Science Fiction

16Jan10

So in my SF class, I have come to realize that many of the kids know a lot more about the genre — and have a lot more experience with the genre — than I do, so I’ve been trying to structure the class in a way that makes that a good thing.   Part of that process is me asking the kids pick the short stories we’re going to read.  I went to the library and picked up a ton of SF short story anthologies, brought them into class, and let the kids tear into them.  There was a nomination process by which kids could submit their favorites for us to read as a whole class.

First of all, during the time that kids were reading those stories?  It was absolutely silent in the room.  I mean, they are either just really obedient kids (no, they are not; I know them in other contexts, other classes) or they were just totally engrossed in their reading.  Cool!  Not all of them are readers, and not all of them are SF dorks either, so this in and of itself was pretty remarkable.

But then there were the nominations.  Now, I’ve done this before with classes, primarily with poetry, but also with this “bring in samples of really good writing” thing I did with the seniors last year.  The problem was always that…well, we didn’t agree on what was good writing, what was good poetry.  That’s pretty unsurprising, but the effect of it was I didn’t have a CLUE how to incorporate the stuff they’d chosen.   So I was a little worried they’d pick crappy stories, and we’d have to slog through them for WEEKS, and I would fumble and bumble and the whole works would be a disaster.

One of the kids in the class — we’ll call him Harry — brought in a bunch of his own anthologies to lend to the cause.  One of the OTHER kids — we’ll call him George — picked a story out of his book to nominate.  When George turned in the nomination, something he said made me ask, “Now, you’ve nominated one you really like, not just nominated one to nominate one, right?”  And he was all, offputtedly, “Yeah.  I read four different stories.  This one was really good.”  Then Harry comes in the next day and is all, “I read the story George nominated, and we really, really should read it as a class,” and I’m all, “Okay.  We’ll read it today, then.”

So class rolls around, and I pass out the story, and I hadn’t read it yet, because I’m just the worst, but also because I secretly really, really like having the kids’ first reading of things also be my first reading of things — it makes it feel so much more like we’re in it together, like we’re a team of damn explorers, like it’s all new to us at the same time and we can revel in the text and wonder at it all together, fresh-like.  Anyway, we all read the story.

And it was just SUCH a really good story.

It’s called “Last Contact,” and it’s by Stephen Baxter.  It’s the first I’ve read by him.  It’s about the end of the world, and there’s just really no plot at all to it — most of it takes place in conversation between a mother and daughter in a garden — and there’s no flashy bells and whistles, and the science is there but not essential to the plot, really.  And it’s just so fucking sad.  It’s about action in the face of futility, and loss, and how to live meaningfully, and time and what we do when we don’t have much of it left, when we don’t have any of it left.  Obviously it struck a chord with me, for, I think, obvious reasons.

On this, the last period of the day on a Friday before a three-day weekend (if you’ve ever been a student OR a teacher you know exactly what I mean here), the entire time the kids were reading, the room was dead quiet.  And, I mean, as people finished, they didn’t start talking to the people around them.  All of them just sat and politely, silently waited for the people who were still reading to finish.  Like they didn’t want to interrupt the others’ experiences.  Or like they didn’t know at all how to react.

I mean, the entire room of us was floored by it.

I cannot tell you how impressed I am by these kids.  I don’t know what is going on in that class, but it is at least half pure magic.  I love them so much for, for feeling that story like they did!  I love them for totally proving me wrong about their depth, their perception…I felt like such an ass for having underestimated them.  For having undervalued them.

I know the whole semester isn’t going to be like this, but, God, this is what teaching is ABOUT, man.  This!  This is what I signed up for!

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