I have been teaching for over a decade and I have never had so many Nobodies. There are sixty plus Nobodies in my Honors British Literature classes alone. I am talking serious Nobodies if you know what I mean, and believe me, you don’t. It got to the point that I told these Nobodies that I wanted them all to go straight to the graveyard, yes, that’s right—the GRAVEYARD—over holiday break! In fact, I told them that their very academic lives depended upon the journey.
Earlier in the semester I wished them all onto an uncharted desert isle. Really people, which part of get lost don’t you understand? Cast yourselves away, you big bunch of Nobodies, and now!
Oh well, I am just an English teacher and Nobody’s perfect…
So what happened in B304 in the first semester in Honors British Literature that was so unusual, so unsettling? Let’s just say there were a number of murders, there was an adoption involving ghosts, there were multiple seductions, there was considerable discussion about whether Mr. Foe was friend or…well, you know…and there was an all-consuming flood that emanated from the mouth of a speechless Friday. Drama, drama, drama!
As far as teaching British Literature goes, it’s all drama to me; there is nothing old about teaching the oldest of stories. I am wowed anew each time I open my coveted copy of Beowulf, the enchanting Heaney translation gifted to me from an equally enchanting student upon his high school graduation. I hear the voices of the past whispering as I leaf through the pages of the Anglo-Saxon tale, just as the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Shelley, Dickens and others house for me a soft murmur of syllables whose tune is not silenced by Time. It is as if each book has a soul, and each author is a specter who is silent but whose words continue to speak into the ears of the receptive. A student once called me The Book Whisperer; I am receptive.
Yes, literature is anything but dead for me and–thanks to the dead–literature is very much alive for my students. In an attempt to exhume the wide-eyed open-hearted reader buried within each of my tired-eyed over-scheduled juniors, this semester I left the comfortable body of usual work and turned to the graveyard. Not just any graveyard, the graveyard that exists thanks to the mind of the genius that is Neil Gaiman. Among many awards, Gaiman’s celebrated The Graveyard Book was given the Newbery nod, and though geared toward younger children, I suspected that it would be just the piece to breathe life and depth into the December of our semester together. Speaking of nods, Gaiman’s book is a nod to another Book from the past; his tale tells of a boy, Nobody Owens, raised in a graveyard by ghosts a la Kipling’s boy raised in the jungle by animals. The ghouls and ghosts of the graveyard come to life as Gaiman conducts his magical literary danse macabre and his dead are so sprightly that they could even wake the…well, the living in this case.
Like the family from which the very real and very dead writer Daniel Defoe (born Foe) once claimed descent–De Beau Faux—J. M. Coetzee creates a “beautiful false” tale upon tale in his stunning novel, Foe, another invigorating new addition to the semester. The story pays a sort of twisted homage to what is oft considered the first English novel, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and introduces the also stranded island inhabitant whose story has been cast away by time, Susan Barton. After seeking the writer Mr. Foe to tell her tale, Barton allows herself to be seduced by him as she did Cruso and a ship’s captain earlier. Unwittingly, or perhaps in misguided strategy, Susan is sleeping with the literary enemy and engenders a changeling life of sorts which she does not recognize as her own. Certainly issues of authorship and ownership are afloat in this clever retelling of a telling retold. The book club discussions amongst the aforementioned Nobodies in B304 after we finished Foe were some of the best of my learning career. We were all held captive by the beauty of Nobel Prize winner Coetzee’s vision and mesmerized by the final destination of his tale: a place of silence, where syllables drown as water flows to the ends of the earth from the tongue-less speech-less voice-less former slave, Friday.
Inspired by Coetzee’s channeling of the ghosts of fiction past and captivated by the voices of Gaiman’s graveyard, my students have turned to the dead for inspiration of their own. As part of an alternative exam, each student has visited a graveyard and has, with respect for place and property, made a tombstone rubbing of a person whose story they are now writing. They are giving life to the lifeless in the spirit of Gaiman, and are claiming authorship in reimagining the life of the deceased in the spirit of Coetzee. One student shared with excitement her rubbing: Ebenezer Turpin 1808-1879, and drew the rapt attention of her peers here at Turpin High School! Another student elicited strong reactions with her find: Jack Milligan 1902-1908 “Little Boy Blue.” A male student visited New Orleans over break and traced the tomb of a doctor from the 1600’s in the French Quarter; apparently the doctor was buried next to his brother, the mayor. My students were indeed entranced by Sam’s find! Memorization and recitation do not stand a ghost of a chance against creativity and passionate investment; who says learning has to be grave?
Of course my students and I have learned a great deal about literature and life from Coetzee, Defoe, Gaiman, Kipling and many others this semester and Nobody can verify this claim. The magic of The Graveyard Book ultimately, is that Nobody is an undeniable Somebody. Unlike his graveyard peers, Nobody’s story is not yet set in stone; his character, however, and his potential for greatness are as solid as the paperweight marker he humanely places on the formerly unacknowledged resting place of the out-cast Liza Hempstock in Potter’s Field. Likewise, my students are all Nobodies–they each hold great potential and through reading, writing, and digging beneath the surface, they are able to move beyond simple understanding and the validation of the stories of others, to create their own meaningful life stories.
In his Book, Gaiman wittily pens, “It is going to take more than just a couple of good-hearted souls to raise this child. It will…take a graveyard.” The graveyard of British Literature is vast, from the mist-shrouded barrows of the Anglo-Saxon warriors to the vaults and tombs of the late and great penmen and poets; the words and stories are teachers, they are very much alive and they are waiting patiently, be they friend or Foe, for Nobody with a pulse to come along….