Once again, I’ve learned the truth of the adage, "We learn by teaching."
Last week, I began to teach two summer classes. One of them is an introductory literature class, which is required of every student who wants to earn a degree from York College, the division of City University of New York in which I teach.
This particular section meets in the evenings. As a result, nearly all of the students come to class directly from their jobs, which include everything from bookkeeping to guarding Riker’s Island. I very much enjoy working with such students, for they bring a breadth of experience and perspective one does not find among the more traditional college students. Also, these students come from a number of different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds, which makes the class all the more interesting.
Things got especially interesting when we discussed Nadine Gordimer’s short story, The Town and Country Lovers. Set in apartheid-era South Africa, this acutely nuanced tale brings together Dr. von Leisdorfer, an Austrian geologist, and an unnamed colored girl who works in the supermarket across the street from his house.
Students immediately noticed that Gordimer’s decision not to name the young lady in her story was a very canny move. "It shows how unimportant she’s considered to be," declared one student. Another mentioned the fact that the girl is described by her physical characteristics — which, taken individually, the white scientist finds unattractive. "This makes her seem less like a person," this fortyish man pointed out. "That’s probably how the Doctor saw her."
But the most striking commentary came from a very intelligent yet rather diffident woman who sits in the back of the room. "It’s just like the war in Iraq."
"How so?" I wondered.
"Well, on the news reports, they’ll tell us the names of Americans who died that day. Or, at least, they’ll tell us whether they’re soldiers or Marines or whatever. Then they’ll say something like, "The attack also killed 400 Iraqis."
Then the Rikers guard — a petite woman who looks young enough to be a daughter to many of these students — chimed in.
"So on one hand we’re being told they’re not important for us to know their names. But then the President and his people turn around and tell us that they’re important enough for our young people to die for."
"Just like the doctor. He saw the girl as another colored girl. Yet somehow he was interested enough to **** her," added one of the youngest students in the room.
Everyone laughed uneasily yet knowingly. And I learned, once again, that sometimes my students are my best teachers, whether about Nadine Gordimer or the Iraq War.