I’ve spent the better part of this quarter immersed in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 with 150+ fifteen and sixteen year olds. I didn’t pick this novel; it came with the turf. In public education you take what gets handed down to you and when I moved into 10th grade two years ago I wasn’t head over heels at the idea. I must have read it in high school myself because I knew it was about firemen burning books, but I didn’t read it again in college. And I didn’t remember it well enough or fondly enough to go
WOOOOOOOOOOOOOHOOOOOOOOOOO YES YES YES. I know EXACTLY how I’m going to approach teaching that book.
But I took it home for the summer and read it the first time straight through, while I was flying from Honolulu to NYC (family vacation –first one that wasn’t about family visiting…. hmm… I think I should do a post someday about living so far from home that every time you scrape enough money up for a trip it’s time to visit family again, and of course you love to and want to, but THINK of all those places you don’t get to go).
At the end of the school year I have the students do an evaluation, anonymous of course, and ask them stuff like what was your favorite unit, what was your least favorite…etc. Last year, my first year in 10th grade, over 60% of the kids said Fahrenheit was their favorite unit from the entire year. Surprised the hell out of me. I mean, it seemed like they were more engaged than other times, but sometimes it’s hard to tell. They have to appear cool at all times, ya know? I knew I had come to love the book, loved prying into the ideas layered in the subtext, loved the rich figurative language; but I didn’t realize the extent to which they had come to love it too.
This year, with all the media hoopla surrounding the election, it’s even more relevant. The three themes we have been focusing on: the rights and responsibilities of living in a democracy, the dehumanizing effects of mass media on a society, and alienation/loneliness. The kids trip out on the fact that it was written in 1953; it’s, like, ah, the only thing in the class older than their teacher (OK – only by four years – but STILL).
Check this out:
Montag, you are looking at a coward. I saw the way things were going, a long time back. I said nothing. I’m one of the innocents who could have spoken up and out when no one would listen to the ‘guilty,’ but I did not speak and thus became guilty myself (82).
My students’ last writing ssignment was to respond to this quote by writing about some time when they have seen something wrong; in the world, in America, in Hawaii, or in their community. What is/was it? Did they do something? What could they have done? What would they do if they could go back?
I’m happy to report that most of my students have a lot more empathy and concern than they show on the surface. Here’s a list of topics from their responses.
Drugs and Drinking
Drinking and Driving
The War in Iraq
Teasing and bullying came up the most often. Almost every single student that wrote along these lines thought a part of the solution needed to be people sticking up for a victim when they witness someone being teased or bullied. But most of the students admitted that they have not done that. They are too afraid of being the next victim. Some even admitted to going along with the teasing just to avoid being the next victim, but feeling guilty later.
The culture of fear.
Their responses brought out my own feelings of guilt. When we first went to war, after the 911 attacks, I didn’t think we should go to war. I didn’t believe there were weapons of mass destruction. I didn’t want my president (not mine in that I voted for Bush, just mine because afterwards he, unfortunately, now belonged to all of us) taking this path of destruction. I did not think this war would make us more safe. Even back then I thought that this war would impact America negatively.
A few weeks after the war started, I was driving home from Honolulu one afternoon in traffic hour. Along Ala Moana Boulevard, smack in the middle of downtown, there were protesters. Signs and everything. Demonstrating against the War on Iraq. There were only about 10 of them. They looked liked well-aged activists from the 60’s. As I sat in traffic, moving so slowly along that I could have shaken each and every one of their hands had I rolled down my window, I thought they were making a futile attempt. George W Bush and the Republican Party had managed to harness the patriotism following the attacks in such a way that the entire country seemed bent on the notion that going against anything the President and his party did was unpatriotic. Unsupportive of our troops. I let myself flow along with the traffic, amongst the other drones in cars.
What kept me quiet during those times? At the time I told myself that I taught at a school where there are a lot of students from military families and I was afraid of appearing “unsupportive.” But I know that is not good enough.
What would I do if I could go back? Would I park my car and ask for a sign? Would I have my children stand by my side out there and see democracy in action? If everyone who thought like me had done a little something more, would things be better now? Maybe not. George W. Bush had quite a momentum going. But, maybe, yes.
I like the way the novel ends. The hope at the center of an apocalypse. After the nuclear bombs and devastation, the leader of the survivors says this:
There was a silly damn bird called a phoenix back before Christ, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up. He must have been first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. And it looks like we’re doing the same thing, over and over, but we’ve got one damn thing the phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did. We know all the damn silly things we’ve done for a thousand years and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, someday we’ll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping into the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember every generation (163).
I hope we have picked up enough people over the last eight years.