“You Can’t Die if You Don’t Give Up”

So now it was all over, he thought. So now he would never have a chance to finish it. So this way the way it ended, in a bickering over a drink. Since the gangrene started in his right leg he had no pain and with the pain the horror had gone and all he felt now was a great tiredness and anger that this was the end of it. For this, that now was coming, he had very little curiosity. For years it had obsessed him; but now it meant nothing in itself. It was strange how easy being tired enough made it. 


He was nineteen days shy of his sixty second birthday: prematurely old, multidiseased, mentally bewildered, delusional, slurred of speech, in exile from Cuba, from the Stream, unable to compose so much as one true sentence a day, or so he’d wept on a sofa in his living room. Is it any wonder the most imitated writer of the twentieth century rose sometime after seven o’clock that morning, moved past the master bedroom where his wife was sleeping, padded down the carpeted stairs, crossed the length of the living room to the kitchen, retrieved the key to the locked storeroom where the weapons were, went down to the basement, took shells from his ammo box, closed and relocked the door, came back upstairs, walked ten steps to the front-entry foyer, opened the foyer door, stepped inside, placed the butt of the gun on the linoleum tile, tore open the breech, slammed in the cartridges, snapped it shut, bent over, rested his forehead against the blue steel, and blew away his entire cranial vault with the double-barreled, 12-gauge Boss shotgun with which he once shot pigeons?

There are plenty of things for which you can criticize Ernest Hemingway. You can call him a coward for taking his own life, and you can point to Zelda Fitzgerald’s account of his making a pass at her in an alleyway one drunken night. Many have pointed out that his code-hero is simply an affirmation and vindication of his own machismo character, and many have argued that there is nothing creative about his work: that it is merely a retelling of events that indeed happened in Paris and in Pamplona. However, all this would be to miss the most important point of Hemingway’s contribution to American literature, and this would be to dismiss the aim of good writing.

Hemingway’s most widely read work, and perhaps his most tired, is The Old Man and the Sea. Of that work, Papa once said “There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is the old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are sharks, no better, no worse.” Despite the criticism of his simplicity, Ernest Hemingway’s stories still endure because they touch what is all too human: failure in endeavor, and failure in self-redemption. Hemingway was able to produce work that was honest to his own life and his own vice, and this resonates with readers who are too weak to be honest with themselves about their own failures and their inability to white-wash those failures. Hemingway’s stories are the simplest of stories because they are the truest of stories, and they touch what is truest about ourselves; this is what most readers of Hemingway are too weak to confront, that his stories mimic the human fallen-ness that is too evident to all of us.

No story shows Hemingway’s confrontation and confession more so than The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Snows is the story of a man named Harry on safari in Africa with his rich wife. Harry is a writer who believes that he has become impotent as he has lived off of his wife’s wealth. Because he has become weakened by the life of luxury provided by his wife, when he becomes afflicted with gangrene in a cut on his leg he begins to distance himself from his beloved even blaming her for his demise as a writer and his belief that he “would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well”.

The story is a reflection on the life of a writer and his suffering; of his inability to express those truths that “Maybe you could never write… and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting”. What is striking is that Harry has given up: he believes that he is going to die and there is no fighting it. Meanwhile, his wife holds out hope for his survival, telling him “You can’t die if you don’t give up”. Harry responds “Where did you read that? You’re such a bloody fool”. He treats of his death as an imminently practical matter, whereas his wife looks to the metaphysical. While she asks “What have we done to have that happen to us?”, Harry responds “I suppose what I did was to forget to put iodine on it when I first scratched it”.

There are threads that run through this story and provide its depth. On one hand you confront the difficulties of marriage. Hemingway provides a power struggle between his code-hero husband and wife. There is the bickering about Harry’s purported “giving up” and the way in which his readiness for death will affect his wife. On a much deeper level, we see Harry bickering with himself through flashbacks, internally confronting his own insecurity and fears of death while providing false strength in regard to his impending death.

But what we receive through the depths of this text is some knowledge that what is most important is out of both Harry and his wife’s control. Although Harry believes that he is already dead, he has hope that is above and beyond him despite his recognition of that hope toward which he may grasp. Harry reflects, “He had had his life and it was over and then he went on living it again with different people and more money, with the best of the same places, and some new ones”. You see, just as Hemingway believed that his life has ended as he no longer had the ability to write the things that he once wrote, Harry believes that his life has ended because he has given up the opportunity to write by marrying his wife. What he doesn’t realize is that what he subconsciously confronts in his reflections throughout the story: that his life contains the properties of a life well lived, if he could just make good of these properties. Most readers rebuke Harry for beating up his wife, which is understandable, but my reading is that Harry’s verbal abuse of his wife stems from his inability to see good in himself. He verbally attacks her in order to confirm his control over his own life, despite his understanding all the while that he has lost control. What must be understood by Harry and Hemingway alike is that salvation is not to be found in fame and writing; that one cannot redeem himself through the product of efforts on this Earth, and that honor is something above and beyond the individual endeavor or accomplishment. Hemingway struggled with this his entire life, and Harry never approached it.

