7 Quick Takes Friday – Louisiana Edition – (5/16/14)




So Tom asked me what the highlight of my day was yesterday.

I have two:

1) During Maria’s 7th hour class, which is pretty huge, I got to walk around and help some of the kids. These are current sophomores, so I never taught them when I was at this school, but they seemed to accept the fact that I knew what I was talking about. So when I knelt by their desks when they raised their hands, their surprise was quickly replaced with matter-of-fact questions. “Yes ma’am, I don’t get this.” “Thank you, ma’am.” “Can you come see?”

In Colorado, some of them (especially the boys) call me “Miss.” “Yes, miss.” “Okay, miss.”

2) After the Mass last night, we stood outside the church talking to one of the parents. Most people had left by then. All of a sudden, the door opened and one of the graduating seniors walked up to me, gave me a quick hug, and left almost before I had time to say hello to him. He had not come up to me earlier when most of the others had. In fact, I haven’t talked to him much since his sophomore year when he and the “three musketeers” used to hang out in my classroom using my trashcan for paper basketball.

So great. I’m so blessed to have known these kids.


the door to my old classroom



Myriad conversations with students I had here in LA and in CO have come to mind when I read this really great article from a college professor’s perspective on the ridiculously challenging art of grading. It’s very applicable to secondary (and, I’m guessing elementary) school as well.

“Confessions of A Grade Inflator” by Rebecca Schuman

A taste:

Where did students get the gumption to treat a grade as the opening move in a set of negotiations? As a professor, there is little worse than spending an entire semester attempting to connect about a subject you find both interesting and important, only to have them ignore everything you do until the moment their GPA is affected. And then, of course, it’s war. (Schuman)

Schuman admits that she inflates her grades, and explains why she feels she has to do this. When I first started teaching I was determined not to do this.

And then I realized life is a bit more complicated.

This is what I think grades “mean”:

A = Demonstrates exceptional mastery

B = Exceeds expectations

C = Meets expectations; that is, achieves the lesson goal.

D = Does not meet expectations; that is, does not demonstrate ability to do what I taught them to do.

F = Earns failing grade.

This is also the description I put on all my rubrics and the description whispering in my mind as I grade all my tests.

But then there is also this:

A = Demonstrates exceptional mastery for this student.

B = Exceeds expectations for this student.

C = Meets expectations / demonstrates achievement of lesson goal – at the level this student is capable of.

D = Does not meet expectations / This student does not adequately use whatever gifts she has been given to demonstrate achievement of the goal.

F = Earns failing grade / This student demonstrates profound lack of understanding of lesson plan goal or profound negligence. Basically, he did not really try.

Because, you know, Honors Student A writes an “A” essay that looks VERY different from ELL struggling student B — and yet Student B may have “demonstrated exceptional mastery” with the lesson goal within the context of her particular challenges and current skills.


“Ms. Shea, Teacher X doesn’t teach writing like you did. She says ‘A is B because of 123’ is too basic, middle school stuff.”

“Yeah but I still used it!”

“And I used the format you taught us anyway but she took points off!”

I cringed.

Yes, I know ‘A is B because of 123’ is the basic middle-school formula for thesis statements. But I teach it to my high school kids as a starting point because they need it. You have to learn to walk before you can learn to run, people.

Once they master that version, I try to get them to leave it behind as soon as possible. “You don’t need this formula any more. I want you to write a thesis statement without using it. Change the words.”

I think that’s one of the downfalls of one teacher having the same kids 2 years in a row. They got used to me, and no matter how many times I told them “this is just ONE right way to write an essay. There are others,” they seem to believe that their new teacher (the third this year) is wrong and I am right.

I encountered this a lot during my first year. “But Ms. X always said…” “We never did it this way before…” “We used to listen to music every Friday, can’t we go back to that?”


One of the things you have to teach students is how to be a student. For better or for worse, that means being flexible enough to adapt to different teachers different expectations.


Maria is doing something really cool right now.

It’s a simple idea, but I’ve actually never done it.

I’m totally stealing this from her.

She has a series of questions on the board. The kids are answering them in groups. But here’s the catch:

They have to receive teacher approval on their answer to every question before the assignment is considered complete.

So this is what happens:

They work in their groups. One of them brings up the paper. “Ms. Lynch, is this right?” She will look at it and say, “Try again. Look at the second part of your answer.”

This starts to happen more and more.

“Good job, you got it!”

The groups begin to feel competitive. They begin to walk more quickly to Ms. Lynch. Then they run.

“Ms. Lynch, Ms. Lynch! Is this it?”

“Almost. Try again!”

They run back to their groups and scribble furiously. They laugh in frustration.

I love it.

“You guys gotta try this…!”



This is the song I sang before I came to teach in Louisiana:


Actually, it’s also the song I sing before I do anything scary – like when I went to college, flew to Italy, began ACE, moved to Colorado…


Look. It’s me and my guitar. And the bag I bring with me when I move all around the country.

