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Life explained in eighth grade

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Michael Gerson
September 27, 2011
— With the school year well under way, and test anxiety blooming like a hardy fall perennial, and parents making the rounds on back-to-school nights, it is worth recalling the stakes of the educational enterprise. All of life, it turns out, is explained in the eighth-grade English reading list.

I’ll pass over “Romeo and Juliet,” who should have been grounded and denied all soliloquy privileges. It is “Lord of the Flies” that feels most familiar to junior high students. The torment of the outsider. The cliques that become tribes. As children escape the supervision of grown-ups, they are perfectly capable of creating their own little worlds of misery.


Most of us are eventually rescued from the coral island, with a little patience and Clearasil. But, as my son’s adviser points out, few people, if given the option of reliving a portion of their lives, would select the eighth grade.


William Golding’s screaming, painted savages—first hunting wild pigs, then other children—are exaggerations. But not always. Jamey Rodemeyer—a 14-year-old who recently committed suicide in Buffalo, N.Y.—was hunted. Internet bullies targeted his sexuality.


“I wouldn’t care if you died,” said one posting. “No one would. So just do it :)”


It is the smiley face that got to me, as obscene as a pig’s head on a stick.


As the events in “Lord of the Flies” spiral into savagery, Golding’s voice of reason desperately asks, “Which is better—to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?” The answer is not obvious to everyone. Golding’s explanation involves a shock of self-recognition. When Simon finally confronts the head on the stick, the Beast, the Lord of the Flies, it taunts, “Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill! You knew didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close!”


In Golding’s fable, the failures of human society are failures of human nature, which no ruler or system can change. Civilization is a thin veneer. Progress is a romantic myth. The end of innocence is a horror story.


The eighth-grade canon, however, offers an answer to Golding’s pessimism. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the town of Maycomb, Ala., is as frightening as the coral island. It produces lawless mobs. Its children are also hunted.


But unlike Golding, Harper Lee gives the adult world a moral voice. Atticus Finch teaches his children, Jem and Scout, that the proper response to injustice is courage—a virtue that appears in unexpected places, and shines brighter as hope fades.


“It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin,” Atticus explains, “but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”


It is present in Mrs. Dubose, choosing death without the comforts of morphine, and in Atticus himself, pressing his hopeless case against bigotry. Rather than a decisive battle, courage is a little voice at the end of the day saying, “I’ll try again tomorrow.” It is a hidden epic, a quiet iliad.


In Lee’s description, the content of courage is sympathy. It requires a leap of imagination into the circumstances of another life. Scout discovers that the neighbor she feared and mocked has given her pennies, and gum, and a medal—and then saved her from murder.


“Atticus was right,” Scout says of her father. “One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”


This is easy to dismiss as sentiment and sugar-water. It is, in fact, the answer to everything—to racism and bullying and genocide and the daily abuse we inflict on each other. Do to others as you’d have them do to you. Don’t judge so you won’t be judged. Walk in the other guy’s shoes for a while. It is the only effective response to the Beast who is constantly reborn.


This is the hope that unites parents and teachers: not that human nature can be changed but that moral education is possible. That a 13-year-old, like many who came before, might glimpse real courage in imaginary lives. That the end of innocence might be the start of sympathy. That even junior high can include a little grace.


At the end of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Scout says, “Nothin’s real scary except in books.”


It isn’t true. A lot that is human is scary. But the answers are found on the reading list.


Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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