Would you rather be a garbage man or a mathematician?

We discussed Chapter 6 today of All Quiet on the Western Front, a vivid and disturbing chapter about the realities of war. A man biting his artery so he wouldn’t bleed to death; a soldier holding in his intestines; a cigarette still burning in the beard of a soldier whose bottom half has been blown away; two hands holding barbed wire–all that is left of one soldier. The students talked about this generation of soldiers as “lost.” CB wondered how would/ could they ever transition back into society after the war? What does one do with these memories? Where do they go? Can you ever get rid of them? Should you ever get rid of them? HT talked about a friend of his Dad’s who served in Viet Nam and the nightmares he has. Someone mentioned PTSD.

We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our bombs, what do we know of men in this moment when Death is hunting us down—…we can destroy and kill, to save ourselves, to save ourselves and to be revenged (113).

Unsolicited, the students puzzled out why the phrase “to save ourselves, to save ourselves” was repeated twice. Was Paul trying to convince himself that what he was doing was OK? Was he trying to justify his killing? Or simply emphasizing his desire for survival? GB was troubled by the statement, “If your own father came over with them you would not hesitate to fling a bomb at him (114).” What have these men become? How did becoming an animal help them to survive? How could you kill your own father?

For 40 minutes, with very little prompting from me, the students were engaged in an earnest and sober conversation about death and terror, youth and growing up too quickly, survival and locking away emotions. They were grounded in the text, trying to figure out what the experience of this war meant for its soldiers. The conversation was serious, reflective, thoughtful. 40 minutes is a long time for 8th graders to sustain anything. Especially in April.

In response to a question about how the war dead were counted and reported, I shared a story about a statistics project I had done in college, though math was my not my forte. FR asked, “So, Ms. Y, would you rather be a garbage man or a mathematician?”

The room erupted in giggles and lots of “What?” Then he proceeded. “Do your rings come off?” Lots more giggles, shrugging shoulders, students sharing puzzled looks with one another. It was like we had entered a parallel foreign and surreal universe. “Can I have one?” he continued. By this time, the students were guffawing. FR looked triumphant in having diffused a very serious conversation– a long, intense, sustained 40 minute conversation, with his absurd, disconnected, and immaterial questions.

It’s not easy for 8th graders to talk seriously about death and dying, pain and sacrifice. FR had provided the perfect exit. The tension in the room had dissipated. And synchronistically, it was the end of the period.

Did I mention that FR had me chuckling as well?

This entry was posted in books, conversation, death, reading, school, Teaching, World War I and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Would you rather be a garbage man or a mathematician?

  1. Mrs. Chili says:

    Aren’t they something? I find this sort of thing happens less as the kids get older and more practiced at the heavy lifting I require them to do in my class, but I do notice that there are always one or two kids in the freshman class who are able to goof us out and transition us from the hard conversations. Sometimes, though, they try to do it too soon.

    So, which would you rather be? For all that I suck at math, I’d much rather do that than be a garbage collector, but only because I hate the cold; I’m not an outdoor girl by any STRETCH of the imagination.

  2. I wish our classes had been reading this book at the same time! I could have gleaned so much from you! We found that the book had the same affect on our students. We experienced very deep conversations about life and death, war and peace. I look forward to hearing about your classroom. Thank for sharing…

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