…And this is what I said after my first day of school here in Louisiana:

(and, let’s be honest, almost every day after that):



“Week before last I went to Wesleyan and read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” After it I went to one of the classes where I was asked questions. There were a couple of young teachers there and one of them, an earnest type, started asking the questions. “Miss O’Connor,” he said, “why was the Misfit’s hat black?” I said most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats. He looked pretty disappointed. Then he said, “Miss O’Connor, the Misfit represents Christ, does he not?” “He does not,” I said. He looked crushed. “Well, Miss O’Connor,” he said, “what is the significance of the Misfit’s hat?” I said it was to cover his head; and after that he left me alone. Anyway, that’s what’s happening to the teaching of literature.” (Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being)

7 Quick Takes Friday (5/9/14)





The BEST THING happened to me the other day at school.

You know, it’s the end of the year. Everyone’s tired. Burnt out. Ready for summer. The kids are struggling through hell… Dante’s hell, that is… and I have been so proud of them for working so hard with such a challenging work.

We had a fishbowl discussion the other day in class. Two students raised their hands and asked me, “Hey, Ms. Shea. Are we going to be reading The Purgatorio and The Paradiso?”

“Sadly, no,” I said. “But I love The Purgatorio. It’s my favorite part of Dante’s poem.”

“Man,” one of them sighed. “I really want to know what happens next!”

“Yeah. So, if we buy a copy of those two books and read them this summer, and we email you with questions, would you email us back?”


I was so happy I almost fell off the desk I was sitting on. AND THESE WERE NOT MY HONORS STUDENTS. These were not my “I love to read” students. These were my struggling kids, who used to say The Inferno was way too hard… but who had decided to try. Sticky notes and annotations colored the pages of their books. They had come in for extra help a few times — completely voluntarily.

And now they want to read The Purgatorio and The Paradiso this summer… well, just because.

Psh. Who says teaching kids skills and reading strategies and how to “interact with challenging text” Common Core style cannot also, at the same time, encourage a love for goodness, truth and beauty?

“Yes!” I said. “Yes!”


So, I may or may not have played this video in all of my sophomore classes today…


My friend Katie, also a UD grad, has a great post for Teacher Appreciation Week (yes, that was this week!):

“Teacher vs. Teaching” at Drawing Near

A taste:

[…] here we are, two years into my unexpected teaching career and 165 students call me “Miss Prejean” every day and I’m slowly learning the ups and downs of the job. 

Here’s what I’ve figured out: I hate being a teacher. I love teaching. 

Go read the rest!


So I have been trying to pray St. Ignatius’ Examen every night before bed, and I had a really strange experience with it.

For those of you who don’t know, the steps of the Examen are roughly these:

1. Place yourself in God’s presence.

2. Think of the ways, both big and small, that He has been present to you. Thank Him for these gifts of the day.

3. Review your day slowly from beginning to end. Think about the ways that you loved God and others or failed to.

4. Ask for forgiveness / Act of Contrition.

5. Make resolutions and ask for help tomorrow.

On Tuesday I was having one of those not-so-great days. I wasn’t feeling very good about myself. I did not feel like praying. But I tried anyway. And I was a little shocked by the fact that as I tried to review my day for the gifts God had given me, and the ways that He had been present to me, I keep feeling worse and worse.

I thought of my students, and how I love them, and immediately two students came to mind who have not been getting along, and I realized how negligent I had been. I hadn’t even moved their seats away from each other. I was just letting the comments and the annoying interruptions continue. One of the students has a lot of emotional issues, and the other student bullies him because it is easy. The former student has begun saying really concerning things under his breath. And I have done nothing about it. I am a horrible teacher. How can I say I really love them when I let something like that continue? What if something happens? What if they get into a fight — or one of them seeks revenge in some way? And I could have stopped it?

I felt horrible.

I thought about lots of other gifts too – good things sprinkled throughout my day – but each time, I immediately thought about a way I had failed.

I stopped in the middle of prayer and was like, “Whoah. This isn’t supposed to be happening, is it?”

I tried again. But it happened again, almost immediately.

After a while, I finally said, “Okay, God. I’m sorry. I’m going to just go to sleep now.”

It was strange and kind of disturbing.

A few days later, during our bimonthly bible study, I brought this up to my friends. One of them came up to me right before leaving and said the exact same thing has happened to her while trying to pray the Examen. And she said quite simply, “That’s not God, Maura. That’s the Accuser.”

The Accuser? Oh yeah, right. The devil. Really?

She continued, “God is gentleman, and he is very kind with us. Often I just say, ‘Lord, please show me where I could have served you better today. Where do you want me to improve?’ It’s often in places I never expected. And he is always gentle. That other feeling — that does not come from Him. Discouragement, despair — that’s not God.”

Her words were so helpful to me. I prayed that night, and the same thing started happening again, but then I just redirected my attention to God. “God, you are a gentleman, and you are much more merciful to me than I could ever be.” It was kind of a struggle, but it helped to realize that some of those thoughts weren’t coming from God.

