"Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong no place. . . . With us it ain't like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us. We don't have to sit in no bar room blowin' in our jack jus' because we got no place else to go. If them other guys gets in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But not us."
I just finished teaching Steinbeck's novel Of Mice and Men to my tenth grade English II students. It is a standard book to be taught at this grade level; in fact my prescripted teaching plan informs me that I must teach it in the fall of each year. Teachers are routinely affected not only by their own reaction to novels, stories, and poems they must cover in their classes , but by the reaction their students have to what is taught, as well. I confess I started out this unit thinking this novel was trite and "overdone", a candidate for the "academy of the over-rated" (as a pair of Woody Allen characters once so glibly announced - a grouping which includes many of my admittedly tres passe favorites such as Isak Dineson and Van Gogh). But as I moved through the unit , in the process of exploring the novel with my students, I came to admire the simple themes of friendship and caring this novel presents. (Many would argue this novel is a bleak condemnation of society and man's inhumanity to man - I chose to focus on the positive aspects.) My students and I related the rough word of Depression - era farm workers to the rough world of high school social cliques, and this comparison surprisingly worked. Our class discussion and writing activities made the novel very real and relevant to a gaggle of 16 year olds living in small town America. I enjoyed teaching it and the kids talked about it so much, I think they enjoyed reading it.
As I taught this novel, and in particular worked through the recurring symbolism of "the dream", (the fantasy George repeatedly spins for Lennie about buying their own land, raising their own food, nobody to tell them what to do or when, a cozy warm cabin with a fire to grow old by, Lennie being allowed to tend the rabbits) which represents various things to the central characters, such as : 1)freedom from want, 2) a life of self-determination, bound together by individuals without extended social networks who form impromptu "families" made of up friends who care for one another, and, some argue, 3) the only version of "heaven" the hobos in the novel can imagine, I came to realize that my teacher friends and I also have a "dream". It is every bit as potent to us as the one shared by George and Lennie. It goes something like this :
1)In my early working years , my colleagues and I would sit around at lunch in the teacher's lounge and fantasize about joining together to create a school. Our own school. Our ideal school. A school founded and funded (no matter how, we would figure this part out, somehow) by teachers, run by teachers. A school where, in this ideal fantasy, things would be done "the right way" - not subject to the push-me, pull-you situations created by the oft -competing desires and goals of state boards of education run by legislators with individual agendas to push, PTA moms, powerful coaches, helicopter parents, good administrators, bad administrators, or NCLB regulations and the constant testing-driven world that education is these days. A school that would be rigorous and creative, nurturing yet strong - balanced. In the early years of one's career, while the fire is still burning brightly, these fantasies are rampant. Some people act on them - if they are young enough, not pinned down with a mortgage or kids. One reads about all those idealistic young teachers graduating from Ivy league schools creating foundations and raising millions to teach inner city kids. I say, "power to them ! " Someday when I retire, I may join the Peace Corps and teach in Africa or Asia.
2)As I have gotten older, however, the version of "the dream" that my teacher friends and I talk about at lunch each day has changed. Many of us are baby boomers, former hippies types who are getting closer to retirement now. Our new version of the dream focuses more on what we would like to do after we retire. It goes something like this : Several of my friends and I would get together, pool our money and buy a big piece of land outside of town. (We live in the ex-urbs anyways, so this is relatively easy and realistic for us to do.) Hopefully this would be a lovely, habitable, useful piece of arable land, with a creek, trees, and rolling meadows - common to north Texas. Each member of the "commune" would get their own individually deeded portion of land, perhaps in a pie-shaped wedge, so all the sections would touch each other in the middle. Individuals would be free to build their own home, however she or he saw fit. Develop one's property , or not - the dream involves land portions large enough that one need not fear, in the words of Laura Ingalls' Wilder's father, of "seeing the smoke from another man's chimney" ( a clear sign that the neighborhood was getting too crowded, and it was time to move further west). We would each specialize in our individual talents - one friend an avid hunter, one an organic gardener, one an artist, one a gourmet chef. We would grow and create and share and each contribute what we individually enjoy doing most - in a system of barter that would mutually benefit all. One would grow the vegetables and other would cook the meal. A group dining hall and rec facilities would sit at the center of the pie-shaped wedge, available for those who wished to socialize, but not required for those who did not. We'd have freedom from want, could control how our days went and what we spent them doing.
Now I know that Utopian societies had their heyday in America over 150 years ago, and were fairly common, especially in the northeast. Many of the ideas of this dream are not new - they were expressed perhaps most famously by Emerson and Thoreau and lived out by artists and craftsmen, preachers and kooks, in little villages from Massachusetts to central Texas, from Oneida to Reunion. Sadly, none of these societal experiments lasted long - and the solution to that question, I think, can be found in another novel I will be teaching this spring : Animal Farm.