To my students, the Class of 2020 (or how to pass my English class)

The first book we read together was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

It was September and we were new to each other, so you didn’t want to offend me. But, over 17 years teaching, I’ve developed a 6th sense of sorts–sensing when a classroom full of students is either apathetic or unpierced by literature.

In the academic world, apathy is often saved for later months, February and March, so I sensed it was the latter– you were, at the time, unpierced.

I argued The Road was not as bleak as perceived. It was, in the end, a hopeful novel. The last two pages, with its green glen and brook trout and amber current, shine over the bleakness that pressed hard for 285 pages and reminds us that even dawn will break on the darkest nights, and the sun, though distant and thin, will glint again.

And still, from my position in the front of the classroom, you sat quiet and unpierced.

Recently, life was synchronized. I was planning year-end projects and you planned for prom, senior skip day, and graduation.

The world was right. Days went accordingly. Schedules were kept. Plans made. Futures were unfolding into tangible realities.

And then, when everything was going as planned, this happened.

There has been times, over the years, I have lost faith in myself. I have lost faith in my strength as a man, in my intelligence, in my ability as a teacher.

But literature has always restored my faith. A pew in an empty church. A place to be still, pray, take comfort and find wisdom in times of need.

What else would you expect from a high school English teacher?

I’ve been asked many times if I enjoy teaching English.

Yes.

Do you ever get bored teaching the same thing year after year?

No.

Why not?

Because, once written, a story sails into a forever changing world. For an English teacher, this is an interesting classroom moment–when a story, no matter its birth year, meets the mind of the modern student. And a story, if it has earned the right to be called “literature”, achieves a foreverness and what author Ben Marcus calls, “a moral honesty” not so much in plot or subject matter or setting but in its unflinching allegiance to truthful human expression.

Fiction is our problem. Not in a literary sense, but the fictional belief that we think we are in control of the world.

In the bleakness of our current reality, as I write this on a Sunday afternoon, knowing with bone certainty we will not see each other tomorrow, I can’t help but recall The Road.

In spite of anger and loss and sadness, the son promises his father he would always carry the fire.

And in one of those September lessons, we learned the fire was not literal. The fire was love and compassion and hope and community and courage and resolve.

The fire is what burns so hot in your heart it warms the hearts of others.

And even though circumstances may try to extinguish your fire, your sole responsibility to yourself, to the world, is to always carry the fire.

I know you’re hurting. I know it’s not fair.

But we’re at the the mercy of the world.

Yet no matter what happens. No matter how bleak things turn. You have to promise, your senior English teacher, to always carry the fire.

And–if you can honor that promise, for the rest of your life, congratulations– you’ve been pierced by literature and you have, with flying colors, passed my class.

Be well,

Mr. Armstrong

Jay Armstrong is a writer and a former award-winning high school English teacher. Find more at writeonfighton.org.