Funny how I’m teaching my students about The Inferno, and yet forgetting that the evil one is real and wants to sabotage our efforts and discourage us.

Pope Francis says the same. All the time. He’s always referring to the devil and how tricky he is. None of our bad, self-abasing thoughts come from God. Many of them may come from ourselves. But sometimes they come from the outside.


On that note:

via Fr. Robert Barron



That night I couldn’t (or didn’t) finish my Examen, I picked up a book to get my mind off of it.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

I finished it that night because I couldn’t sleep.

It’s so good. So, so good. Please do yourself a favor and read it.

A taste:

I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing. I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve. (Robinson, Gilead)


“A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.” (Ibid)


Lastly, a great article over at Ignatius Insight about suffering and art:

“Suffering and Inspiration by Meryl Amland”

source: ipnovels.com

Loving the Bride of Christ

source: catholic.org

This article by Carl E. Olsen puts a lot of things into perspective.

There are so many people on both “sides” of the aisle who have abandoned the Church for one reason or another. Or they try to make the Church be something she is not. They deny everything before Vatican 2, or they deny everything including and after Vatican 2, or they take this teaching and leave the other one out, or they take one pope and leave another one out…

I think we all have this temptation sometimes.

Catherine of Siena is a wonderful example of someone who loved the Church despite it’s sinfulness and was faithful to Christ. And even toward her attitude toward the Church was humble and loving.

And people, she lived in WAY worse times than we do now:

Catherine lived during a time of pessimism and cynicism. Barbara Tuchman, in her historical narrative A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, described the period as “a time of turmoil, diminished expectations, loss of confidence in institutions, and feelings of helplessness at forces beyond human control.” The popes lived in exile in Avignon between 1309 and 1377, only returning to Rome after Catherine went personally to the papal court and pleaded with Gregory XI. Monasteries and convents in Europe were decimated by the Plague, and in order to re-populate them unsuitable candidates were often accepted. The secular literature at the time described clerical celibacy as a joke. By the time Catherine died in 1380, the Church was in schism with the election of an anti-pope, Clement VII. (“Lessons   from St. Catherine of Siena, Doctor and Daughter of the Church”)

I have not read much of her writings (or, more accurately, dictations) but I’ve been convinced. I need to read her. I think she will help me be a better Christian:

Among various causes of the Church’s sinfulness, Catherine identifies one in particular: a love for the “outer rind” instead of the marrow, i.e., a preoccupation with surface instead of inner realities. Learned people, particularly the clergy, may know much about God, the Church, and Scripture, and yet not be in a love-union with God. The eternal Father tells her that such people “neither see nor understand anything but the outer crust, the letter of Scripture. They receive it without relish” and “approach this Bride [the Church] merely for her outer shell, that is, for her temporal substance, while she is quite empty of any who seek her marrow.” (Ibid)


Pope Saint John XXIII and Pope Saint John Paul II, pray for us.

I think Flannery O’Connor is a kindred spirit of Catherine’s (and in my own private, unofficial and utterly ad cathedram opinion) also a saint. They are soul sisters:

“…the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it. ”  (Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being)


Flannery’s Birthday and the Annunciation

source: mbird.com

I would be remiss if I did not blog on Flannery O’Connor’s birthday.

I have always liked the fact that March 25th is also the Feast of the Annunciation – the day that God became “incarnate of the Virgin Mary,” according to the Creed.

It seems very fitting that Mary Flannery (yep, Mary is her first name, Flannery her second and later her published name) should have been born on this feast day. The Incarnation seems to be the central concern of all of her works. She says:

The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.

Well, in some sense, that location is the Virgin Mary. That’s where “time and place and eternity” met for the first time.

In Flannery’s fiction, that location is usually a bizarrely violent moment of grace: like the murder of the grandmother and her whole family, the drowning / baptism of the little boy, the woman gored in the heart by a runaway bull… the list goes on.

Some pious Catholics are scandalized by Flannery’s writing, and they often cite the absurdity and violence in her works as their reasons.

Maybe they’re forgetting that, in the original Incarnation, when God first entered temporality, there were all sorts of violence afoot. Herod’s slaughter of hundreds of little baby boys comes to mind.

And even Simeon’s prophecy to Mary– as he held her beloved child in his arms — is predominantly concerned with violence: “A sword will piece your own soul too” (Lk 2:25).

And I don’t think we need to cite the crucifixion.

Flannery’s response is that the earthly response to grace is usually a violent one, and that “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”

As beautiful as the Feast of the Annunciation is, it’s important to remember Who was being Announced. The Incarnation of God was something wholly unexpected and ridiculous. And when people finally began to understand what He was saying, they killed Him, because in a way it was the typical human response to divine grace.

Flannery O’Connor shows the Incarnation over and over in her stories.

And like Mary brought grace into the world, Flannery brings grace into her fiction.

(She would probably scoff at that last sentence and censure me for impiety and exaggeration.)


