Whenever the term “symbolism” comes up in my English class, I hear a collective groan that is normally synonymous with detention or the suggestion of a looming research paper due date. My seniors tend to get over it once I force them to read a novel and create their own symbol to represent it, but in the meantime, getting “buy in” for this concept during a guided reading is like performing a root canal while deep sea diving the Mariana Trench. My classes can walk the grounds of Old Main, and I can point out different images that may signify something, but the effect is seldom much better.
If we watch a film together, however, the students instantly and innately grasp symbolism. I’m beginning to wonder if this visual-spacial requirement has to do with all the technology of our postmodern age, or if it smacks of this generation’s lack of connection with the self.
Or maybe they’re just hormonal teenagers that aren’t ready to consider that a tree entirely dead on just one side represents duality and dichotomy.
Jumping to that conclusion is easy until I have the dream conversation with them. This usually happens after we’ve read Conrad or Hawthorne or have discussed Palahniuk. (Yes, I teach Palahniuk. Bite me.) Nearly everything we dream is symbolic, and as our dreams are the playground of our unconscious minds, symbolism must then be deeply couched in what makes us individuals. It’s only when we consider this connection that we can understand how grasping this “English trope” truly enhances and affects our lives.
This morning, after three days of rain (something we don’t get much of in my part of Arizona) and no sign of it letting up, I decided to go for a run (something I don’t usually do). This would just be insanity if I didn’t understand the rejuvenating aspects of water, or the concept of symbolic baptism that I’m always explaining when we discuss The Count of Monte Cristo. I was one with my body and nature, which is a pretty big deal for Captain Cyberspace here. None of the things that have been bothering me lately mattered.
I was clean, empty, free.
At least I was until I had to get into my car and realized that it looked like something from an episode of Hoarders. With symbolism in mind, I began to wonder if this cluttered death trap did not represent me in some way. They say a master of symbology can walk into a person’s bathroom, take a gander, and tell everything there is to know about him or her.
As someone who considers himself pretty adept at reading signs, I decided my car represented all the baggage, the proverbial “junk in the trunk” I’ve been carrying around. So I cleaned it all out. I had basically given up on it after the kids destroyed the upholstery, but it really isn’t so bad. Driving it like that had been getting me down, but it wasn’t until I realized that I was still connected to the rolling junkyard that I had the motivation to do something about it.
These sunrises I’ve come to take for granted living in the Southwest? They mean something too.
I want to say to my students that they’re living the most epic movie they will ever see–life. Each of them is a main character, and just because life isn’t scripted doesn’t mean that the images that dominate our lives don’t contain some deeper meaning. Reading literature isn’t just about literacy; it’s about learning how to live. I want to say these things, but this is what makes me “the eccentric weirdo”. Sometimes, especially lately with the Common Core Standards cramping my style, I feel like I’m surrounded by an army of Gertrude Steins. They chant their insipid mantra, “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose! A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose!”
Really? Is that all you see?
I see love, life, romance, vigor, the heart’s true bloom. I see passion and innocence juxtaposed within Nature, which enables us to understand human nature. I see something as delicate and evanescent as a dream. I see everything that makes life worth living.
I see beauty.
Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, and truth beauty–that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
When one understands symbolism, the beauty of the world is not merely skin deep. Decode, decode, decode! Smell the roses. Watch the sunrise. Dance in the rain. Clean your hoardermobile.
We could all use a little more beauty, a little more truth.