|Photo by Rashawerakh via flickr.com/creative commons|
One of my favorite parts of summer--and being finished with my masters--is I now have time to read. Just-for-fun reading I mean, not school reading. So I started with the three books of Hunger Games; that was indeed a fun read. Today I finished Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. It's been a wonderful, horrible read. Let me explain.
In my English 3B (American Literature) course, my students read a work by a "major" American author born before 1940 (they choose a more contemporary author in another course). Lawrence choose, with a nudge from me, Kurt Vonnegut and his novel Cat's Cradle. I looked forward to reading his weekly blog and finding his reactions.
His first entry discussed the title: "What does Cat's Cradle mean?" he wrote. "To me it means worthless. just like the game cat's cradle." I knew he was reading...which is more rare than I would like to admit. "I enjoy how the book Cat's Cradle actually sounds like non-fiction," his second entry said. One entry quoted the last paragraph of the novel. Lawrence wrote, "That paragraph really got to me because it actually is the main topic of how humanity is stupid. If you really think of it, it's true."
In his discussion thread we discussed how Vonnegut was so drastically affected by his experiences in World War II. As Lawrence began researching Vonnegut for his paper, he often shared interesting things he learned about Vonnegut. And one day---one of my favorite days--Lawrence said, "You know, I would have loved to have met Kurt Vonnegut. I bet he would be so great to talk to with the dark sense of humor and all."
"You really get Vonnegut," I answered as he smiled. He knew I hadn't read Cat's Cradle; I had told him I'd read Slaughterhouse 5 and read about Cat's, but never read it. "Mrs. Olson, you got to read Cat's Cradle. It's just so great." I promised him I would in the summer when I had no grad work and no papers to read.
I've kept my promise, and I did absolutely love the novel. I found myself often just setting it down and smiling, astounded with Vonnegut's genius. Now, I wish I could share my thoughts on the novel with Lawrence...but for some reason that no one really understands, Lawrence took his own life on May 17...two days before he would have finished his junior year.
So, I have been thinking of him constantly these last two days. And I have been grateful to be a literature teacher---to have had the chance to discuss literature with Lawrence. I think that English teachers get to know students in a more personal way than most others. We read their thoughts and feelings in their writing; we hear their thoughts on life as they respond to various works. I have more intense interactions with my students than many of my friends; these deep topics often don't appear in daily life. These conversations make so many uncomfortable, so many avoid them. Many students avoid really thinking about things, too.
But not Lawrence. He was thinking, he was learning, he was growing. He was becoming a thoughtful young man. Another teacher had helped him make a reading list for summer: most of it was Vonnegut. That thought still makes me smile.
I don't know what happened. It makes me so mad he's not here now. I feel like I have failed him--why I didn't see warnings...why he couldn't be saved. Those of us that have been teaching long enough have faced one of these tragedies. It never gets any easier.
But I know I'm glad I had the privilege of knowing Lawrence. I'm glad I had those conversations with him. Those parts are my favorite parts of teaching.
Life can be so bittersweet.