Friday, April 01, 2011

learning from ray bradbury

The participants in our 2010 Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute met last Saturday for our spring semester follow-up meeting.  There were a number of somber comments on the discouraging national climate regarding teachers' competence, the challenges that some in the group had faced recently from their principals, and the recent defunding of the National Writing Project.  I thought it an appropriate moment to recall a blog entry I'd written back in July of 2006, when the participants in that summer institute were just about to disband.  Here's what I read to the group:

Learning from Ray Bradbury

Leah and others in the summer institute are greatly amused that I wear my sunglasses around my neck each and every day of the summer institute, the earpieces hooked together with a dark green Croakies strap.

"Like, ah, at any moment the sun might burst through the fluorescent lighting of our fourth floor classroom?" Leah looks as if she wants to ask.

Little do they know that I keep my sunglasses at the ready as an homage to our friend Ray Bradbury.

Bradbury has bracketed our summer, beginning with Karen Winchester’s use of "All Summer in a Day" on day two of our participant presentations and ending with Nicola Kennedy's request that we read  "The Long Rain" in anticipation of becoming Venusians on the final day of participant presentations.

This was accidental but fortuitous, since Bradbury's stories are about nothing so much as the difficulty of remembering the sun in times of deep, heavy, continuous rain.

Karen Winchester had us do an interesting exercise with "All Summer in a Day." She told us, first, to select one of the symbols we found in the opening paragraphs of the story, and to write down, quickly, the attributes of this symbol. I chose Bradbury's description of the sun as a "coin large enough to buy the world," listing its attributes "monumental," "memorable," "god-like," "overpowering" and "extraordinary." We then selected one of the characters in the story and described that character's attributes. I selected Margot, describing her as "timid," "shy," "an old photograph whitened away," and "ghost-like."

But here's where the activity got interesting. "Now, how would you link the symbol and the character you've selected," Karen asked. "What one sentence would connect the two?"

After some thought, I wrote "Margot held a secret within her: a coin large enough to buy the world." When Karen next asked us to expand our paragraphs into short essays, I wrote:

"Margot has a huge secret within her, a knowledge of a coin large enough to buy the world. This secret is too much for her increasingly frail body to contain. It separates her from her fellow classmates, makes her feel alone and even uncertain whether her knowledge is real or just imagined. Margot's recollection of the sun is like the knowledge we all carry of a world before our birth, a prelapsarian world of expansive plenitude, a world where we were part of a larger whole. It is this prelapsarian knowledge, and the confidence in this knowledge, that the other children--Margot's postlapsarian classmates--must snuff out."

While this seemed a wholly new perception to me at the time, an unexpectedly new way of looking at Margot in particular and "All Summer in as Day" in general, in hindsight it seems to have uncannily foreshadowed the great lesson that Bradbury was, as it were, trying his best to tell us all summer.

"You will have days of educational sunshine in the summer institute,” he was telling us. “You will have many of them; it will seem at times to you as if these days will never end."

"But be wary. These days will end. The joy and camaraderie and great good humor you have shared together these past four weeks will fade, leaving behind only the fleeting smile, the brief nod of the head in pleasant recollection."

"You will experience your return to school in the fall as Margot experienced her exile to Venus: incessant and unrelenting rain, the drum and gush of water, the crystal fall of showers and the concussion of storms so heavy they will seem to you like tidal waves."

"Your fellow teachers will belittle you when you try to tell them what it felt like to be in the sun. 'You're lying,' they will tell you. 'Such a place does not exist. You're making it up.'"

"So follow Nicola and Karen's advice, and follow it now: remember exactly what being in the sun of the summer institute felt like, what it looked like, what it sounded and tasted like. While some of you will doubt, and some will find it too painful to recall, collectively you can remember; and you will."