If I could Teach One Thing About Writing…

… this is what it would be. I don’t know how I can really teach this, or rather, impart it. I do not know even if I have grasped this myself really.

“Wouldn’t it be better for you to discover a meaning in what you write than to impose one? Nothing you write will lack meaning because the meaning is in you.” – Flannery O’Connor

source: theatalantic.com
source: theatalantic.com

I had a conversation the other day with someone asking my opinion about Ayn Rand. Suppressing an (involuntary) shudder, I replied that if you’re vocation is propaganda, go into advertising, not novel-writing.

But Ms. Rand is just an extreme example of what most bad writers do. They come at a work with an “idea” they wish to impart– a “meaning”– or, much worse, a “moral“. You see this especially in bad fiction, but also in bad essay writing where the essay is supposed to be concerned with drawing out the meaning of a poem or work, and instead imposes a meaning upon it like a straightjacket.

You hear it in the worst English classes: “water means baptism, renewal. the sun means energy, new life. green always means X, and red Y, and this that, and blah blah blah….”

I want to tell my students: life just isn’t like that. Stop trying to impose your own patterns on it and let the God of all patterns show you His strange and forever-suprising designs. They might not be what you think. And if He doesn’t show them to you, so be it. It is okay. You don’t have to know.

It’s better to say, “I don’t know” than to pretend like you do.

Even in essay writing. Even in English class.

Some of my favorite essays I have ever read express an honest uncertainty– not a cop-out-I’m-too-lazy-to-think-about-anything– but rather a truthful and painful acknowledgement of inadequacy before the truth: “It seems like Dickinson could be saying … although it is possible that she … and ultimately this ambiguity shows the reader that …”

Flannery got it right when it comes to fiction. As much as she was (and is) an opinionated and ornery Southern lady, she was also a humble Christian and knew when to shut her own mouth and let the mystery speak for itself–whatever it meant to say.

The hard thing is literature is like life–and tells us about life. Life, too, is far beyond our silly pattern-making. I know several people (including myself) who love to “discover” patterns in their lives and thus ascribe different meanings and morals and oh now I get its, but these are just silly.

How do I tell you that writing reveals the secret?

It is better–far better– to discover a meaning in your writing, in your reading, in your life than to impose one.

And, as Flannery says, don’t be afraid. Nothing you write–or live– will lack meaning, because the meaning is in you.

There is the Holy Spirit, who “breathes in us sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).

Book Review: Someone

source: washingtonpost.com

I have been meaning to read Alice McDermott’s work for several years now– my father has been continually recommending her–but it was only a few days ago that I finished her newest novel, Someone.

In fact, I started it and finished it within twenty-four hours; it engrossed me in a way no other book has in many, many years.

Like most of her stories, Someone is about an Irish Catholic family living in the Bronx during the first half of the twentieth century. Well, actually, it’s about one family member in particular, but in a recent interview McDermott tells us that her novel did not start out that way.

Originally, the novel was going to be a much “bigger” project, but towards the very end of writing it, McDermott realized she had missed something. She wanted to tell the story of Marie–a rather plain and nondescript character, especially in comparison to some of the others.  But in order to do that she had to change the narrative pretty radically:

[…] [T]his is the first time in my writing career that I wrote a novel mostly in third person, and then very, very close to finishing the novel, I thought, no one’s listening to her and neither is her author. […] I need to give her the first person. I need to let her tell her own story that directly. (PBS Interview)

And Marie does tell her own story. The details are sometimes breathtakingly intimate–the ordinary events of her private life laid bare for us to witness in beautiful but sometimes relentless detail. The two main love affairs of her life ring–painfully–true. Her experience as a child, the slipping away of years, her aging, all described so movingly not because they seem “universal” but because they seem so specific. She is not just “anyone”–as the title suggests.

What I love about the story is how the setting is so lovingly drawn–it is as essential to the plot as the characters are. And in this sense McDermott does what Flannery O’Connor does. (You knew the comparison was coming.) The setting is not incidental, but central, to the action of the story–and the careful description of physicality in the novel is not a materialistic explaining-away of mystery, but rather a profound hearkening toward it. Like here:

The apartment we lived in was long and narrow, with windows in the front and in the back. The back caught the morning light and the front the slow, orange hours of the afternoon and evening. Even at this cool hour in late spring, it was a dusty, city light. It fell on paint-polished window seats and pink carpet roses. It stamped the looming plaster walls with shadowed crossbars, long rectangles; it fit itself through the bedroom door, crossed the living room, climbed the sturdy legs of the formidable dining-room chairs, and was laid out now on the dining room table where the cloth–starched linen expertly decorated with my mother’s cross-stich–had been carefully folded back along the whole length so that Gabe could place his school blotter and his books on the smooth wood. (McDermott, Someone 10)

This description of the family apartment will be revisited later in the novel as the years go by. McDermott weaves together Marie’s memories and sometimes moves us forward and then backward in time, though the thrust of the main narrative is consistent.

O’Connor, I think, would appreciate that this novel is so deeply entrenched in a particular time and place. It isn’t hovering vacuously in a vague American somewhere, with “universal” characters untouched by their birthplace and their family. There are even, I noticed with some surprise, a couple of rather “grotesque” characters, whose physical and emotional deformities remind me of a few O’Connor characters. And there is a lot of emphasis on the human body in this novel, in all of its manifestations: living, beautiful, ugly, sick and dead. This also reminds me of O’Connor and other “sacramental” writers (whether Catholic or not).

Yet McDermott is not of the “violent intrusions of grace” school of Catholic literature. The grace she intuits is far more subtle and easy to miss–rather like the  sort present in most of our own lives: ignorable but nonetheless persistent.

I think it would be easy to think of this as a gentle story. In many ways it is. But I think if you read it and close it and say to yourself, “How lovely and touching that was,” you’ve rather missed the point. Though I believe anyone who has really confronted death and lost someone they loved would not say such a silly thing.

If you’re interested in this novel or in Alice McDermott, read this fascinating piece she wrote ten years ago about her own fiction and the rather troublesome label, “The Catholic Writer.”

“The Lunatic in the Pew” by Alice McDermott

A taste–that I believe Flannery would savor:

[O]urs is a mad, rebellious faith, one that flies in the face of all reason, all evidence, all sensible injunctions to be comforted, to be comfortable. A faith that rejects every timid impulse to accept the fact that life goes on pleasantly enough despite all that vanishes, despite death itself.

What I have to say about being Catholic, then, is simply this: Being Catholic is an act of rebellion. A mad, stubborn, outrageous, nonsensical refusal to be comforted by anything less than the glorious impossible of the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. (McDermott)

McDermott’s characters will accept nothing less.

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Sufjan Stevens

There are only three short stories that I distinctly remember reading in high school:

“The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter
“A Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor

I have found, in conversations with friends, that at least two of these are very frequently remembered by others as well. The last two. But sometimes the first as well.

*Spoiler alert.*

High school English teachers often use Porter’s “Weatherall” story to teach “stream of consciousness” when they’re covering a modernism unit. I don’t remember what my junior English teacher told me about any of that, but I do remember being transfixed by the story itself. I was borne through the wandering and failing mind of the protagonist as she shoos away her concerned children at her deathbed. She is an old woman who is dying and remembering fragments of her life–in particular the “jilting” she experienced as a young woman. Ironically, at the end of her life, she realizes she is being “jilted” by another Bridegroom, God. In astonishment at the nothingness that awaits her, she blows out the candle of her life.

Porter wrote this story long before she converted to Catholicism, so it’s treatment of death is particularly arresting. I was haunted by it for years, and still am.

Oddly, though, it’s one of my very favorite stories.

“A Most Dangerous Game” involves a young man trapped by a hunter of big game. The hunter is bored with animals, and eventually settles upon Man as the truly worthy prey. It’s creepy and really suspenseful. Even kids who don’t like to read usually like this story.

I mention these other two stories, despite the subject of my post, because somehow I feel as though they appropriately contextualize what I am about to say even though I could not clearly explain to you exactly why that is.

a good man
source: bywayofbeauty.com

For, of course, then there is Flannery.

If you read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in high school, you probably remember it with unease and distaste.

If you haven’t: Go read it. There’s no use reading what I say here unless you have read it.

Or if you prefer, you could listen to Flannery reading it to you. You may be startled by her voice – I was, at first. Quite the experience:

What bothers people about this story isn’t so much as the violence (we are certainly used to that) as the purposelessness of it. Most readers just don’t “get it.” What the heck is O’Connor trying to say? What’s the message? What’s the theme? And what does she mean by “A Good Man,” anyway?

The feeling often is — why did she put us through all of this?

My answer is: I don’t know. I don’t pretend to know.

I think that if you think you know, you are probably wrong or deluding yourself.

And that is precisely what I have come to love about this story.

When I was in high school, I was pretty ticked off by the whole thing — much like my own students. It puts you through so much humor (if you read it right) and so much suspense (if you read it at all) and then it shoots you in the face.

If you’re Catholic, and you’ve heard of Flannery’s Catholicism, you’re probably thinking you might get it. If you’re an English major, and you’ve read a lot of literary criticism, you’re probably pretty confident you can get something out of this story. I am both of these things, and I have realized the error of my ways.

I would venture to say that if a reader is honest with herself, she will admit to her utter perplexity.

Flannery accomplishes in this story a profound gesture at human nature and its mystery. That’s why it bugs us. It won’t fall into conventional Christian or literary categories. It’s like she saw something and she wrote what she saw, and that was that. It was true and nothing else.

If you read it and think you’re reading propaganda or proselytism of some kind, you are sorely mistaken. You are reading literature on par with Sophocles and The Iliad — literature that does not attempt to explain life and death, but simply to show it.

