by Matt Willmott
I like classes that have certain kinds of silences. In my own career as a K-12 student, I remember three main types of silence: the silence of a test, the silence that got covered by the sound of a movie, or, every once in awhile, the particular silence created when a teacher went silent and glared.
But now, as a teacher, sometimes I experience other kinds of silence. One is the kind of silence that happens when I’ve successfully motivated a lesson and the students dive into an activity with undivided attention and start working. Sometimes I see this and think, “You have no idea, right now, that what you’re doing could be called work.”
The other kind of silence is the kind that happens when somebody has said something and everybody has gone silent because they’re just thinking about it. I think I may like this kind of silence the most. Last year, a local tragedy was announced at our morning meeting, and it seemed to affect students enough that I set aside part of my next class to talk about it. It was a math class, but we ended up taking the period talking about life, death, support, kindness, and the things that give life most meaning. Frequently, someone would speak and the room would go respectfully silent as students and I both just sat and thought. I admired that we were doing this, and I said so.
The students appreciated the day, I believe, and several of them said so. In days that followed, one or two kept asking if we could have another day like that. But, of course, we went back to the math.
This year I’m teaching a class about heroes, and it has had similar moments. The essential question of the class is “Do we need heroes?” I try to stress that each student is sovereign over his or her own opinion, but I also let them know what I think.
One day recently we were talking about archetypes. The students identified archetypes like the hero, the comic sidekick, “Ma” and “Pa,” the trickster, the perfect romantic ideal (prince or princess), and more. Before long, though, the conversation started to orbit around particularly modern archetypes that were all darker in nature: the serial killer, the terrorist, the corrupt politician (perhaps not so new), and so on.
I found the amount of investment the students had in these darker archetypes made me uncomfortable. I am aware that there is a lot of fear in our culture, and more than I remember there being when I was young. I am aware, too, that sociologists have developed a theory of a “mean world syndrome,” whereby it is supposed that people, ingesting scads of negative media, have begun to see the world as being a darker place than it actually is.
So I pointed out, as I often do when a conversation turns to serial killers, that out of the approximately fifteen-plus billion humans that have ever walked the earth, only an infinitesimal 400 or so are known to have been serial killers. “If so, why, then,” I asked, “should we invest so much time and attention, and nearly endless hours of storytelling in them?”
One of the students replied it was worthwhile to heed an archetype like that because the impact of a person like that is so great that we need to heed, and even fear, that person’s influence on society. Even a single one is so horrible, the student argued, that he or she deserves a lot of extra attention.
Let me pause and be clear: I agree — to some extent. I do not think we should ignore the negative, the dangerous, or the potentially harmful. I think we should — to one of the somewhat wide range of healthy degrees — be balanced, clear-minded and candid. Period. But also: “mean world syndrome,” and Dexter, and The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad — and while I’m not outright hostile to any of these, I do note the pervasiveness of the anti-hero, and the temptations, in a complicated world, to be cynical and suspicious and afraid.
As I was trying to figure out where to go next with the conversation, one of the students made a suggestion. “Maybe it would be interesting hear how each archetype makes people feel,” he said. “And see what that tells us.”
“That’s a great idea,” I said. And we did it.
The hero — “inspired,” “brave,” “happy.”
The romantic ideal — “inspired,” “rash,” “longing.”
The trickster — “suspicious,” “angry.”
Then we got to the darker, “modern” archetypes, and the response to each was similar: “fear,” “anger.”
Those two words, again and again. By the time we got through the end of the list of archetypes I knew how I wanted to drive my idea home.
“Okay,” I said. “Here’s my point. Suppose you eat cookies all the time. How are you going to feel?” I paused. “And suppose you eat vegetables all the time. How are you going to feel?”
I got the impression they were with me.
“Okay, now,” I said. “Suppose these archetypes are a kind of food. Suppose they nourish us just like food. If so, then I just have two questions for you.
“One: How do you feel?
“And two: What is your food?”
That was the end of the class. And the students left in what I took to be that certain kind of thoughtful silence.