Friday, August 8, 2008

The Things We Carry

Lately I have been reading a stunning book called Kafka On The Shore, by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. Deep into the book there is a sort-of ghost soldier from World War Two who says, “Symbols are important. We happen to have these rifles and soldiers’ uniforms, so we play the part of sentries. That’s our role. Symbols guide us to the roles we play.”

This is not an original thought, but as I read the words during a break in a weeklong teaching conference it struck me with a force that surprised me. It provoked a cascade of realizations that I have been chewing on for a few days now.

Immediately, I thought of Daryl Bem and his self-perception theory. Bem posits that we develop our attitudes by observing our own behavior and concluding what attitudes must have caused them. One of the ways we learn about ourselves is by looking at what we do. It is almost as if we create an identity in retrospect. We say things to ourselves like, “I am teaching at a school with a strong commitment to the social curriculum, therefore teaching children to care must be important to me.”

I find Bem’s theory surprising because it runs counter to my assumption that a person is a set of semi-fixed ideas, beliefs, preferences, predilections, and attitudes whose actions flow from who s/he is. Rather, it says that our actions come first and they tell us important information about who we are. They help define us to ourselves.

The main character of Murakami’s novel, Kafka Tamura, has placed aside everything he has been carrying before he meets the soldiers, so he comes to them empty-handed. He has nothing but the clothes on his back, and even they are entirely non-descript. One of the soldiers asks Kafka if he has anything like their guns or their uniforms and he says, “No, I don’t have anything. Just memories.”

Kafka’s answer reminded me of another fairly amazing book—Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. When soldiers deploy they can take only a limited amount of stuff with them. What a soldier chose to carry to Vietnam told much about his priorities. And when a soldier died, it was those things he carried that got sent to his next of kin as what was left of a man. It is clear, though, that “the things they carry” is also a metaphor for the effects their time in Vietnam has had on the men. The memories, pride, shame, images, feelings, and nightmares they came home with are also things they carry. O’Brien’s soldiers are defined by what they carry—just like Murakami’s soldiers.

Because I was having these thoughts at a conference on teaching, my mind made a connection to my students. It became clear to me that the things we remember are the things we carry. And they are what give us some defining information about who we are. This is true for me, and it is true for my students. If our clearest, most alive memories are of being seen or valued or loved, then we must be valuable, lovable people. But if the memories we carry are degrading or belittling, that tells us something else about ourselves entirely.

It was an important reminder that each of my students comes to me with his or her own set of things they are carrying. And when these students think about who they are, they consult the things they are carrying—their memories—for clues to their identities.

As a teacher, I can help my students by giving them opportunities to recall times when they have been successful or when they have done something they are proud of. Teaching in multiple age classrooms gives me a golden opportunity. I have my students for two full years before they hit the age of twelve. While helping them access moments they are proud of from their pasts, I can structure my room and my assignments to maximize the chances that my students will feel seen, acknowledged, and valued.

It was a valuable reminder for me of the potential my job has for affecting children in a real, positive, and lasting way. Of course, the opposite is also true. If I choose to teach using ridicule and sarcasm, then the things my students carry with them from my class can do real and lasting harm. The challenge I am taking away from this Responsive Classroom conference is to be conscious, deliberate, and positive all year. In this way, I have the chance to help create some of what they will carry, look at, and use to define themselves.

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