The protagonist in Jesús Colón’s very short story, “Little Things are Big,” relates his deep anxiety about what might have happened if he, a black Puerto Rican, had offered to help a young white woman with luggage and children, struggling to get off the train in the subway, just past midnight, on Memorial Day, in New York City, many years ago. After all, he declares, “Courtesy is a characteristic of the Puerto Rican.” (Au, 114) However, in spite of his culture of courtesy, anticipating her fear at the approach of a black man, and even her possible scream if he came near her, his own fear overtook him, and he brushed by her and ran up the stairs, only to be slapped in the face by the cold air, and perhaps by regret, when he reached the street above. Relating the story many years later, he confesses, “I buried my courtesy [in the subway] early on Memorial Day.” (Au, 115) In telling his story, however, he exhumes his courtesy, and he makes himself a promise, to offer his help regardless of how the offer is received a promise to regain his courtesy.
This is one of four short stories that my students will read as they explore how one’s sense of oneself, one’s sense of his or her complex identity -- culture, subculture, race, empathy, ethics, fear, etc. -- determines how he/she interacts with others, and results in an outcome, sometimes positive, and sometimes negative. In the four stories, sometimes the protagonists reflect upon and learn from these interactions and their outcomes, and sometimes they don’t. As readers, my students will observe how the protagonist interacts with the “other” based on a decision, as a result of his or her identity, and the outcome, for better or worse, and they will reflect upon the outcome. Ultimately, my students will write their own stories about themselves, or about a fictitious character that, based upon his or her identity, interacts with another character. Just as with the outcomes in the stories that the students read in class, the outcomes in the stories my students write may be definitively negative or positive, or yet unresolved.
For the past year I have been teaching English to high school students, grades nine through eleven, at Gateway Learning Academy Downtown, a transitional program for students who are highly at-risk, often short on skills, and for whom consistent attendance is a monumental challenge. These students have been sent to our program from New Haven middle and high schools, and some from various institutions of incarceration. Before I came to this new program, I helped plan and taught in another alternative program for at-risk high school students for twelve years. Because of the transient nature of our student population and because of erratic attendance, I have found that short, short stories, or novels and autobiographies that are written in vignettes that can be read as separate entities, work well, allowing students to jump into a short piece of literature without feeling that they will never catch up if they have been absent or have just been transferred to our program in the middle of a marking period.
The four pieces of literature I have chosen to include in my unit are culturally diverse, including: one set in the Middle East in a Muslim culture, one set in New York City, but written by a black Puerto Rican, one set in Johannesburg, South Africa, and written by a white South African, and one that takes place in the basement of an abandoned house in New York City. Focusing on the characters in these stories, I plan to create a unit for students ranging from ninth to twelfth grades, covering a minimum of five weeks and possibly longer depending on student interest, that explores how decisions that the fictional characters make about how they interact with others are driven by who they are: their culture (and sometimes subculture), their personal ethics, sometimes their fears, their sense of justice, their race, and the degree of empathy they feel for others with whom they interact in the stories. These decisions and actions, based on the characters’ identities, have outcomes and lessons that are sometimes, but not necessarily, obvious to the protagonists in the stories, but that are apparent to the discerning reader. Obviously, when the characters in the stories confront the “other,” the outcome is not always hopeful, nor promising, nor do the protagonists necessarily learn from their actions.
Of course, the question is, “What does the
learn from the actions and outcomes?”
Looking through the glass at fictional characters, students, ultimately, will see themselves reflected back, as they also identify and challenge their own personal ethics and capacities for empathy, their own fears, their racial consciousness, and examine their own cultures and subcultures through decisions they make about how they interact with others, and the outcomes of these interactions.