Friday, February 01, 2008


After reading aloud the opening chapter of The Education of Little Tree to my freshman English class yesterday, I engaged them in a conversation about the idea of naiveté. I first wanted to see if we could arrive at a coherent definition of it and then employ the term as a tool for analyzing the text (naive narrator) and the protagonist (a five year old boy). We began with defintions. The students offered a list of synonyms and equivalent expressions like: innocent, rosy view of life, unaware, young, sheltered, gullible and so on. When asked to zero in on the specific textual evidence of the boy's naivety, one girl cited pointed to the way he misconstrues the laughter of the passengers in the bus. "He doesn't seem to understand that laughter isn't always just about fun, that sometimes it's a way of mocking someone."
A female student mentions a reference in the text to a woman on the bus with dark eyes and blood around her mouth and how the boy imagined that she was in hurt even though she joined the others in laughing. The girl confesses that she finds this passage puzzling. A classmate, a boy, suggests that the woman was wearing makeup and that the boy didn't know what makeup was. The girl looks around the room, sees the nodding heads, and smiles sheepishly as if embarassed at not having seen this herself. There are some good natured chuckles in the room.
"One could say that you had a rather naive reading of that passage, couldn't one?"
I don't want to pile on gratuitously however, and I try to come to this girl's aid by explaining how readers often entrust themselves to a narrator. This trust, however, should almost never be unconditional. In this book for instance, she has put herself in the hands of an unreliable narrator. Not a liar, just someone who isn't able to report the full truth of what he sees because he can't see it himself. In a situation like this, a reader has to learn how to see what the narrator can't or won't tell her.
Another student, the one who suggested the term "rosy view" wants to suggest another dimension to all of this. She reminds us that the boy has recently lost both of his parents, that he's being taken by his grandparents to live with them, and that, at the end of the chapter, as his grandma sings the boy to sleep in his new bed, the boy is overcome by feeling that forest, the animals, indeed the entire natural world loves him and that all will be well. She pauses, perhaps for effect, perhaps because what she is about to say is something that she'd almost rather not say.
"That's just not the way it is." I allow a few moments to pass just in case someone wants to contradict that assertion. Apparently no one does.
"So he's naive?" I ask.
Heads nod.
"But why doesn't he know this? Why is he naive?"
It is an adept group, full of kids who are both discerning and eager to share. They quickly point out key factors. He's only five years old. Someone else observes that the boy seems to live in a rural setting, maybe somewhat isolated. This seems to trigger a series of observations about how sooner or later children have to discover that people can be mean, that the world is not always a nice place, and that you have to learn how to deal with it.
As I listen to their comments I am struck by their insistence on this latter point. I confess to them that as a parent of a two very young children I'm not in such a big hurry to begin their "education" on the cruelties of the world; rather, I want them to have a childhood first.
"When do you begin then? At what age?" I ask them.
One after another, girls and boys, my students tell me that parents can't protect their kids from the outside world. They are serious, naively so, it occurs to me. Could it be that being a teenager so immerses one in the struggles of self protection that the experience of childhood can only be seen as a sort disinformed prelude to "real life"? Do they resent being so protected and sheltered? Perhaps it is just that the possibility of being labeled "naive" as a teenager is one that is fraught with complications. Hence the mask of sophistication and self assurance.
Finally though the girl who coined "rosy view" raises her hand. I have long since noticed how she seems to say things not so much to persuade as to suggest, and not just to suggest to others but to herself as well. "I think if a child doesn't have some kind of view of life that is ideal or rosy then she might as well be raised in the basement or something."
I ask the students to look at what the boy reports to us about his grandparents conduct on the bus in the face of the abusive behavior of the other passengers. The students point to how quietly the grandparents make their to their seat, how the grandma reaches across the boy and puts her hand on the grandfathers hand, how he grasps it in silence, and how the boy enveloped in their arms falls serenely asleep.
"Translate the grandmother's gesture. What is she saying to her husband?"
Hands go up. "Stay calm; don't say anything." "We'll be alright." "I'm here." "Don't worry about them."
"Why doesn't she just say that to him?"
"She wants the boy to go sleep. She doesn't want him to worry."
"Do they think that this is the moment to begin his education about the cruelties of the world?"
They shake their heads. I follow up. "Do you agree with them?"
There's no point in belaboring the answer to that seems pretty obvious. Instead I feel compelled to ask another question.
"Childhood, it seems to me, is by definition different from adulthood. Let's just say that it describes that time of life and state of mind in which life is full of wonder and goodness and even magic. Adulthood is another thing altogether. But would anyone, if they could choose, choose not to have such a thing as childhood before becoming an adult?"
Slowly and by degrees, some of the students begin to qualify their earlier comments about exposing kids to the realities of life. I can see that they are no different from the rest of us adults in that their formulations about life and wisdom need the time and space to evolve, to go through a kind of dialectical process until they feel as though they've struck the right note, sounded the right tone.
These students are young and smart and sensitive and, yes, naive, but I feel hopeful in their presence.
My job is to help them get ready for the "real world" and thus to help disabuse them of certain childish conceits. To do this I will attempt to earn their trust and then use that trust to encourage them to think for themselves, to bring a healthy skepticism to claims made by other people. Fallible authorities, fallacious arguments, invented histories, unreliable narrators ... a series of that spirit, I will, in due time, share with them a secret about the book they're reading, a secret that will call into question another article of faith, the very notion of authorship.
I will tell them the story of how The Education of Little Tree was published as a memoir of a part Cherokee boy, but the author, Forrest Carter, was in fact a white man named Asa Earl Carter, a man who wrote speeched for George Wallace including the famous line "segregation then, segregation then, segregation forever!" Before the truth of Carter's identity was learned, millions of Americans, including countless Native Americans, had embraced the story as a profoundly moving narrative. The American public had been conned.
Can an entire society be called naive in such a case? Or are we justified in looking at a work of art as a thing that stands apart from its creator and lives on its own merits? Does learning the facts of an author's biography somehow invalidate our initial emotional response to the book he wrote?
Stripping away illusions about things is not necessarily a pleasant thing. Learning often feels like losing something. The first time you hear the sound of laughter and feel something akin to evil is a time that forever changes the way laughter lands in your ear.
Then again, there are few experiences that I'd rather have than the ones where I am visited by a sense of understanding, a moment of clarity, a breakthrough, be it intellectual, emotional, physical or interpersonal.
You might call me naive, but getting people to crave such experiences instead of flinching from them ought to be the central aim of what we call education.


Anonymous erin said...

I think my naivete has come just about full circle (which seems like a healthy progression)- 25 years ago, I believed that Kermit the Frog lived on the hill above town. As a teenager, I believed that regardless of what was true, I was always being lied to. Now I believe that there is magic in the world- lots of it. I can question everything without compromising my beliefs. I have also decided that, for me, naivete isn't the same as being misinformed or gullible. It's an important part of keeping the beautiful things inside alive and well. Thanks for reminding me , Dad! Love you!

11:44 AM  

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