Billy Elliot, Chaucer’s Monk, and the Modern Reader

I was asked today, by a student doing research on teaching, how I feel when I am teaching.  There are lots of answers, of course, depending on how well it’s going, but the most prominent feeling I have in the classroom is electricity.  I even quoted the film Billy Elliot (where he’s asked what it feels like when he dances) because that’s what it feels like—electricity.

When it’s going well, we are looking at a narrative and feeling a connection to it.  A circuit closes for any number of reasons—someone discovers a parallel in the narrative to her own life, or a character who reminds a student of a family member, or the text recalls the tv show or movie they watched last week.  I talked about it as a current, as I reflect now, in rather sci-fi terms, of people establishing connections to texts and to each other, as if we create a cloud of electricity that we all tap in to (to varying degrees, perhaps, but when it’s great, pretty much everyone is plugged in).

Sometimes the current exists between two people (who we might say were “on the same wavelength”), but sometimes it is between a reader and a time, a text, a context, an archetype.  In my Chaucer class this morning, I had occasion to make a parallel I’ve never made before.  In the wake of the attack at Ohio State this morning, which was described initially as a shooting, I made the connection to our feelings about that kind of news—as college students who commiserate with other college students when violence erupts on campus, but who also sigh inwardly, relieved that it wasn’t on our campus.

This, believe it or not, was relevant to Chaucer’s “Monk’s Tale,” which is a collection of seventeen tragedies in chronological order from Lucifer through the 14th century, with the exception of a handful of vignettes that are typically referred to as “current events” for Chaucer:  the assassinations of King Pedro of Spain, Peter of Cyprus, and Bernabo Visconti.

This rather lengthy tale ranges from the fall of Lucifer, through the Bible and through history, with stops at Samson, Caesar, and Alexander the Great, to name a few.  But it is interrupted by these contemporary stories—ones that would have been more immediate and somewhat sensitive. The Canterbury pilgrims listen to the monk as we do to the news. The knight even knew one of those guys. But mostly it is a moment where tragedy becomes personal:  where individuals react with compassion when someone else’s king is killed and with relief that it wasn’t theirs.

When I connected this awful, complicated set of feelings to our reactions to yet another scene of violence on a college campus, that electricity sparked. Groggy, reluctant students still full of pumpkin pie and in vacation-mode woke up, sat up, and thought about how uncanny it is that we keep having these conversations in Chaucer class about contemporary problems.

I’ve taught this tale a minimum of fifteen times. Probably twenty. I’ve never framed it in that particular way before, never quite seen that connection. But I will make it again. There is truth to the claim that the text changes with each reading because the reader changes. And teaching reading changes, because the more of these electric moments happen in class, the more ways I have to reach the next group. And the more connections I can facilitate–the more sparks fired, switches flipped, circuits closed–the more students learn to make those connections themselves. Narratives inform narratives. The more connections we can see, the more skilled we become at reading our world, the more easily we write and re-write our own stories. And that’s how we change the world.
*That’s a stamped image of a lightbulb, by the way, from a Stampin’ Up! Stamp set called “You Brighten My Day.”

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