April 04, 2018

Looking to my neighbor: A classroom reading of ‘March’

By Tim Hruszkewycz *

I never meant to be so political. At the beginning of the school year, I found myself bored with the same old curriculum in my English class. I wanted to change one of my books. I love the books I teach, but I also know that I tend toward works I refer to as “bummer plays.” I’m talking about teaching “A Doll’s House,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,” “Death of a Salesman,” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” I hear that good teachers tend to change things up. Also, I’ve really been itching to teach a graphic novel.  

In September, I decided to order a set of John Lewis’s autobiographical graphic novel, “March.” When would I teach it?  I certainly knew that I couldn’t do it in February. With Black History Month, I knew that it would be an uphill battle trying to get the Cincinnati Library to get 40-some copies of a fairly recent graphic novel dealing with the civil rights movement. Being the cleverest person I know, I thought that I would teach “March” in the month of March. That gave me a chuckle. Little did I know that I would start teaching a graphic novel about protest rights in the same week as the national school walk out.

But it was perfect. Lewis’ three-book set focuses on three major battles in the civil rights movement: the lunch-counter sit-ins of 1959 and 1960, the 1961 freedom rides in the southern states, and the 1965 march on Selma. Lewis was thrust into a leadership role, championing the nonviolent protests while being abused at every turn. The books are heartbreaking and the visuals are often devastating. And they mostly did their job.  

When I assigned Book One, one of my students, a girl who had never read a graphic novel, read the entire first book that night. She couldn’t put it down and asked to read ahead for Books Two and Three. Delighted, I handed them to her and she beamed.  

The conversations in my class took off. I had to move around lesson plans for the entire month, knowing that we would be discussing the power of the individual to make nonviolent change at all levels. Students talked about their fears and connected the works to their lives in ways that I haven’t seen in the past.  

We read some good stuff in class. I’ve had great discussions with other books with these kids. This was on another level. They wanted to be heard and this set gave them the license to do so. They saw the tale of a little boy who thought he would grow up to lead his church congregation and saw that he was needed in another capacity. In him, they saw themselves.

Except for one boy.  

One boy in my class was painfully quiet. It isn’t unusual. In most classes, there are students who tend to lead and those who want to avoid being noticed. This boy used to contribute.  When I wanted to focus more on short stories in the class, he recommended that we read more novel instead. I always got the vibe that he was thinking of a future AP Literature class and he wanted to have a leg up on the content. I partially picked “March” because of him. But he just sat there quietly. I am going to retract that statement. He sat there quietly and looked mad.  He looked really mad.

The next day, I found out from more than a handful of other students that he was really upset. “I shouldn’t have to read this propaganda.” To him, this was all about Black Lives Matter and he wanted nothing to do with it. He hated the book and he hated me for bringing this into his world. It’s not unusual that students detest the books I assign. I think that a book that gets assigned tends to have two strikes against it from the outset.  

I encourage students who don’t like the book assigned to share why they don’t like it. I actually get joy out of that, in a weird way. I remember, when I was their age, I hated “The Scarlet Letter.” Now I teach it. If they have an opinion on the book, it means there is a degree of investment going on, that critical thinking skills are being utilized.  

But this was a different case. This boy thought I was indoctrinating my classroom with an agenda. And in a weird way, I suppose I was. I wanted my students to recognize evil in the world, both yesterday and today. I want to be a teacher who picks books that challenge students spiritually. But I also assumed that, as a country, we had learned that the civil rights movement was one of America’s greatest victories. I never thought that I would see a student grow angry because I had empathy for my fellow man.

If you want to get me depressed, make me question humanity. I have seen a push from Catholics and Christians to be political first and faithful second. The other day, I saw a friend of mine from college ask on Facebook if anyone had seen “Coco.” She wanted to watch the movie with her kids and thought it would be best to get the Catholic perspective on the movie. I advised her that I had seen the movie with my six-year-old and my three-year-old. The movie was a little scary and I had to talk to my daughter about its theology of the afterlife. But otherwise, I thought it was fine. One of her other friends, Susan, a stranger to me, contradicted me, talking about the nature of social sins and she seemed to be getting quite upset. Then a friend of mine, David, posted some articles from the USCCB about the nature of art and experiencing things that might bring about discussion. Susan didn’t like what David wrote. According to Susan, David was clearly being tricked by the “liberal bishops.”  

When did this happen? When did citing the pope or the bishops become an indicator of false Catholicism?

I know that we have to always be developing our consciences, but it seems like politics has become the new religion. I get it.  The two are fundamentally tied. Politics is a means of enforcing and expressing morality, but I’m disturbed that I have a student who hates a book about the civil rights movement, and that Facebook fosters debate about the political allegiances of our Church leaders during conversations about a Disney movie. I thought we were better than this.

But I can’t stop looking at that quiet boy in the front row and the cold stares that he gives me.  

When I’m talking about the fact that John Lewis went from preaching sermons to his chickens to getting beaten half to death on the bridge in Selma, I am also thinking that this boy, who goes to a Catholic institution, has been failed morally. I admit that John Lewis is a politician. I know that the book looks at the inauguration of President Barack Obama with a sense of “look how far we’ve come,” which is a perspective I don’t fully share. But I also want my students to leave my classroom better people than they came in. This boy enters my room angry and he leaves it with hate. What can I do about it?

I began writing this column with the goal of talking about goofy stuff that no longer interests my wife.  I was going to tie into my faith when I could. It is meant to be a light distraction from all of the other misery that we deal with on a day-to-day basis. But I think that we, as Catholics, need to learn to not hide from art.  

Art is meant to inspire and challenge us. It is meant to bring our weaknesses to the surface. If art asks me to do something wrong in the name of good, I need to be able to challenge that art right back. I need to separate right from wrong and good from evil. But to hide from art seems like a dangerous precedent to set. If something isn’t going to bring you closer to Christ, don’t read or watch it. But if it is going to be difficult to get through because it is pointing out a fault in your reasoning, it’s time to grow a little.  

There is always a fine line. My friend is smart to ask if something is good for her kids to watch. If you can’t find an objective voice to help answer that question, watch it yourself and be ready to say, “It’s not worth it.” But if you find yourself hating someone else because of something you saw, maybe something inside you needs fixing. Talk to your priest. Head to confession.

I know that some people who read this might agree with the boy in the front row. They might see the boy as challenging the text. But we are never called to hate. We are called to challenge. I want this boy to speak about his concerns in class tomorrow. He won’t, but I’m going to do my best to change that, without embarrassing him. Between that and prayer, I know that Christ redeems and can change hearts. That’s all I can really ask for him. And believe me, I will be asking.

Tim Hruszkewycz is a high school English and film teacher at Villa Madonna Academy in Villa Hills, KY. He also co-hosts the Literally Anything podcast at literallyanything.net and blogs about film

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.