The story has a double edged ending. Harry lies in his cot after dinner with his wife as he drifts to sleep. He has a dream that he has been rescued. Harry ascends and sees the square top of Kilimanjaro, and “he knew that there was where he was going”. This recalls the opening description of Kilimanjaro as “the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai, the House of God. Close to the western summit is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude”. However, Harry’s dream is interrupted as his wife wakes to the laughing of a Hyena and witnesses her husband dead in the night. Undoubtedly, Harry’s reflection points that he is assured that he is that leopard climbing toward the House of God. Nevertheless, the reality is not so. Helen wakes and is still haunted by her husband’s death and the cackling of the hyena that accompanies that death. The great question that the reader is left with is the same one that we all confront: does the man who acts viciously in times of despair reach the House of God, and is his vice pardoned in death?

Harry’s true failure is being like that leopard of whom no one knows what he is seeking. He reflects, “You kept from thinking and it was marvellous. You were equipped with good insides so that you did not go to pieces that way, the way most of them had, and you made an attitude that you cared nothing for the work you used to do, now that you could no longer do it”. Because Harry hides all that is internal for fear of being perceived weak, he neglects the opportunity to lead a life of honest. If Ernest Hemingway’s birthday warrants one lesson, it must be that we ought not worship false idols and sirens singing the psalms of temporal fulfillment. This is a lesson that we as Americans are in such deep need of, and it is fitting and proper that Papa provides this insight for all of us in which we often take for granted that which is most important.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Intro:

In the middle of an old town in the middle of a grand nation there is a changing light that hangs in the middle of a cross section of two highways that carry old cars off into the horizon to meet the sunset.

An old Model-T has been known to hover over that old blacktop carrying a family to a service early on a Sunday morn as the sun rises in the east and cuts through the low hanging purple clouds.

That same car, summers ago, may have been placed on that same road carrying a corral of hearty young boys raisin Cain on Saturday night fresh off from farm duty. The same damp air that shrouded their bodies in a stuffy hay mow that adorned those bodies with the sweat of a good day’s work now envelops them in an expectant feeling as stars pepper the sky and aftershave stains their loose white collars.

That same crossroads was the place that the town would gather for a parade; lining the sidewalks with lawn chairs and gleaming young faces set wide with teeming young eyes awaiting the moment that sailors in all-whites would cross and firecrackers could be seen atop the two story business buildings that reached toward the heavens with hopes this year of more booms than busts.

Its said that those stars not only shone down to touch light upon the broad shoulders of boys, but they would dance across the sky one time ago as a hopeful courting couple would lay in the dead night’s streets as they claimed those stars with open and hopeful hearts.

Any old one stop light town is jus’ as good as any other, so don’t hold that again’ my story none.

 

Education: the art of finding lost souls

When I was in second grade we were asked to create a small biography of ourselves. We were to provide information such as “favorite color”, and “favorite sport”, and “favorite animal”, and “favorite book”. My grandfather had been telling me stories about these three bullfrogs sitting on a log since I was the age of 3 and therefore I had grown particularly fond of the children’s series “Frog and Toad”. However, I had also been thumbing through my brother’s books and listening to him talk about what he was studying in his political science classes. Rather than writing down one of the many books in the “Frog and Toad” series, I came to a toss up between The Gates of Fire, a fictional book about the battle at Thermopylae, and The Presidency of James Madison by Robert Allen Rutland. I chose the Madison biography because I didn’t want the trouble of explaining The Gates of Fire to my teacher. All I knew was that there was a lot of blood and cursing (which was probably more than I could say about the Madison biography at the time). Nonetheless, my teacher was still troubled with my choice.

That same year when we were doing times tables for speed during class, the kid across from me was teasing my classmate next to him in order to rattle him during the competition. I got angry and threw my pencil at him which landed me in a corner in the back of the classroom for the remainder of the year. She didn’t believe me.

When I was in the fourth grade I opened a business. I was bored in class- we mostly studied science and I had decided that I wanted to be a lawyer and study history in order to bide my time in lower school in order to prepare myself. During many of our class “experiments”, which consisted of the teacher explaining diagrams and we the students filling in work sheets, I would make what I then called “bookies”. In other words, I would create small comic books on notebook paper and sell them to students, who at first, I think, bought them out of their sense of charity, and who later bought them out of their desire to be fashionable, for 55 cents. I also had a small jar on my desk that would hold pencils that my mother had bought for me and I would sell those for 10 cents or throw them in to sweeten the deal for the bookies. I saw no problem with it. The students in PACE, who were said to be the advanced students, but in reality were the students whose parents had close connections at the school, sold lolly pops for 50 cents every day before school and the principal sold pencils in his office. My teacher shut down my efforts nonetheless.