The Gospel of Mark has a similar feeling, especially if you stop at 16:8, where most scholars think the original fragment ends. In that reading, the Gospel ends the empty tomb and with fear: ἐφοβοῦντο γὰρ, “for they were afraid.”

O’Connor’s story of the family’s miserably comic road trip should ring true to anyone who has been in the car for more than six hours with their parents or siblings:

When the children finished all the comic books they had brought, they opened the lunch and ate it. The grandmother ate a peanut butter sandwich and an olive and would not let the children throw the box and the paper napkins out the window. When there was nothing else to do they played a game by choosing a cloud and making the other two guess what shape it suggested. John Wesley took one the shape of a cow and June Star guessed a cow and John Wesley said, no, an automobile, and June Star said he didn’t play fair, and they began to slap each other over the grandmother. (O’Connor,  “A Good Man is Hard to Find”)

I was reading the Gospel of Mark today and was struck by its similarly matter-of-fact tone. He tells you about the Transfiguration like you would mention what happened to you at work today.

Later, Flannery relates the death of the grandmother in much the same way:

She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them. (Ibid)

She touches the man who has murdered her son, her daughter-in-law and her three grandchildren because she recognizes him as her lost son. This recognition is too much for The Misfit, and he reacts in the only way he knows how.

If you want to hear O’Connor’s own remarks on this work, go listen to her speak about it before she gives a reading of this very story:

“Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”

Many critics have realized, since reading Flannery’s letters in The Habit of Being, that Flannery O’Connor is writing about the violence of grace– that grace is not the stuff of fuzzy Christian consolation, but the terrifying love of God that seeks after what was lost no matter what cost to Himself–or the sheep in question:

I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world. (O’Connor, “On Her Own Work”)

I have found, in short, from the reading of my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil. (Ibid)

Perhaps that is all that can really be said about a story like this.

Sufjan Stevens wrote a song called “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” On this album, he also includes a track entitled “In the Devil’s Territory.” Both are nods to O’Connor.

Perhaps, sometimes, only art can explain art.

Indeed, his whole album, entitled “Seven Swans” provides a very O’Connor-esque perspective on life and faith.

So go check out Sufjan’s response to O’Connor’s story:

“Christ-Haunted” and Flannery-Haunted

She would probably hate that title.

The only thing Flannery wanted us to be haunted by is Jesus, as she so disturbingly and movingly describes in Wise Blood:

Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown. (O’Connor, Wise Blood, via goodreads.com)

Flannery O'Conner
source: ahsartgallery.blogspot.com

I need to go read her first novel, Wise Blood, again– but even as a Catholic I am afraid. That’s when you know you’ve confronted good literature, when it makes you afraid–not in the superficial sense, but the deep sense. Afraid because when you read it you have to face the truth whether you like it or not.

Anyway –

I just read another article about this new book that has been published, consisting of her personal prayers she wrote while she was in her 20’s — that is, my age.

The article I read is very good, and you should read it too: “7 Reasons to Read A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor.”

The author Cybulski says, quite rightly: “The journal is a cry of the heart so deeply intimate I wondered at times whether I should be reading it at all.”

That’s why I haven’t read it yet. Having read her letters several times over in The Habit of Being, I am pretty confident that Flannery would really hate it if her private prayers were published. Hans Urs von Balthasar might describe it as a violation of the unveiling of being — a kind of violation whereby the truth is forced or snatched from someone without her consent. (The Greek word for Truth – aletheia – means “unveiling” or “disclosedness”).

Then again, however, Flannery in heaven may not care very much or may, indeed, be quite open to the idea if she knew it might help those of us bumbling along the road down here.

But I haven’t read the letters yet. It seems indecent. But if I am really honest with myself, I would have to say that I am afraid to read them.

Yes, afraid.

47027-ExcellentQuotations.com-Mother-TeresaI remember reading Mother Teresa’s Come Be My Light in the midst of a time (a very long time, mind you) in which I was really struggling to believe in God. This book was a very painful sort of comfort, and I highly recommend it–but I recommend it with fear and trembling, because if you really read it, that’s how it should affect you. Mother Teresa was one of the holiest women of the 20th century (and, perhaps, ever). Even most nonbelievers accept that (except silly people like Christopher Hitchens). Yet her belief in God, though the center of her life, was also most certainly the most painful part of her life. Joy and sorrow are not two separate things here.

And I suspect the same is true of Flannery O’Connor. You get hints of this struggle all over the place in The Habit of Being and in her fiction, which is populated by all sorts of nonbelievers–whether they be outright honest atheists, amiable agnostics, or Pharisaical Christians of the most disgusting type.

One of her characters, Hazel Motes, experiences a radical de-conversion in which he abandons his biblical faith. He is tired of the demands of Christ. He is tired of running from Christ. So he decides to begin his own Church Without Christ (a rather interesting version of the New Atheism a’la Dawkins et. al) and proceeds to preach his new disbelief with abandon. He says, “I don’t have to run from anything because I don’t believe in anything.”

As you read, however, you see he is still running.

