Finding Light in the Heart of Darkness

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The stories collected by Pearl Rock Kane in The First Year of Teaching: Real World Stories from America's Teachers began as submissions to a contest supported in part by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. When asked for autobiographical accounts of their first days in the classroom, nearly 400 teachers nationwide were eager to comply. The 25 selected give an uplifting, thoughtful, often poignant, and sometimes humorous overview of the many unplanned-for experiences that make up the first year on the job. In the chapter excerpted below, Z. Vance Wilson, now a published author of fiction and non-fiction who teaches in Wisconsin, describes the lessons he learned as a novice English teacher in Atlanta:

Near the end of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the infamous ivory trader Kurtz, on his deathbed in the Congo, whispers the phrase, "The horror! The horror!" But the truly climactic episode follows Kurtz's death when the narrator, Marlow, visits Kurtz's fiancee in Brussels. Throughout the story, Marlow has said that he despises lies, but when asked by Kurtz's "intended" what his last words were, Marlow lies and says that with his last breath "the great man" spoke her name.

In the spring we had closed the semicircle of our desks to a closer-knit circle with the teacher's desk outside. "Why does Marlow lie to her?" I asked. As usual, I felt a physical urge to answer my own question quickly, to point them to the passage early in the book where Marlow reminds his listeners that London, the capital of civilization, was once itself dark and horrific place. I could hear my own sweet voice within my head. "Don't you understand? We build our culture on blindly held illusions."

But instead I did the Curmudgeon count: one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three... In the middle of my counting I recalled Milton's famous line, the one the Norton Anthology uses to illustrate a snail's crawl of poetic rhythm: "Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death." The wait seemed endless.

Just before I gave in to answer my own question, Tommy shifted in his seat. "It wouldn't do any good to tell her the truth," he said.

Oh my God, I thought, he used "good" and "truth" in the same answer. My mind spun. I could allude to Keats's truth and beauty and tell them about his bittersweet love for Fanny Brawne--surely there was a connection there. But then I stopped myself.

"Why not?" I said. And I counted again. "One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four..."

"Sometimes it's better to lie about things," John said.

"No, you should always toll the truth." It was Elizabeth, who had invited me to her church three or four times. "And just because she's a woman doesn't mean she can't face the truth." This time, Millie. "We said the natives of the Congo had a different culture, didn't we? No better, no worse than the European one. She lives in a different culture from Marlow, that's all. It doesn't mean you have to go to the Congo to explore. And the truth of Kurtz's death might have opened her eyes."

"But are you going to tell the truth if it shatters someone else's carefully created illusion?" I said. And then, without thinking, I said, "It might lead to despair."

A terrible mistake. I knew it right away. I had offered an answer, and silence followed. No one knew how to respond to a teacher's statement.

But Parker, the most unlikely candidate, asked his own question: "Do you think we have illusions?" "No, not really," Mike said.

"This school is built on more than one," offered a previously quiet voice. "That's for damn sure."

Now I had to say, "Your language, please, John."

"I'm sorry, sir, but it's true--about the school, about society. You're supposed to act a certain way, the civilized way, I guess. Rules and more rules. But lots of them are false. The whole thing is false. Something inside of you, you know . . ."

"Is that bad?" Elizabeth asked. "I mean, that we're taught to act differently from our instincts." "Of course it is. We ought to be who we are." "But then we'd all be savages." The bell rang. No one moved. "It's a sham, man. A lie."

"It's the same illusion Marlow gave to that woman, and he said he never wanted to lie."

"He had to lie, he had to." Arthur pounded his desk. "The truth would have killed her."

'"But somewhere in the story he says lies smell of death," Millie said.

Suddenly we looked up at one another. I was speechless. And in a second they were gone.

John, hurrying out the door, looked at me. His face beamed. "That wasn't bad, was it, Mr. Wilson?" "Just great."

"We ought to do that more often. It's nice to see people in this room care about ideas."

I had been under the terribly civilized and common teacher's illusion that I'd been teaching them to care about ideas every day of my rookie year. But for the first time of many in my teaching career, I realized my own lie: two agendas were being conducted in the classroom--mine and theirs. Waiting for the agendas to meet, waiting for them to care enough to try, and waiting for me to care enough to let them try--it couldn't happen while I insisted on answering the questions. It would take as long as parallel lines finding their way to infinity. One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three ...

From The First Year of Teaching: Real World Stories From America's Teachers, edited by Pearl Rock Kane. Walker & Co., 720 5th Ave., New York, N.Y. 10019 Copyright (C) 1991 by Pearl Rock Kane.

Vol. 11, Issue 04, Pages 25-26

Published in Print: September 25, 1991, as Finding Light in the Heart of Darkness
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