When I had gotten to freshman English class I had a teacher that I particularly liked. We read Shakespeare and the Odyssey that year. I suppose the Odyssey reminded me of my adolescent love for the battle at Thermopylae. I can even remember that I thought so much of Homer at the time that I found that the textbook which contained the Odyssey left out a few scenes of the work. It didn’t say so anywhere on the textbook, but I found that some things in the text just weren’t adding up or painting a full picture of the story. I can remember my teacher telling me that we weren’t yet old or mature enough to read the entire work. I know what this really meant was that she didn’t have faith that we were “smart” enough to understand it- whatever that means.

My junior year was the year that all of us began to think about college. In my English class that year we read Gatsby and I fell in love. I can remember the movie, but I don’t remember any lectures. We were also asked, that year, to write an essay on a topic of our choosing. A rather vague assignment, but we were told that this was what we would be asked to do on the state tests, and this is what would be asked of us in college. I decided to write on Political campaigns. I was accused of plagiarism that year for my essay because my teacher said that the words “didn’t seem” like they were my own. I’m not sure how she would know- we hadn’t written an essay yet in her class and this was the end of the year, nor had we, to my knowledge, typed any true essays up until that point.

I don’t mean to insinuate that I didn’t have any good teachers in school. I can remember my third grade teacher inspiring me to collect coins, and I can remember my eighth grade history teacher and her love for Lewis and Clark. I can even remember my Math class from my eighth grade year. I couldn’t see the white board because I refused to get glasses and I struggled very badly. I told my math teacher and instead of having me take notes from the back of the class he would have me do a work problem on the white board every single day in front of my classmates. I loved him for that. He was a basketball coach at the high school and It showed that he cared. He and I would struggle together in front of the class. He would struggle to flex his art of teaching a kid who didn’t naturally get math. I would struggle on the math problem, and he would struggle to find what made me get it. Furthermore, he would reveal to the entire class, and to me specifically, what leadership was.

Although I don’t want to insinuate that I didn’t have any good teachers, I do want to say that I didn’t appreciate teachers because the bad ones had the ability to overshadow the good ones. They tinged my pallet so badly that by the time that my senior Spanish teacher prophetically told me that I was going to be a teacher I cringed. I also want to say that I had never known why I was doing the things that I was doing. I had asked teachers this before and they had taken my question as an attempt to lash out and demean them in front of other students. I may not have known it at the time, but the answer that I was looking for was one that I try to tell at least one of my students every day. The answer is either one of three things: “Because its good”, “Because its true”, or more importantly “Because its beautiful”. That was all I wanted to hear, alongside a defense of why it was one of those things.

Throughout the long history of teaching, one that stretches back to the conception of the first man, the art has shifted in terms of its aim. This is because teaching, despite the contemporary understanding of it, is an art. Like artwork, its focus shifts as the subject matter that it attempts to capture shifts. I was lucky to have my brother growing up. He is the greatest mentor that I have ever had, or that I will ever have. He taught me about character and love by simply being around me. He didn’t have to do anything special- he just had to be there and his being there was inspiring. The focus of teaching today is to do for students what my brother had done for me: to help me find my soul.

Unfortunately, today we lack older brothers as a society. Today we do not have leaders that we can look up to and that can teach us about character and what it means to be a man or woman who strives to do something good an honorable and just. We lack people that imbue our lives with a sense of purpose and meaning. School is at least partially to blame for this.

As a teacher I struggled a lot with this, and I still do. How am I to lead my students? I don’t particularly care about teaching them, for they have their whole lives to learn. I care much more about guiding them. I care about putting them on the right path so that their parents can draw the goodness out of them for the remainder of their lives until they must set them free. As a teacher I couldn’t do this, and this is why I gave up teaching. My soul was in pain because of this.

Teachers can’t be leaders today. The idea of school generally lacks purpose. It is a place that parents allow their kids to go during the day so they can go to work. We settle for this default understanding of what has been understood as the highest good of human life for the majority of the history of humanity simply because we are afraid to give up stability. But the problem is that our kids deserve better than mediocrity, and our nation can’t stand long if we only provide them with mediocrity.

I worked at the greatest school that I can imagine and I still struggled with this. Teaching is supposed to be team work; however, from my experience I have learned that much of the time I was working against the grain. There is not enough time to create community because we are concerned constantly with the practicality of doing things by the book. Because some bad teachers have treated students badly, teachers must refrain from becoming close with students. Because administrators are enforcing standards that they cannot explain and that they do not believe in there is tension between teachers and those who are supposed to support them most. Parents don’t understand that the process of learning and growing is painful and they resent when you foster children through the healthy pain of growth.

All of this needs to change. I did not get out of teaching to stay out, but I got out of teaching because I understand that we are wasting the human capital that we severely need as a nation. I understand that school is the most sacred institution on God’s earth, and I believe that wisdom is the most beautiful thing known to man. I got out of school because I hope to evoke the change that will bring education back to school. I am not sure how we get there, but I hope I can fight tooth and nail to do it.