See if you can hear the echo of O’Connor’s own possible struggle with faith in his tirade:

“Leave!’ Hazel Motes cried. ‘Go ahead and leave! The truth don’t matter to you. Listen,’ he said, pointing his finger at the rest of them, ‘the truth don’t matter to you. If Jesus had redeemed you, what difference would it make to you? You wouldn’t do nothing about it. Your faces wouldn’t move, neither this way nor that, and if it was three crosses there and Him hung on the middle one, that wouldn’t mean no more to you and me than the other two. Listen here. What you need is something to take the place of Jesus, something that would speak plain. The Church Without Christ don’t have a Jesus but it needs one! It needs a new jesus! It needs one that’s all man, without blood to waste, and it needs one that don’t look like any other man so you’ll look at him. Give me such a jesus, you people. Give me such a new jesus and you’ll see how far the Church Without Christ can go!” (O’Connor, Wise Blood via goodreads.com)

Notice, that what bothers Motes the most, (and, I suspect, Flannery), is that to some people, “the truth don’t matter to you.” They just don’t care about what’s true. God exists. Whatever. God doesn’t exist. Whatever. It simply just does not matter to them. And that’s what’s really horrifying. Because of course it matters. It’s really the only thing that matters–either side you choose.

But back to her published prayers.

From the article:

 It is the rare 22-year-old who describes God as “the slim crescent of a moon . . . [which] is very beautiful,” while viewing herself as “the earth’s shadow . . . [which threatens to] grow so large that it blocks the whole moon.” Flannery confesses to being “afraid of insidious hands . . . which grope into the darkness of my soul,” begging God to be her protector, shielding her against those things which would tear her away from Him. (Cybulski)

If that isn’t faith, I don’t know what is.

And I am afraid like Moses was afraid of the burning bush. You see it, you can barely believe it, you clumsily take off your sandals–aware that your filthy feet are still touching Sacred Ground–and you know that if you come any closer you will probably be burned by something or Someone more terrible than you had supposed.

I will read that book eventually. Perhaps soon.

 “I must write down that I am to be an artist. Not in the sense of aesthetic frippery but in the sense of aesthetic craftsmanship; otherwise I will feel my loneliness continually . . . I do not want to be lonely all my life but people only make us lonelier by reminding us of God. Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to You.” (O’Connor, from her prayer journal via goodreads.com)

Try inserting your vocation in place of “artist.”

I must write down that I am to be a teacher. Not in the sense of educational frippery but in the sense of academic scholarship; otherwise I will feel my loneliness continually… I do not want to be lonely all my life but people only make us lonelier by reminding us of God. Dear God please help me to be a teacher, please let it lead to You.


Dissecting the Frog

Found this wonderful reflection at the Circe Institute from another English teacher like me. I can really relate to Mr. Kern describes here:

I’m torn between opposing approaches: 1) to break the work down so that they see the structures and the devices and all the things that we English majors find so fascinating but most students find so mind-numbingly similar to biology, and 2) to simply let the stories be, to them do the work themselves and to simply be a facilitator. The first option is practical and concrete and I can quantify my student’s knowledge and assess his understanding. The second functions within the realm of mystery and is less easily quantified. On the one hand I can dissect the work, on the other I can observe.

My instincts tell me to go with the second option but the strangest thing has been happening when I do: the kids want the first option. My students don’t want to have to observe because observation demands patience and attention and time. Dissection, on the other hand, requires only a scalpel and something to clean up the mess later on. (Kern, “Flannery O’Connor On Teaching Literature,” The Circe Institute)

I found this to be true even more so of my kids in Louisiana than my kids here in Denver, though I am not quite sure why. The honors students, in particular, seemed to suffer from this empiricism-obsessed affliction (though not all of them). A lot of them hated reading “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” yet they did not recognize that Mr. Shiftlet was really talking about them:

“‘Lady,” he said, and turned and gave her his full attention, “lemme tell you something. There’s one of these doctors in Atlanta that’s taken a knife and cut the human heart‑the human heart,” he repeated, leaning forward, “out of a man’s chest and held it in his hand,” and he held his hand out, palm up, as if it were slightly weighted with the human heart, “and studied it like it was a day‑old chicken, and lady,” he said, allowing a long significant pause in which his head slid forward and his clay‑colored eyes brightened, “he don’t know no more about it than you or me.” (O’Connor, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”)

Mr. Shiftlet and Mrs. Crater observe Lucynell – rather like the doctor observes the human heart in his hand.
Source: oliviawhen.blogspot.com

Mr. Kirn, in his essay about this problem in teaching English, goes on to say that “literature isn’t science and I don’t believe it should be treated like it is.” Which I definitely agree with, and I could discourse at length about how our technology-obsessed culture is suffering from an appalling suffocation of our artistic and literary desires.

