Fortunately, the cheap canvas reproduction of Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus still hung in the auditorium; two days earlier, I’d been tapped to sub for an English teacher who would be missing the first few days of the new school year.
The course content of the sections of Facing Adversity and Word to Essay emphasizes critical thinking and writing, so with a few good lessons in my mind’s back pocket and a smile on my face, I ventured to Classroom 106 in the Uihlein building.
Once all were seated, I got the students from behind their desks, brought them to the painting, and asked them what they noticed. Some hands raised, and brave souls ventured that it looked like someone, probably the Icarus of the title, was drowning in a tiny portion of the painting’s lower right-hand corner. After my explanation of the myth, a question dropped into the silence: “Why does a painting about the fall of Icarus shove that disaster into “an untidy corner”?
When I told my favorite teacher in high school that I wanted to teach, he said “If you make your students think they’re thinking, they’ll love you; if you make them really think, they’ll never forgive you.” Not true today; one student pointed out that the other people in the painting don’t seem to notice Icarus’s fall. They’re plowing, tending their sheep, sailing, or fishing. More input, then a conclusion: when we try great things and fail, when we suffer, there is no reason to expect others will notice. Bruegel has said something profound about what it means to be human. Over the next couple of days, we followed up on that theme with some of Houseman’s poetry and Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.”
Nothing has given me greater satisfaction than having the privilege of interacting with students excited to be thinking. Today, even those reluctant to contribute were focused. At the end of the class a couple came up to talk about what we discussed. It doesn’t get better than that. Then I remembered there’ll be 60 short essays to correct tomorrow. Oh well, I’ll suffer through them alone.