Arriving early, I stapled the copies of The Scarlet Letter and Of Mice and Men with a borrowed stapler. Then I found a wet rag and wiped some of the dust from the table tops, benches, and even some of the floor in the corner of the room we use for class, wishing I had a hose and brush to really clean the windows, walls and floors. I moved a couple of the benches that weren’t fixed in the floor to form a circle, or rather a triangle with two long benches angled facing the immobile bench/table combinations. I opened the shutters and a window to let some air in the room, although dust blew thick off the screen onto my Xeroxes and books and backpack. I wrote the titles of the books, their publication dates, and the authors’ names on the copies, and then waited for my students to arrive. It felt a little bit like that first day as a teacher, being ready early, being unsure just what to expect. Would they be on American time or Senegalese time? Would I gain or lose students? The class was entirely voluntary, after all. Would they really be willing and able to endure Hawthorne’s dense writing? I had no idea.
On Monday, I asked what they hoped to get from this class, what they hoped to do, how often they hoped to meet. We agreed on two hour classes focusing mostly on literature and conversation, with some asking for writing help as well. Hawthorne was the only text common to all their masters level English Literature programs, and it was the most difficult, although the English Literature students read Dreiser, too, and not even Sister Carrie. A text lit students at home woudn’t read outside of Phd programs. Afterwards we shifted into political discussing the teachers’ strike, the possibility of a lost year, the elections, and the protests that have shaken the city some. Only one student had participated, all the rest suggested it was too dangerous. Allou described his participation in the first protest, admitted to some rock throwing, and seemed empowered by it.
Yesterday we launched into Hawthorne’s vocabulary, long sentences, and symbolic description. It was a tedious slog in some ways- reading silently, then having volunteers read aloud and try to paraphrase roughly, before I would walk them through each sentence encouraging them to use words common to French, reading it aloud myself, and finally translating into French when necessary. Yet the two hours passed quickly and they seemed engaged and appreciative. I offered extra classes on Tuesday/Thursday, and half said they would want to come in daily to do extra work on writing and conversation. We got through three pages, arriving at the scene where coarse Puritan townswomen talk about the ‘naughty baggage’ (always a favorite line of mine), Hester Prynne, who is about to exit from the prison. They bemoan the light sentence handed out noting that they would have punished the ‘malfectress’ properly. And switching into my favorite teacher role, questioning the relevance and accuracy of a text, I asked them, ‘How are girls here who cross social/sexual boundaries punished?’ and ‘Are those boundaries the same for both genders?’. Immediately, the class shifted to French and started arguing about double standards and girl gossip. If there had been a bell, it would have rung right then. Instead, I said we’d come back to this question in the text, and that I looked forward to hearing how Hawthorne’s story matched their experiences. The conversations that connect the books to our lives are always the ones that make the work (in this case the very difficult work) worthwhile.