A letter to the young women and men of AP Critical Approaches to Literature, class of 2015, from their teacher, Ms. Fleming
You may forget much of high school, although you’ll remember more than you might predict, because high school memories sparkle in the long darkness of our pasts, for better or worse. Teenagers live with very little skin: even the barest of breezes burn and passing words pulse and buzz and injure and inspire. Still, just in case you do forget, I write this so you’ll remember—maybe—something.
The lessons critical theory has to teach us go beyond literature:
- Form is meaning.
- But form is not ALL meaning.
- We live inside various structures: psychological, political, economic, narrative and linguistic. These structures are the modern world’s understanding of fate, but they don’t necessarily doom us. They only doom us if they remain unconscious.
- Objectivity is an illusion.
- Basic kindness requires that we know how to decenter ourselves and listen to stories.
- Facts, while important, are not the same as story, and truth lives inside story. Always.
- Be attentive to the archetypes around which your story builds. They allow you to move your experience out of personal history and into the realm of myth and symbol, a healing process every culture in the history of humanity has recognized as valuable.
- Our world pits heart and mind (also faith and doubt) against one another in a binary opposition. But heart and mind are symbiotic: you will never have a huge heart without a strong critical muscle, and your critical skills will suffer if you let your heart atrophy.
- Fundamentalism is the most dangerous form. The “good guys” always become the “bad guys” if they go fundamental on you. This is not to say belief in a certain cause or a certain worldview or a certain morality is bad; you should open yourself up to the risk of belief. For example, I believe in critical belief, doubtful faith, incredulous devotion. I also believe in teenagers.
- Love the objective correlative.
- We need tragedy.
- Consider the antithesis. Consider being the antithesis if necessary.
- Both women and men might be beautiful, strong, intelligent, and tender. And should endeavor to be.
- Power exists only in relationship.
- The author has the authority, which is why, as Barry Lopez writes, “Sometimes we need stories more than love or food.”
Of course, you should make up your own minds about any of these thoughts. You are the author of your life, not me, so you have that authority. This above all: to thine own self be true.
Even if you never take another literature class (insert the sound of my heart breaking), please read. Read fiction and poetry in particular. Reading builds our moral imaginations, offers us solace and perspective, and gives us a temporary escape hatch from our various cages.
Also, clean up your own messes, eat semi-healthily, try to sleep, brush your teeth, use deodorant, etc. Be good but not too good. Vote.
Finally, let me say thank you. The word “vocation” comes from the Latin for a “call” or “summons.” Teaching and writing are my vocations (as are motherhood and marriage). None of your teachers chose their career by default or because they didn’t have other options, and all of us consider quitting at least once every year because vocations are difficult, hardcore soul-work. A vocation, as opposed to a career, includes a sense of bigger purpose. Some people never have the privilege of vocation. You give my life purpose, not to mention joy. Thank you.
Y’all are my heroes—you’ve received the hero’s call to adventure for real now—and my ambassadors to the future. I can’t wait for the stories.
If, for Mother’s Day, you’re looking for more traditional “mother” sermons, here are links to past sermons on motherhood: