6:20 pm, T2F, Karachi.
I’ve just tucked A. into an essay.
What am I doing, pretending to teach my brother o’level literature? Apart from the kind family-members and supportive friends who would indulge my attention-seeking “flowery” use of language, what merit do I actually have to say that I can help this young man do well in O’levels?
Of course, as I learned quickly, there’s a very big distinction between helping someone familiarize, interpret and really connect with literature, and having them do well in the affectionately remembered Cambridge board examinations.
Well, I think today’s been a slight improvement. I mean, I still haven’t read The Crucible apart from the first scene, but why should that really matter? No I’m being serious. In fact, I’ve noticed that so much of the high school approach to literature is giving one the tools to deal with the text, rather than directly dealing with the text.
Today, for example, I realized that in the interest of time, this may be one of those rare occasions when reading the introduction may actually be useful. I’m glad I did. Not only did it alleviate some of my rather largely encompassing ignorance about at least one important volume of literature, but it also provided me a useful “angle”, or hook, to focus on with A.
Today was all about historical context.
Not only did I not realize how rooted in fact Miller’s play actually is, but I was also able to make notes that provided A. with some solid insight. I had heard of the iconic figure of Tituba, probably in reference to reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved or in some other college literature course. The fact that Miller’s Crucible opens right in the wake of the very first bout of alleged witchcraft, is historically spine-tingling. The “amateur dabbling in the supernatural by a group of adolescent girls in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692” sowed some very dark, dank seeds in the small, newly settled community of Salem. As also mentioned in the introduction:
“The seeds of this terrifying event had grown in the fertile ground of a society under great pressure both to defend its Christian way of life in a new continent and to defend its very life against attacks by Indians in the land behind them. The only safeguard against evil of all kinds was felt to lie in a strict code of laws imposing conformity on all its inhabitants. There was no room in Salem for individuality.”
Although people look back on the witch trials of Salem as a geographically self-contained phenomena, its overtones of fear and paranoia are hard to forget. I can’t help, for example, making a parallel between “safeguard against evil” and “axis of evil.”
So we talked about it, I took him through my notes. I made him read the full introduction himself, and then I set him a question. I tried to deter him again from focussing on notes as just material he can scan and attempt to retain for mere regurgitation in the all-knowing O’level.
But I had to offer a strategy as to why this kind of free-flowing connection is important. The question, in all fairness, was to get him to start writing about literature, which is what the exam is really all about.
Teeny weeny progress.
In between, we ate muffins. Both of us noticed the warm baking aroma as soon as we walked in. I rebuked him for wanting to pay for his older sister, then discovered I didn’t have any cash.
The muffins were pure chocolately indulgence though.
Easy, creamy, life-simplifying icing atop sponge..
Curiously satisfying impromptu doodling ensued.