Spoiler alert if you’re in my 11th grade AP English class and reading this: Wait until after the exam period Monday, unless you want to know how the play ends.
Since the AP class has no exam, having already faced down “the Big One” in early May, we spend the last few days of the school year—exam prep days and the exam period itself—enjoying something we don’t get to anywhere else in the year: drama. The last 2 years I’ve done A Raisin in the Sun—a nice alternative “American dream” with which to follow up The Great Gatsby. But most of this year’s class had already studied that play in a theater elective last year. So I remembered Our Town.
We’ve covered some big topics this year: “To what extent does school serve the goal of a true education?”, “What is the relationship of the individual to the community?”, and “What does citizenship mean to me, and how will I use my voice as an educated citizen of my country and of the world?” Then The Great Gatsby warns us, among other things, to be very careful what we give our hearts and dreams to. Our Town can, I hope, be a story that will live within us, reminding us that in the midst of our big desires to get on with life and impact the world, not to miss the moments of life as we live them, the gifts that surround us all the time.
Come to think of it, maybe we actually are having a final exam: Can you thoughtfully read a work of literature for the pure joy of doing it, and not because there’s a grade at the end? So far, everyone’s acing it.
How could we work out and visualize the action as we read? (I have a limited number of copies, so we have to share, and can’t freely move around the room to stage it.) I hit on the idea of moving character cards around a table/stage (see photo above). It’s worked really well through acts 1 and 2. Monday we’ll read the final act, and I know I’m going to cry. I have the room stocked with 2 boxes of tissues, and a note to myself NOT to take any major reading parts. Here’s the part that gets me every time:
Emily, a young mother who has died in childbirth, has been given a chance to relive a day in her life, and she picks her 12th birthday. But the way everyone rushes unheedingly through the moments of what she now knows is such a beautiful, fleeting life, devastates her:
Emily: I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. (She breaks down sobbing….) I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look.
Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, You’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.
(She looks toward the stage manager and asks abruptly, through her tears:) Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?
Stage Manager: No. (Pause.) The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.
Since I first read those words as a young adult myself, I’ve tried, with more success sometimes than others, to realize life while I live it—every, every minute. To really look at the people around me. To notice the cup of hot coffee, the morning glories…the pattern of the clouds shadows on the corrugated surface of the East China Sea…sleeping and waking up. Summer is a good time to try again.
And if you haven’t read Our Town...or at least not recently...you might consider putting it on your summer reading list.