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My students enter Daniel 405 with their ashen, embarrassed faces pointed downward, so at first they don’t see the long line I’ve drawn across the chalkboard, almost as long as one whole classroom wall. “It’s a continuum,” I tell them. I walk—or waddle, rather, as I am six months pregnant—from one end of the room to the other, labeling the line on the left with “FORGIVE” and the line on the right with “DAMN.”

“You have to put yourself on it. Think about where you want to be.”

Now they are looking up.

They arrive embarrassed because, only a few weeks into the semester, they aren’t sure whether they trust me. So last night, probably after midnight when they finally sunk onto their futons with their rented copies of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in one hand and their iPhones in the other, they encountered the novel’s graphic rape scene not with “open minds” but with shock and disgust. I can imagine it: as they read they make faces; they tell their roommates their English professor is batshit crazy; they actually consider dropping the course.

It’s okay, though—I plan it that way.

Right on the heels of having read Allen Ginsberg’s racy “Howl,” they have just experienced in The Bluest Eye the rape of a poor, black, eleven-year-old girl—by her father. Today I don’t ask my typical opening question: “So. What’d you think?” I’ve learned they can only manage a low moan in response. We dive right into the collective mortification caused by having all read the same line: “He wanted to fuck her—tenderly.”

The little girl in the story is Pecola, and the father who rapes and impregnates her is Cholly. “I’m going to give you the chalk,” I say, “one at a time. Draw a line on the continuum and label it with your name, indicating the degree to which you either forgive or condemn Cholly for what he does to Pecola.” Last night they read the line: “The tightness of her vagina was more than he could bear.”

In the abstract, we all condemn the rapist father. Of course we do. But in The Bluest Eye, we’re forced to read thirty pages of Cholly’s life story before we read the rape scene, beginning with abandonment by both his father and mother as an infant. As a teenager, his own first sexual experience with a girl named Darlene is interrupted by two abusive white men who force him at gunpoint to “finish, nigger, and make it good.” If we stopped reading a few pages short of the rape scene, we’d all come to class feeling sorry for Cholly—helpless victim of racism, abuse, and abandonment.

The moment the abused becomes the abuser, though, we’re ready to watch him burn. I observe as the names spread out across the spectrum in chalk. They are concentrated away from forgiveness, and several students make a point of drawing their lines on top of the line for “DAMN.” I can’t help but notice these students are all male.

When they’re done, I count the lines and split them down the middle. “These are your teams for the debate. One side will argue that Cholly deserves zero understanding or forgiveness. That side is Team Condemners. The other half of you, Team Condoners, will argue that Cholly should be let off the hook—completely.” One student performs an exaggerated face plant into the desk; others offer sideways glances, trying to decide whether this is going to be fun or torturous. “Go to this side of the classroom if your name is to the right of my line, and go to this side if your name is to the left.” Like cool college students, they gather their notebooks slowly and trudge to their assigned sections. A couple of them smile.

“Your arguments are based on textual support, not personal opinion,” I continue. “To ensure this, there’s a twist. You’ll argue the opinion opposite your own. So if you put yourself on the ‘DAMN’ end, you’ll argue that Cholly deserves forgiveness, and vice versa. Winning team gets five points on your midterm. Any questions?”

Trent, who had drawn his line past the end of the spectrum for condemnation, eliciting laughter from a few, raises his hand. “Uh yeah, I have a question.”

“Yes?”

“This isn’t fair.”

The class laughs nervously.

“That’s not a question. And this is good for your brain. Get started—you have 30 minutes to create your argument.”

So they do. In three different classes, I lean on the podium and listen as Cholly’s most savage opponents create eloquent arguments for why Cholly’s behavior is forgivable. On the other side of the room, the bleeding-est hearts collect evidence with which to condemn Cholly and, once the debate begins, do so with passionate fury. After they get started, I interject only to say “go” and “stop.”

The debates quickly broaden in scope from Cholly and Pecola to questions about how we learn goodness and whether most abusers start out as victims. “Do we have inherent ‘moral compasses’ or are we taught right and wrong?” Beth wonders. “Do victims deserve sympathy while they are being victimized, but not when they respond badly to it?” Chelsea asks. I overhear Carson: “Can we be expected not to repeat injustices done to us? How and when are we capable of breaking the cycle?” “Whatever—this is dumb,” says Kira, “but I want the midterm points.”

I have to interrupt the debates to declare them over because we run out of time. As a last-minute thought, I ask students to raise their hands if they would now redraw their lines even an inch one way or the other on the continuum after our exercise in forced empathy. Over half raise their hands.

When the inevitable question comes, I’m not prepared for it. “Professor Jones, where would you draw your line?”

I hesitate, in the span of a second imagining drawing and erasing my line a hundred times. Is it insane to debate the relative goodness of a rapist? “Today,” I said, “I’d probably put my line somewhere in the middle.”

Sarah’s mouth literally falls open. “Even—” she asks, incredulous, “when you have a little baby girl on the way? That doesn’t make you crazy to think about?”

