Tuesday, November 18, 2008

At the Kilns: Letters to an American Lady, grading papers and rediscovering Horatio

One of the things I have learned while reading C.S. Lewis is that grading papers is always a burden, no matter how much of a genius or master teacher one is. Perhaps, it is more of a burden for those who are geniuses and master teachers…

This point became clear after reading a short little book called Letters to an American Lady. It is a collection of letters C.S. Lewis wrote to an American woman over the course of a decade. She wrote to Lewis---at times incessantly---and Lewis responded faithfully to almost every single letter she wrote to him. During the course of years, academic terms and increasing illness on both their parts, Lewis recounts the demands on his time. Most prominent is grading papers.

I was encouraged, not by the fact that Lewis felt burdened by grading, but that I was not the only one who seemed to be feeling the pangs of poorly written prose. There is no easy way out of marking. It simply has to be waded through. During each stint of examinations, Lewis faithful trudged on despite his time being far more precious and valuable than mine. The other encouraging thing for me is that since Lewis inevitably finishes grading and is able to move on to other things he enjoys, so can I.

All this being said, I recently read a student essay that brought me some delight. I am currently wading through 80 essays on Hamlet… and I have encountered the usual themes of death, revenge and death-resulting-from-revenge and death-resulting-in-revenge sort of essays… This essay stood out because it focused on Horatio. My student writes, “readers have a tendency to direct much of their energy towards the main characters. However, secondary characters in a work should never be overlooked…” True enough. He goes on to write, “In a play full of deception, betrayal, revenge and strong passion, it is very important for the audience to be able to rely on a voice of reason and truth.” Very true. He continues, “In Hamlet, Horatio is this truth teller; he is an observer of action and a commentator. Horatio is the one character in the play who can be trusted not only by Hamlet but by the audience.” I was gripped. In teaching Hamlet, I address Horatio’s importance only in relation to how he functions in advancing the plot shedding certain light on Hamlet. I had never really considered Horatio for Horatio’s sake. When all other human beings in the play betray all forms of human relationships, Horatio is the steadfast and faithful one. He is the hope that remains after Pandora’s Box is opened and a torrent of death and mayhem are unleashed in the closing scene of the play.

Anyway, it was great to read something inspiring. Although it is making the rest of my marking more challenging. Revenge and death, death and revenge. Oh, the carnage of words, paper and Shakespeare. As I tread through the battlefields of intellectual promise and academic potential, I long for a truth teller, someone who can be trusted… I need another dose of Horatio.


Jessica said...

Hi Fellow English Teacher!
I liked reading about Lewis and the agony of grading papers. Very relevant! I often find myself frustrated as I wade through paper after paper, it's comforting to know that a great man endured my pain! (and managed to find a life outside of grading)
Also it's interesting what your student wrote about Horatio. We studied Hamlet back in August/September and this time round I was also gripped with the importance and genuine "goodness" of Horatio. It became almost a class joke that "Ms. Wilkins thinks Horatio is dreamy" but he is a solid character who does add to the play in more ways than one. I love that each time Hamlet is studied, a new aspect comes to light.
One month til Christmas holidays! We can do it!

Jeremy W. Johnston said...

Ah, Christmas holiday... it seems like a thousand miles away...

Must... press... on...


PS: I would also call Horatio "dreamy" but it sounds better coming from you.