Sunday, December 11, 2011

It Isn't Their Fault They're Ugly

My students took a test over Beowulf on Friday and today, as I glanced through their essays, I couldn't help but recall our final discussion. After reading the story from the Danes' perspective, I asked my students to read an excerpt from
John Gardner's Grendel. Once we looked at the story through different eyes, we engaged in a lengthy, and somewhat heated, discussion. Spanning from the acceptance of varying perspectives to war, to what deems an attack as justifiable, to the ultimate effects of bullying, our discussion ran the gamut, sending heads spinning with ideas and curiosities and lots and lots of gray area.

As soon as one person asserted that people have no right to attack unless they've been attacked, someone else said that the US fights ethically driven--not self-defense driven wars all of the time. When someone said that bullying leads the victim to a destructive personality, someone else argued that it could very well inspire them to be a bigger person. When one student said that we all need to accept the fact that everyone has different perspectives and they are all valuable, someone else asked about the boundaries of destructive and malicious perspectives that could destroy a group of people.

By the end of the discussion, we came up with zero answers. No one seemed clearer on their stance; in fact, most of them seemed far more confused. They slowly came to realize what once seemed so simple--so black and white--was really far more complicated than they imagined. Suddenly, Grendel didn't seem as horrible or as blatantly wrong as they originally believed him to be.

I sat up front, hardly saying a word. The discussion took a life of its own and I sat back watching it. Just moments away from the bell, B raised her hand. Usually one for off-beat comments, I could only imagine where she was planning to take the discussion.

"Yes, B," I called out to her.

"When I try to kill spiders, my mom yells at me," she began. I could see a few smirks begin to bubble on the faces around her. "She gets mad at me because she tells me the spider didn't do anything to me--it isn't the spider's fault he's ugly."

Then, right on cue, she trumped her loud declaration with a thunderous cackle, sending the rest of the room into giggles. I doubled over in laughter, accepting the fact that I had no hope at all to pull the class together for the last three minutes of the period. Instead, I watched a thousand tiny debates regarding whether or not spiders deserved to die.

I know very well that part of B's declaration surfaced as an attempt to generate attention, but I also think the reason she thought of her story is rooted in the foundation of what our discussion entailed: the effect of killing without reason, of dismissing without understanding, of being cruel without any attempt at respect.

I kill spiders whenever I see them--as well as ants, flies and mosquitoes. I use sprays and swatters and my bare hands in an effort to rid the world of their creepy presence. Her comment made me stop and think. After all, much of why I kill them has little to do with anything they can control. I kill them because they get in my way, they inconvenience me, or they annoy me. Maybe the rest of life isn't all that different if you stop and think about it. I'd like to believe I handle bigger issues in a better way, but B certainly found my weak spot. Maybe I need to open up my heart a bit wider to embrace the insect community. I suppose her mother's right, it isn't their fault they're so ugly....but it is certainly my fault that my swatting is.


  1. Brilliant! Love how you bring this full circle. On a related note, it's so inspiring you are able to have discussions such as these with your students! Really priceless. And great prep for college. What grade level do you teach?

  2. Thank you! This class is fun. It's a ninth grade honors class and they are quite the chatters. They love discussion, so it is fun to dangle the bait of an interesting idea!