It is a bit of a leap to segue from Seuss's Lorax to Faulkner's Bear, but both have a boy who is crucial to the story, and both are set in nature, The Bear in the deep wilderness of the South. While The Bear is written in prose, the poetry of the language and phraseology is compelling. Each time I read the story, I feel a reverence which is almost inexplicable, transcendent. The boy, who we learn in the first two sentences is ten, "had already inherited then, without ever having seen it, the tremendous bear with one trap-ruined foot which, in an area almost a hundred miles deep, had earned for itself a name, a definite designation like a living man" (Faulkner 281). Faulkner establishes at the outset that this bear is legendary; "rifles and shotguns failed even to bleed it, in the yearly pageant of the old bear's furious immortality" (282). So, twice a year the boy's father and a few of his comrades make a ritual trip to their camp in the deep wilderness to hunt in, and commune with, that wilderness. Finally, when the boy turns ten, he is allowed to go with them and pursue the legendary bear. Not only does the power lie in the poetry of the language and Faulkner's signature phraseology but, it is the interaction among the agents or characters in this rite of passage: the boy, his mentor, Sam Fathers, who is the son of a slave woman and a Chickasaw chief, and "the old bear, solitary, indomitable and alone, widowered, childless and absolved of mortality ___. . ." (282). This bear, unlike the talking animals in fables, is wholly a bear, fully of the wilderness, and yet seems to exude a degree of mystique in the way the boy experiences his encounters with it.
On the first trip into the wilderness, the boy has a rifle that is too big for him to fire, but Sam Fathers is by his side, and of course the boy does not see the bear on this first foray because that is, one might say, a sacrament that must be grown into and earned. Over subsequent trips to the camp with his father and the band of regulars, the boy grows into his gun, and learns from Sam how to wander in the deep wilderness alone with the aid of a compass, a watch, and a stick to fend off snakes. While he has sensed the presence of the bear, seen its trap-ruined footprint, and felt its eyes on him, he has not yet seen it. Ironically, Sam points out to him that if he has any hope of seeing the bear, he must abandon his conventions of civilization: the gun, the compass, his watch, and the stick. Sam Fathers says to the boy, "You will have to choose" (288). If the boy wants to see the immortal, legendary bear, he must meet the bear on equal footing, and as Sam tells him, "Ain't nothing in the woods going to hurt you, unless you corner it, or it smells that you are afraid. A bear or a deer, too, has got to be scared of a coward the same as a brave man has got to be" (288).
Faulkner takes the reader with the boy, one morning long before daylight, into the wilderness, where even the boy has never gone. But it is not until well into midday, when the boy, who has left his gun back at the camp, abandons his compass, his watch, and even his snake stick, but not his courage, and is sitting on a log, suddenly "saw the bear. It did not emerge, appear, it was just there, immobile, solid, fixed in the hot dappling of the green and windless noon. . . .Then it moved. It made no sound. . . .Then it was gone. It didn't walk into the woods, the undergrowth. It faded, sank back into the wilderness . . ." (290).
There were other bears in the wilderness, but communion with this bear was unique in nature. "If Sam Fathers had been his mentor and the backyard rabbits and squirrels at home his kindergarten, then the wilderness the old bear ran was his college, the old male bear itself, so long unwifed and childless as to have become its own ungendered progenitor, was his alma mater" (290-291). "They looked at each other, they had emerged from the wilderness old as earth, synchronized to that instant by something more than the blood that moved the flesh and bones which bore them, and touched, pledged something, affirmed something more lasting that the frail web of bones and flesh which any accident could obliterate" (291).
And then, after many trips to the camp, when the boy was sixteen, and Sam had initiated him with respect for and humility in the wilderness that the bear represents, he convinced his father to let him go to the camp alone, just with Sam Fathers and a feisty little dog that weighed about six pounds, that might be the dog that could bay the bear. And on this trip, in a sudden head-on encounter with the bear, the brave little dog ran right up under the bear as it reared on its hind feet, growing taller and taller; and in that instant, the boy threw down his gun, and ran in, grabbing the dog from under the bear, so close he saw a wood tick inside its right hind leg. When Sam Fathers pointed out that he couldn't have missed it if he had shot at it, the boy pointed out that Sam could have shot it as well, nor did he.
