Thanks for all those breaking the frozen sea

By Geoffrey Hilsabeck

Is there anything more heartbreaking than reading the newspaper?

Here’s a random sample of stories from the last few days of the Dominion Post: a man in Rowlesburg confessed to sexually assaulting a child 100 times over 12 years, starting when she was 6 years old; manmade earthquakes are occurring by the thousands every year in Oklahoma due to fracking; Hepatitis A has broken out among the homeless in the southern part of our state; and Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a large bug.

Oops. That last one wasn’t from the paper — it’s from a story by Franz Kafka called “The Metamorphosis.” But is it really such an outlier? Is there a meaningful difference between your shock that a man could change from one life form into another overnight and your shock that a man could abuse a 6-year-old child, or that humans would knowingly create natural disasters?

What is a human being? Why do we do what we do, whether awful (see above) or inspiring (make quilts, graduate from law school, celebrate migratory bird day)?

Literature urges us to ask these kinds of questions, which is probably why so many are scared of it. Fortunately, English teachers across the country are working hard to combat this fear and to turn young people into readers.

I spent an hour with one of them last week. Kevin Colistra teaches English at Morgantown High School. He has 145 students across six classes. He teaches “The Metamorphosis” to his

10th-graders, along with “The Stranger,” “Siddhartha” and “Things Fall Apart.” Why? So that they will learn to look for the truth in themselves, he tells me.

Colistra is a beloved teacher. In the hour that I spent with him in his classroom, several students popped in to say, “Hi,” hoping for a chat, despite the fact that school had long since let out. (There is no quiet like the quiet that descends on a school after dismissal.)

His ninth-graders are wrapping up a service learning unit. They have been working with the the Appalachian Prison Book Project, reading letters from inmates, wrapping and sending books to them and in the process learning about a group of people for whom literature and language are a lifeline.

Unfortunately, Colistra says, students increasingly have trouble losing themselves in a piece of fiction. Curricula followed suit, with textbooks moving away from imaginative writing toward non-fiction. What a loss.

Kafka said that literature is “an axe to break the frozen sea inside us.” Which, come to think of it, is a useful description not only of literature does, and by extension English teachers, but what all teachers in West Virginia did when they walked out to demand better working conditions of themselves and their students. Teachers across the country are following suit — the ice is breaking. Thanks for all you do, Kevin Colistra.

Geoffrey Hilsabeck is a member of The Dominion Post’s Community Advisory Board.

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