Teaching John Steinbeck, Part 5, a Guided Meditation

Lois blogsRemember: A Guided Meditation:  I begin each class with The Remember Meditation.  In Steinbeck’s adaptation of “Of Mice and Men” that word is used twelve, maybe thirteen times in the first two pages.  George reminds Lenny about his past, about his aunt, about why they were run out of the last town.  Lenny tries to remember his past, mostly he remembers what he wants to remember and very little else.  That is why we love him.  Lenny is an innocent.  We, as an audience or a reader, experience what George and Lenny have experienced, because Steinbeck describes the past with such clarity.  He presents a clear back story.  We see in our mind’s eye where George and Lenny have been, why they left, why they have such a deep undying bond.  During rehearsals Ian Belknap, the director of The Acting Company’s production, pointed out the importance of the word ‘remember.’  Ian asked if I could incorporate the idea of remembering in my lesson plan.  Uncharacteristically, I accepted his suggestion.  Much of my inspiration came from Ian’s ideas.  I owe him a great deal for letting me sit in on rehearsals, run throughs, and final tech.  I owe him so much for inspiring me with his undying passion for Steinbeck’s themes, for his superb direction, and for his support.  No matter how risky my lesson plan was, Ian always said, “Go for it.”  I did just that.  I wish I could take total credit for my work in the classroom but, in fact, Ian gave me some of my best ideas.

I ask the class, “What does it mean to remember?  How do we remember?”

A skinny, freckle faced, short, ninth grade boy answers.  “Thinking about things that happened a long time ago… not just good things, bad things too.  I remember the bad things.  Mostly I remember the bad things, even though I don’t want to remember bad things.  Some memories get me really upset, but I can’t forget ’em.  I just can’t. ”

“Sometimes we can’t forget.  Memory is very powerful.  What else?”

A soft spoken, gangly, dark skinned, teenage girl answers.  “We feel things like they’re trapped in us.”

I ask.  “How do we feel these things?  Where do we feel them?”

A handsome Latino boy replies. “My heart, my head, my brain gets tight… I feel the past in here”  He points to his belly.  “Inside my body.  Sometimes I see things like they’re happening now.  Whatever I remember, wherever I go, it follows me around.  All this ugly crap stays with me… a lot of the time.”

“You’re right.” I say.  “What we remember is so potent, it lives in us as if it were happening right now, right this second.  We remember in our bones, our blood, our mind, our heart, our entire being.  To remember is to relive an experience.”

I take them through a guided meditation based on Steinbeck’s spoken lines, based on his description of the natural world in the novel and the play.  First I ask them to follow their breath.

“Follow your breath.  Count one, two, three on the inhale, count one, two, three on the exhale.  Take your time.  Find the rhythm.  Find the count.  Same rhythm.”  I watch as they listen to the inhale and the exhale.  Finally, they breathe in such a way that the inhale and the exhale are rhythmically undifferentiated.  I give them time, time to find the breath, to listen to the sound, to breathe throughout their entire body.  “Feel the rhythm of the inhale, of the exhale. Drop deep down into yourself.  Now remember… Remember ‘a dove’s wings whistling over water.’   Remember how ‘something was like a dream.’  Remember ‘a dove’s wings whistling over water.’  Remember how ‘something was like a dream.'”  I repeat these two phrases a number of times, because I want the sound of the dove’s wings and the sensation of reliving a dream to trigger an intuitive, irrational response in the students.  I want them to bypass their overused brains.

Some fall asleep, some fidget, some actually meditate.   Afterwards, a few of the students describe their experience.

“I saw the dove’s wings etched in ice.  It was so sad.”

“I saw the dove’s wings caught in flight under water.”

“I saw a dove flying in a blue sky without clouds.”

“I wanted to climb on the dove’s back, fly through the world, touch the stars.  It was like a beautiful dream.  I’ll never forget it.”

How fantastic!  Teenagers can imagine a great adventure that begins with the inhale and the exhale, and ends up somewhere beyond the world of here and now.

 

Since I love Steinbeck’s writing, his themes, teaching john Steinbeck is an extraordinary experience.  The students share my appreciation.  We are a team.  They give me hope.  I give them tools.  We express our opinions.  We do not always agree.  We do respect each other.  We work hard at our tasks.

 

On my last day I ask the students to imagine how the characters in “Of Mice and Men” made their way to the ranch.  How did Candy, Slim, Carlson, Crooks, George, and Lenny survive  untold hardships during the dust bowl?  As they travelled across the country, what happened to them, what did they experience before the story began?

I describe a typical dust bowl travel day.  “Walk the hot dusty plains.  Feel the sun beating down.  It burns your skin.  Ask yourself why you left your past behind you?  Why you left your life?  Was it really that bad?  Feel the futility of your current situation.  Be thankful as the sun sets. Feel your aching bones, feel your weary heart, feel your deep unrest, your fear that maybe you made a mistake.  Finally, the sun sets.  Form a circle.  Sit around a fire.  Talk to someone you don’t know.  Ask that person, “Where’d you come from?  Where’re you going?  What’s your dream?  Talk to each other.  Talk to us all.  Tell us your story.  Tell us your dream.  What do you want?  Where is your heaven?”

 

When teenagers talk about their dreams, you could weep; such honesty, such naiveté.  Who knows if what they imagine or wish will come true?  What matters is they imagine.  They believe in a possible future, in a future filled with possibility.

 

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