“A thing there was that mattered,” Woolf writes at the end of Mrs. Dalloway, that infuriating beautiful book, “a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter” (Woolf 184). My juniors and seniors gather at 8:30 in the morning bleary with fatigue and buzzing with outrage over some Facebook post that fuels some interclass conflicts among the seniors. Online now being the natural place where things that might be best held back sneak out onto one screen and then instantaneously onto everyone’s screens.
Amidst the chatter of a hopelessly chaotic last day of the quarter when a group of boys has supposedly created a ‘boys club’ in the lockeroom (did somebody say defaced by obscuring chatter?) when the bells howl every 45 minutes and semester exams line up on the horizon of next week, my class gathers around two pages of this difficult novel to consider a thing that matters.
“Can I ask a question not about this book?” she asks. “I’m wondering why we read books.” She asks this not accusingly but knowingly, aware that she herself and the class are on this cusp of an answer, an answer that she says she has been looking for since her 9th grade teacher talked about symbolism in a story.
And I follow the question, wondering if these words creating a privileged, somewhat unlikeable 50 year old woman throwing a party, words written by a privileged woman who herself committed suicide, words looking into the void of their parallel real and fictional lives, words evoking the emptiness of England’s passing moment of greatness, suddenly visible at the end of World War I, a moment much later howled out by Sid Vicious punked up and coked out foully screaming, “There is no future in England’s dreaming. No future, no future, no future for you”, can help this class understand why we read novels.
And the 13 privileged students (certainly privileged to be so few, to be skilled enough to read Woolf) around this table who have struggled with Woolf’s density and with my academic demands and with what can only feel like the expectations of everyone looking at them while they reach out for the golden ticket of college admission; they read these words aloud and listen to each other and open themselves to the possibility that these words just might be able reveal something to them. They are miraculously open, which is perhaps all we can ever hope to be.
Immediately, they try to answer the question themselves rather than looking to me. One compares it to the moment writing a lab report when you suddenly understand what it was you were trying to do. Another asks if it’s like a movie, “are movies the new books?” and each pauses amidst the chatter to look for that thing that matters to him or her and say it aloud for the others. I sit amazed at the baldness of this moment, the way our own truths suddenly rise up out of the commutes and the backpacks and simmering resentments and the unstated, background of sadness for one of their classmates, and we grope together for meaning. I ask them to observe this moment of their own search reading about Clarissa Dalloway’s epiphany. We seem to have our own rare moment of truth on the last day of the term, and then the bell rings and we all return to the chatter of our daily lives.