In my afternoon class today, we spent about a half an hour talking about pooping and not just pooping privately, but, in fact, pooping with one’s friends. We have just begun All Quiet on the Western Front and in the very first chapter, the author, Erich Maria Remarque, spends four pages talking about how when behind the front lines the soldiers sit on moveable boxes used as latrines with “unimpeachably comfortable seats” together, with their pants down, pooping for two hours, while playing cards, taking naps, and feeling the experience as an utter luxury. “…we have learned better than to be shy about such trifling immodesties. In time things far worse than that came easy to us” (8).
The conversation was sincere, engaged, serious. Really, how could these guys think that sitting on these toilets together all day long would be considered happiness? “We feel ourselves for the time being better off than in any palatial white-tiled ‘convenience.’ There it can only be hygenic; here it is beautiful” (9). How is this experience beautiful? It certainly is weird, BL commented.
Because I support student-led conversation, which means that I let the students work through the issues in the book with very little intervention or interruption from me, the students were really focused on why the author would spend four pages concerned with such an issue. “Enforced publicity has in our eyes restored the character of complete innocence to all these things” (8). What did the comfort and joy about public pooping have to do with being a soldier and being in a war? How did this “enforced publicity” restore innocence? Comfort and joy in public pooping? What’s up with that? The students even got to the concept of “intimacy” in their discussion when they began to project themselves into the situation. They also understood this communal latrine lingering as a part of the topsy turviness of the alternative reality of war that Remarque sets up in the beginning of the book. And, of course, as they are eighth graders, there was lots of giggling and blushing as the conversation moved forward. They were brave and courageous to push the conversation as far as they did.
Time flew by and at the end of class when I shared that they had been discussing public pooping for over half an hour they all laughed. “When my mom asks me in the car what we did in Humanities today, well, you know what I’m going to tell her,” AR emphasized.
Well, I’d certainly love to be a fly on the dashboard in that conversation.