“Well, I’m pretty sure I didn’t marry a Cholly,” I say, my hand finding its way to my stomach. “But yes, even now. I think we all respond according to the love we’ve been shown. If I had been shown no love my whole life—if, in fact, I had been the constant victim of intense hatred—I don’t know what I would be capable of.”

I glance at my watch, and the students realize they’re going to be late to their classes. Above the screeching of chair legs against linoleum, I shout out the winning teams. In two out of three classes at a college in the heart of conservative, Bible-belt South Carolina, “Team Condoners” wins the midterm points… for convincingly arguing why a man who brutally raped and impregnated his young daughter should be forgiven. The teacher in me is satisfied; the mother is unsure.

Lindsey Jones is a beauty junkie. prefers questions to answers. slightly more rebellious than she seems. bibliophile. classic middle child. pessimist, cynic, or realist? writer. editor. aspiring photographer, painter, foodie, and fifty-other-things. scared of the phone. loves snail mail. is unafraid to report bad service to the proper authorities. has a noisy brain. wants her children to have funny names. hangs out in coffee shops but hates coffee.

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  1. September 7, 2012

    YIKES. Touchy subject, for sure.

    The real question is what practical effect does “forgiveness” entail? Forgiveness is really just a state of mind on the part of the victim. It really says nothing of justice and punishment, which in a pragmatic sense is the truly important concern for society. Therefore it would be relatively simple to argue either side of the “forgiveness” issue, but what of the issue of legal punishment? For this it is worth considering that a criminal who truly understands his error will readily accept justice. For rape, that punishment should be expected to be severe. The victim’s forgiveness (or lack thereof) only matters to the extent that it consoles HER.

    Anyway, sounds like a good thought-provoking class!

    • September 8, 2012

      Thanks for your comment! Yes, I think forgiveness and justice can coexist. I don’t think, though, that it was “easy” for my students to argue both sides of forgiveness issue (and really, since “damn” and “forgive” were so loosely defined, the issue of justice/punishment did come up as part of the debate). Do you think forgiveness by an individual can have ramifications for society at large? I do, but maybe this is just wishful thinking.

    • lindseyjones #
      September 8, 2012

      Thanks for your comment! Yes, I think forgiveness and justice can coexist. I don’t think, though, that it was “easy” for my students to argue both sides of forgiveness issue (and really, since “damn” and “forgive” were so loosely defined, the issue of justice/punishment did come up as part of the debate). Do you think forgiveness by an individual can have ramifications for society at large? I do, but maybe this is just wishful thinking.

  2. September 8, 2012

    I definitely support the underlying purpose of the exercise, which is empathy. Getting people to see something from another’s perspective in a truly meaningful way is a boon to society, bar none. So in that sense, yes, society can benefit from individual cases of “forgiveness” rather than a mindset of revenge at all costs. Militant Islamic societies demonstrate this all too well. But my personal philosophy (which tends to be very pragmatic) demands a definition of relevant terms at the outset. An accurate idea of “forgiveness” as distinct from “justice” is vital to the original question.

  3. Nancy Swanson #
    September 8, 2012

    Wish I could find a way to use this in Technical Writing. For now, I’m still trying to convince my conservative, Bible belt college students that writing poems as well as reports and sets of instructions is “good for the brain.”

    • September 9, 2012

      My favorite debate in that technical writing class was on social media (with regards to the job application process and its use while on the clock). It was almost as interesting as this one if you ask me… but it was no poetry, that’s for sure.

  4. J #
    September 10, 2012

    I sincerely hope that none of your students are victims of rape and/or incest. I can’t imagine how that would feel to have to listen to a whole class debate whether or not to “forgive” a rapist and then have to argue that point themselves. It sounds like your lesson plan idea was successful in that it sparked a thoughtful debate but you have to consider your students’ pasts and lives outside of the classroom.

    • September 11, 2012

      I, of course, sincerely hope that, too. While I’m sure that would be unbearably difficult if that were the case, I do think I worked hard to keep the debate “grounded in the text.” In other words, every point that was made had to be backed up with page numbers from the novel. So we were having a discussion about the novel and about Cholly, not just about an abstract idea. If we never engaged with the issues brought up by the contemporary American novels we read (most of which are racy, gritty, and painful), our class would have been a waste of time. I spend a tremendous amount of time and thought energy attempting to be sensitive to my students’ lives outside the classroom. Yet I still believe that avoiding issues that could cause pain leaves us with very little to discuss in anything but a shallow way.

      Thank you very much for your comment. It never hurts to be reminded of how important this is.

  5. hwa843 #
    September 11, 2012

    I would love to be a student in this class! I agree that avoiding all pain leaves only shallow discussion and wholeheartedly believe that, quite like both Cholly and Pecola, we each must come to terms with/make sense of both the crimes we’ve committed AND the crimes in which we’ve been victimized. Amazing that literature can be a part of that process. I know it has been for me.

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