A couple of weeks ago I hiked with Rachel (one of the teen girls, infamous for their crushes on the Christian rock star boys, who own Shasta -- Shasta being my dog's sister). As per usual, I interrogated her about her high school English curriculum.
This is a subject, btw, about which she couldn't care less. She humors me, though, and over the years has gotten better at describing each and every assignment, not forgetting to communicate her emotional reactions to each. I never fail to marvel at the bizarre range of assignments handed out to teenagers, with predictably haphazard educational results. Imagine teaching math by handing out a historical geometry problem one week, then a sample of linear algebra the next.
One month Rachel is reading a couple of Shakespearian sonnets, the next a story by Kafka, and then the next month I forget to ask her anything because I'm sidetracked by her little sister's report that she just finished Lucky by Alice Sebold.
Rachel told me she was assigned Harlem by Langston Hughes. One of my favorite poems from high school. "What happens to a dream deferred!" I yelled. "Yeah," she said. "Exactly."
She sounded oddly defensive. Slowly, deliberately (rare for Rachel, who usually delivers her opinions with the force of a half ton truck) she said, "Some people in the class thought that meant what happens when you're woken up in the middle of a dream."
I laughed. She didn't. But before I noticed that, I asked, "And did you make fun of those people?" Short silence. Then, "Um, no. Because we were given the poem with no background whatsoever. So you could intepret the poem that way."
"So, Rachel, did you interpret the poem that way?" Note my expert phrasing -- like a psychiatrist who is trained never to ask when these "delusions" began. She admitted that she had led her focus group in this interpretation. Not only that, she was mad at both the teacher and visiting poet, who both insisted that she was wrong.
Rachel was a tad annoyed with me as well. I apologized, but explained that...well, I couldn't actually come up with an explanation. Nobody had to tell me about the Harlem renaissance in order for me to just know that Hughes was discussing goal-type dreams, not sleepy-time ones. But A Raisin in the Sun was only 15 years old, and my generation was closer to the civil rights movement. Hers, I realized as we talked, is closer to a thousand varieties of sci fi and psychologically-focused TV shows and movies. But is that sufficient to explain how almost an entire class (it wasn't just Rachel!) of 16-year olds can believe that a historical poem was written about absolutely nothing?
Nothing. A whole poem about where your interrupted dream goes when you wake up. Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Does it sag like a heavy load? The real question is: how on earth did these people fail to realize that Hughes was talking about something more important than whatever comes to mind while you're stoned?
I later asked her about the nothingness of that interpretation. She even debated that! And pretty convincingly, I might add. She said it was a fascinating, amazing, interesting question. How do all those dreams end? Where do they go? What happens in your brain?
For a second I forgot all my "what's gone wrong with this generation?" sorrow and got caught up in that intellectual puzzle. But then I regained my dignity. For one thing, those kinds of dreams aren't "deferred," they just vanish. And for another thing, try being black in 1951.