But then he says, “Literature is best learned through experience and experience is driven by observation and observation doesn’t cater to this instinct, this desire.” Notice his conflation of terms – and notice also his reversal of what one would normally expect. “Experience” and “observation” are associated with “literature” and “desire” — not science. I found that very interesting – especially in light of my own belief (discussed in this post) that reducing knowledge to experience is part of the very problem Mr. Kirn is describing.

He describes it very well here:

“For to examine only the parts of a thing is to examine only what that thing has, not what it is. If I want to know what a frog is I should go to the pond and watch it do, and be, and inhabit. If I want to know what a frog has I should dissect it.”

Unfortunately, so many of my past and current students don’t really care about the frog. Nor they do not care what the frog is. The struggling students often do not care altogether, about the frog or its parts, and the strong students often only care insofar as they can gut the helpless animal for the correct organs they need to pin onto their test for an A.

Maybe I’m being a little harsh here. I’m not blaming my kids. I’m not even blaming their parents. Maybe I’m blaming bad English teachers – or, perhaps, the culture at large. Or the devil who has taught us not to care anymore about being, but only about doing and having.

Yet Flannery O’Connor–whom Kirn is following in his article–is not entirely “impractical.” I think Regina kept her on her toes too much for that. I think Flannery would agree that you can’t just sit gaping at a frog–or a story–all day. You need to find a way to train your eyes to see it properly, and that does involve skills, tools, and all the rest of it:

The student has to have tools to understand a story or a novel, and these are tools proper to the structure of the work, tools proper to the craft.  They are tools that operate inside the work and not outside it; they are concerned with how this story is made and with what makes it work as a story. (O’Connor, “On The Teaching of Literature.”)

My recent lesson plans on reading strategies are my own attempt at this. So is my (in)famous unit on essays and my “Writing Fridays” (formerly known as “In-Class Essay Fridays”).

And–oddly–most of my students, at least in retrospect, respond well to these parts of my teaching. And I am very happy about this. And yet… These skills I insist upon so forcefully with my kids are indeed essential, but they are only meant to move my students toward the Real Thing itself. I do not know if I have done so well in helping my kids to contemplate the mystery in literature. I do not know if I have really been able to help them simply observe the story as it is–and perhaps hear the Logos speaking through the logos of the particular poem or myth.

source: nytimes.com

Flannery says, in her characteristically incisive way:

English teachers come in Good, Bad, and Indifferent, but too frequently in high schools anyone who can speak English is allowed to teach it. Ours is the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning. In other ages the attention of children was held by Homer and Virgil, among others, but, by the reverse evolutionary process, that is no longer possible; our children are too stupid now to enter the past imaginatively. (“On the Teaching of Literature,” Mystery and Manners)

Some of my kids would protest her harsh characterization of them here. I think they would mention Harry Potter and The Hunger Games in an effort to refute her– a response which, unfortunately, speaks for itself. For as much as I enjoy Harry, and as much as I appreciate the fleeting moments of true greatness in Rowling’s enterprise, I know that Harry and Katniss and these others cater to my students–not the other way around. If my students do read on their own, I am happy, but I am not satisfied. They usually read the kind of book that bends over backwards to please and entice them–and judging by the Reading Autobiographies I had them write recently, they actually believe that literature ought to do this. As if a story owed you something. When really you owe the story something – your attentiveness.

If you prefer a “tame” frog that hops around after you and abhors nasty places like swamps, well, you don’t really like frogs at all, but toy frogs.

If you prefer capturing real frogs yourself and cutting them up so you can “understand” them, you understand only a very little about the frog. You possess the frog, so you can figure out what it possessed while it was alive– but not much else.

Or, you could go out to the swamp and wait and see if you can catch a glimpse of a real live frog doing real live froggy things. You may see one, and you may not– but either way you’ll understand the frog far better. And maybe yourself as well.

You Need to Read This II

How is it possible that in a matter of days, there is something else about Flannery that you MUST read?

But yes, it is true.

Here are PRAYERS that she wrote in her journal, starting in 1946. Even I, who have read almost everything there is to read about Flannery, have never read these. A taste:

Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine. Please let the story, dear God, in its revisions, be made too clear for any false & low interpretation because in it, I am not trying to disparage anybody’s religion although when it was coming out, I didn’t know exactly what I was trying to do or what it was going to mean. – See more at: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2013/09/09/oconnors-prayers/#sthash.nsWgFlRg.36YlIte6.dpuf

I find it intensely interesting that she writes these in the form of letters – almost as if He were another Correspondent among the many in The Habit of Being — though of course, her primary Correspondent.

Read more here:

First Things

The New Yorker


I cringe though, at her reaction upon discovering that somebody has posted her private journal entries. I think he or she may even have earned a short story out of it – and if you know Flannery, you know what having her write a short story about you would mean…


On another note:

Apparently a couple of my new students inadvertently found my blog online, and they were worried that I would be upset. Don’t worry, I’m not! I understand that anything I post on the internet like this is public and thus may be read by anyone … even some of my student’s parents (gasp)! So, hi, guys!

And, to all of my former students who may be reading this blog as well, hello and (clearly) I miss you!