arduous, and theory is always marred by practice. Sometimes there is a moment where you see the lens shift, but it rarely happens in a classroom, in the time we know our students or in particularly overt ways. It happens when they pick up a book they didn’t think they would like, the one they didn’t bring to silent reading time, because it happened five years down the road. It happens when they choose their courses for college, when they realize they’re not actually a Republican like their father, when they realize in a sense, like I did, that they can never go home again.
I’ve been reading a book about India–another one–called Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a stunning reportage by a woman named Katherine Boo who spent three years in a slum in Mumbai, documenting the lives of several families through the eyes of the children that live there. It is hard to put into words what the book does, in a narrative sense, in a reporting sense. It’s a game changer. But what it does best is to tell the paradoxically simple story of a handful of kids who never have never had–never will have–the privilege of leaving home. And I mean that in both senses of the phrase. In the classroom, we die a slow death waiting for the moment when when our kids’ philosophies and understandings of the world shift for the better–hoping to see what we’ll never see–deep down in that tiny place in their brain so small that even they don’t even realize it’s happening. On the pages of Boo’s book you can witness it in the most surprisingly tangible way–given that she’s an almost third-person observer through the lenses of privilege and translation–because she spent several years with those few children, in a small–albeit claustrophobic–setting, in an intensive way, and had time to reflect on the changes she witnessed. Obviously, I’m not trying to make a parallel connection between a slum in India and the classroom, or even her work as an observer-reporter and ours. But I do wonder what roles personal gratification and internal change play in that setting–so different in good and bad ways from our own–and if, at the end of it, a piece of freedom was ever achieved. In whatever way it might have looked.
I can’t stop thinking about it, and I guess, in the end, that is what a good book does, your fiction or mine. I’m off to China now with Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler. I’ll let you know how the journey goes.