The Struggles Of Teaching English Literature To A Class Of Mortuary Science Majors

I’ve been a teacher for twelve years now. I float around a lot. I used to teach writing students at Emerson College, adjunct work. For a year I taught English and writing to high school kids at a private school near Boston, but that job dried up. I take teaching gigs wherever I can find them. Part of my marketability is that I’m willing to teach any section, no matter how inconvenient the time. I’ll teach night school, four-hour blocks, classes that meet at eight in the morning. I can’t really afford to be fussy.

Some of my students are passionate about the same things I am. They grew up seeking solace in books and found in them not only an escape but an equally powerful call to action. The authors they read were like older siblings who’d tried something scary and found it to be not so bad, and now they wanted their little brothers and sisters to follow the same path. Join us, they seemed to urge. You have something to say, too.

I can relate to those kids. I was just like them twenty years ago. I get their weirdness, the special value they assign to paper and print—it’s almost an ethos that only young writers perceive. They’re a pleasure to teach, and learn from as well. But when you teach enough classes, you encounter students whose interests don’t necessarily align with your own. Maybe more often than not.

It’s a hard task, convincing students not otherwise inclined to appreciate literature that the subject is worth their time. They believe fiction has nothing to offer them, and on a practical level they might be right. One of the classes I teach is a required lit course for undergraduates studying to become morticians. (I know.) The class is meant to give students a cultural/historical perspective on death, and I would guess for many of them it’s the easiest class on their schedule. Mortuary Science majors have to take a lot of technical classes—pathology, embalming, etc. In my class, we just read a bunch of stories and write a couple of papers. But maybe that just seems easy to me because it’s what I do. I’d be as uncomfortable and under-confident in their world as many of them are in mine. The challenge lies in developing their confidence and encouraging them to see the importance in something as lacking in concrete, practical value as a story.

One of the assumptions some people make about creative writing is that it’s all art and no craft—there’s no technique or underlying plan, just a spontaneous leakage of words that rarely gets a second thought. They used to call it “scribbling,” back in the days of pens and pencils. Now, I know nothing about being a mortician, but I would imagine there’s quite a lot of technique involved. Processes to learn, equipment to master. A person studying to become a mortician—or any kind of skilled professional—understands the world in terms of technique: the way things are made, the right tools to use, the correct steps to follow. There’s a certain perspective that requires things to be technical. If it’s technical, it’s explainable, and if it’s explainable, it’s knowable, and if it’s knowable, it’s real and has actual value. If there is no technique to creative writing—if there’s no craft, just what we loosely term art—then there’s simply nothing to it, and it’s therefore not worthy of close study.

You’ve got to meet them on their ground, you know.

One can be sincere in doing this because it happens to be true—there is a technique to creative writing. It may not be the most important thing, but it’s there and it’s something a teacher of English or writing can choose to highlight to help engage a technically-minded student. For example, one story I teach—and not just to future morticians—is “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor. The story is told from the perspective of a grandmother traveling by car to Florida with her son and his family. After getting into a car accident (indirectly caused by the grandmother), the family encounters an escaped convict called The Misfit. The grandmother makes the mistake of recognizing him, and because of this, The Misfit and his gang take the family members off in pairs into the woods and murder them. Fun stuff.

One prominent detail mentioned earlier about the grandmother’s son, whose name is Bailey, is that he’s wearing “a yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots”—quite a lot of detail to go into for just a shirt, one would think. It’s even mentioned again two pages later: “His eyes were as blue and intense as the parrots in his shirt…” For some reason, O’Connor wants the reader to notice Bailey’s shirt. She wants it to stand out, which might account for it being brought up twice, and even for the fact that it’s such a garish thing to begin with; after all, Flannery O’Connor is in charge of her own story, and she could’ve chosen to make the shirt something less obnoxious. It’s almost like she’s telling the reader, “Don’t forget about the shirt. Whenever I reference it, I want you to think about Bailey.”

In other words, “Bailey=parrot shirt.” It’s kind of like math.

Why all this trouble over an ugly shirt? Toward the end of the story, it’s Bailey’s turn to go off into the woods with The Misfit’s gang. The grandmother is left near the scene of the car accident, guarded by The Misfit. There’s a gunshot in the distance, and the gang members return from the woods, this time without Bailey. One of the gang members, however, is “dragging a yellow shirt with bright blue parrots in it.” So if “Bailey = parrot shirt,” the fact that the shirt now belongs to the gang members, coupled with the gunshot, leads the reader to conclude that Bailey is dead. So what—we could’ve figured that out by ourselves. But remember, our guide throughout this story is the grandmother. She’s our eyes and ears, and what she knows, we know. Her son has just been killed, and while on some level she must understand this, her higher reasoning won’t accept it. When she sees the gang member carrying the shirt, she still doesn’t get it: “The grandmother couldn’t name what the shirt reminded her of.” Because O’Connor has done a careful job drawing an equation between Bailey and the parrot shirt—I call it “the math of the story”—she’s able to communicate information (Bailey is dead) to the reader even though the point-of-view character either doesn’t understand or refuses to.

Just as there’s a reason behind every choice a doctor or engineer (or mortician) makes on the job, the same holds true for writers. Knowing this doesn’t necessarily lead directly to a full appreciation of literature, but if a technical-minded student can recognize the technique in writing, perhaps they’ll learn to value the beauty in it as well. TC mark

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Featured image – Chris Drumm

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