So the test scores are in. I’m happy. I did my dance. The last blow didn’t knock us down! But an unusual suspect dropped by this afternoon because “I want to talk to you about my scores,” he said. After popping his invisible suspenders about his science, math, and social studies scores, he frowns and screws around his face for a fleeting second, shakes it off, and then begins to reveal feelings of great achievement tinged with bewilderment….
“But I tried something new. I wrote my essay as a conversation. I mean, I thought it was a great idea – but maybe they didn’t get it. I mean, it’s what we worked on. I thought it worked. I guess it was too ‘experimental’ or something.”
This is my diamond-in-the-rough writer who wouldn’t dare do anything experimental six months ago, and this is the same person who told me more than once, “Miss Adams, I’m not a writer. I’m going to be an engineer.” And now he sits before my desk, pensive, with, dare I say it… is that what I think it is… disappointment in his craft? He’s become his own worst enemy – the self editor. And inside, I am thinking, I did it. I really did it. I helped make this thing before me – this person who feels he deserved a different shake from standardized essay graders, this person who hopes his writing has meaning and significance beyond his own periphery, this person who now thinks what he writes should matter and should be recognized. I love how when I share what I love about writing, somehow, somewhere, it trickles down into a warm pool of wonderfulness in a world rife with under-appreciated prose. When he left my room, he had shrugged it off like a winter coat. He again was bulletproof to the critics who don’t know him, who don’t understand him, who don’t “get” him. And again, we can see great writing for what it is when we read it or write it, incorruptible by the critics beyond ourselves.
And somehow, this is connected to my other experience today with graduating seniors, who no longer care about my song and dance about great writing and reading beautiful British literary prose. In fact, I’m lucky they are arriving on time, right? But today, something magical occurred that doesn’t often happen in school classrooms for a variety of reasons. We stopped. We smelled the roses. And the discussion that followed afterwards was inspiring.
#1 poem to make you a better person? “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley.
“Invictus” is Latin for “unconquerable,” “invincible,” “undefeated.” It also means “irresistible.” We talked about what this really means before and after reading the poem. My students mentioned things like hope versus hopelessness, finding a way to hang on in face of tragedy and despair…. such as in the news today. In Oklahoma. We ended up talking about what tragedy really is, how we cannot truly understand it in the same way as those who experience cataclysmic destruction, and how in the world people hang on, smile, rebuild, and even stay, in the face of darkness, tears, horror, punishment, and bludgeonings that leave the heady “bloody but unbowed.”
In Texas, we see it closer to home. Cleburne. Granbury. West. And further away in Boston, and in Moore, and in Sandy Hook, and in New Jersey and in Long Island…. “Invictus” is hard at work, combating sorrow, fighting circumstance, climbing out of the pit, and vanquishing the darkness, even with a tiny matchlight. And as my students and I discussed how people find a path out of tragedy, our talk led to some enlightenment about racism, and poverty, and war, and hunger.
As our talk drew to its close, we couldn’t help but talk about Nelson Mandela, his 8-foot cell, and his unwavering commitment to a change that no one saw or believed could occur, a future which he knew in his soul was possible. What “Invictus” seems to mean to Mandela took a new hold of my class, and was only enhanced by the reading of the poem, ever so gently, in cracked, heart-breaking clarity by Morgan Freeman in the trailer to the 2009 film of the same name.
I wish I could have found a way to bring the concept of “invictus” up to my downcast student whose writing was not rewarded as he had hoped, without sounding weird or trite, or out of context. It wasn’t the right moment. But “invictus” is always something we should seize hold of, white-knuckled and determined, when we find obstacles in our path, challenges to our faith, and experiences of great loss. When we read poetry with such a profound impact, as Henley’s poem has and leaves us in equally profound silence, we cannot help but see the glimmer of hope that often should not be. We forget that regardless of the measurement assessed by the jury of our peers and the court of public opinion, we have something that cannot be taken. We have something worth preserving. We have something that can drive and captain us, when the promise of security seems to be so far out of reach.
So as my graduates get ready to face the world, full of promise and certainly a few (hopefully not too many) hardships, at least they are somewhat bouyed by Henley’s sage reminders about the steely persistence of the human spirit.
In many ways, those graduates are masters of their own fates. And with unwavering possibilities, the future rises to meet these captains. These people with unconquerable souls. And maybe, just maybe, they will not bow to fear.
And this, too, is my prayer for those putting back together the shattered pieces of lives undone by recent catastrophe.