Once back home his father, reading to him about truth from, Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn, attempts, albeit somewhat ambiguously, to talk the boy through the significance of what had happened there in the wilderness. But, "He didn't know. Somehow it was simpler than that. There was an old bear . . . proud enough of liberty and freedom to see it threatened without fear or even alarm, . . . to put them in jeopardy in order to savor them. There was an old man, son of a Negro slave and an Indian king . . . There was a boy who wished to learn humility and pride in order to become skillful in the woods . . . And a little dog, nameless and mongrel, and weighing only six pounds, but brave" (294). It was as if the boy's experience, his ultimate encounter that bonded him with the bear, and with the wilderness, and with himself, was beyond words, beyond even the poetry of words.
If my students use the skills they have learned and practiced, they should be able to create, in teams, a very necessary story board graphic organizer for The Bear that will visually establish the relationship, to one another, of the agents, including the bear, and their actions, and the objects, and, in this case, the wilderness that is almost the largest player in the story. Especially it will establish the relationship of the boy, a neophyte and novice, on a journey that is his rite of passage, with Sam Fathers, who will teach him and imbue him with everything he knows about nature, the wilderness, and the indomitable old bear. It may be necessary for some teams to do a sequence graphic organizer, so that teams will be able to learn from each other's story board and sequence graphic organizers.
Once students have control of what happened in sequence, and of the interaction of agents and their actions, objects (such as the gun and compass), and the bear that almost is the wilderness, with a text to go with the story board, they might venture to make a landscape graphic organizer, having chosen the column headings which might read something like this: the boy, Sam Fathers, the wilderness, the old bear, the boy's father, the gun (compass and watch), and the feisty little dog, and then begin to ask themselves what each represents in this ritual rite of passage, playing out in the deep, southern wilderness over a hundred years ago.
Connecting the boy's rite of passage with those of my students
While gaining a sense of control of the literary symbolism in The Bear will be challenging for my students, one question that intrigues me is how cultures, or sub-cultures, determine what a rite of passage is. Sam Fathers taught the boy everything he knew about the wilderness, every little detail, and to have a profound respect and reverence for it, and that, sometimes, not shooting is manlier than shooting. What did the boy, in his rite of passage, understand about himself in relation to the bear, and the wilderness that the bear represents, which is the boy's culture? How instrumental was Sam Fathers in the boy's rite? And what was the role of the boy's father?
I want my students to explore the rites of passage that are part of our culture and subcultures. On what does our culture or subculture place a value as a rite of passage? How does a youth experience a rite of passage; who is charged with the role of Sam Fathers; is anyone? What do they come to understand about themselves in relation to, what I will call here, the Other, as a result of their rite of passage? What rites of passage are more significant than others? Like the boy who had the courage to lay down his gun to become a man, are there manifestations of society and civilization that a teen might lay down in a rite of passage? I am pushing the boundaries here but I believe that a lively discussion and exploration of these questions grounded in The Bear might lead my students to a deeper understanding of the significance, or the lack of it, of their own rites of passage. It also may lead to their understanding of what the agents, their actions, the objects, the setting, and perhaps even the feisty little dog as a catalyst might represent or symbolize beyond what they mean in the story.
Every sophomore at New Haven Academy must complete and present a project in the spring called a Gateway that is, for all intents and purposes, a rite of passage, in which he or she reflects upon his/her personal growth over the two years at New Haven Academy. Students must pick five projects they have completed from freshman to sophomore year, and connect them to the five Habits of Mind which encourage students to become independent thinkers who raise critical questions. Teachers at New Haven Academy are heavily invested in the Habits of Mind, and plan their lessons and class activities around these five Habits of Mind, and, in a significant way, act as mentors to their students, preparing them for their rite of passage at the end of their sophomore year. They must present their Gateway to a panel of students and staff, of their choosing, and their parents. It couldn't be more fitting that they read The Bear and discuss the boy's rite of passage in the wilderness . . . "that was his college" (291).