At the end of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (spoiler alert), George tells soft-hearted Lennie to look over the bluff and talk about their dream to live off “the fatta the land’”—a dream where Lennie will tend the rabbits and no one will be able to “can” them. They are on the bluff because Lennie has accidentally killed a woman and her husband is after him. George, Lennie’s dearest and only friend, tells Lennie to talk about their dreams as he shoots Lennie in the back of head.
I ask my high school juniors if George did the right thing. Absolutely, they say, as they return to sneaking glimpses of their text messages. I persist. Curly would have killed him anyway, they say; even: Lennie really wasn’t useful to anyone. It was the merciful thing to do, they argue. I can tell they hope I will stop asking questions, as they are ready for the discussion to end and not because it, death, is a difficult thing to talk about but because they don’t see the point.
I teach at a good school, an A school, but many of the kids can be very cruel, and the cruelty happens almost exclusively in their “other lives.” I see that they are kind, tolerant, and patient with each other in class but then I hear from Discipline or from the students themselves that someone has dropped out of school because of incessant cyber-bullying on Twitter. They secretly take pictures of overweight girls and post the pictures to see how many “ugly slut” comments they’ll elicit. They create pages on Facebook to bash teachers. They call seniors who date sophomores “pedophiles.” In the lives they live through their phones, they barrage each other with meaningless words, said only for effect.
***Before he set a bomb off at the Boston Marathon, the nineteen-year-old tweeted: “Ain’t no love in the heart of the city. Stay safe, People.” Empty, chillingly ironic sentiments in 140 characters or less. (Irony: Words lacking literal meaning and instead, said for their effect.)***
I am completely serious when I say many of my students are ALWAYS on their phones. Their reality consists almost entirely of language and images. When we live in a world of words, language becomes disconnected from the real things it was formed to describe. When we live in a world of words, we have no choice but to become those words, also disconnected from real, physical things. As a high school English teacher, I always thought language was powerful because of what it could mean; now, as an English teacher in a high school, I see that language is at its most powerful when it is completely meaningless.
It also goes like this: Three nights ago, Aaron was still reeling from a terrible day at work. The kind of day that stays with you through the night, wakes you up at 2:00 a.m. The day had been sitting in his head all evening. I was worried.
Suddenly, the dogs are barking wildly in the backyard. Savage canine growls. Aaron goes outside and discovers they have cornered a opossum in the shrubs. The opossum is baring its teeth and hissing defiantly as our domesticated dogs hiss-bark back, not knowing what else to do. Aaron comes inside, wary not to get too close to the hairy creature, and decides, rather brilliantly, to spray the dogs with the hose as a distraction that would allow him to corral them inside. He comes back in, mildly exhilarated. The bad day has disappeared as Clara asks us what had riled the dogs. A opossum, we say; then, it’s like a big mouse. Now, of course, she is always on the hunt for the big mouse in the backyard.
The next day, Clara is screaming in the car on the way to school for ten minutes straight that her hot Ovaltine HAS TO BE HOTTEE, which I translate as “hotter.” She won’t stop screaming. Then, I hit a bird. A loud thump, as the bird bounces off my windshield. I gasp, grunt, and quickly try to hide my sudden despair since we are not ready to answer the five-hundred “why’s” that will follow the statement “Mommy killed a bird.”
The screaming abruptly stops: “Mommy, what is it?”
“Oh, just a bird.”
“Mommy, what is it?”
“Just a bird.”
“Oh, it flew into our car.”
“Because it flies.”
Why. Because it has wings. Why. And then, what I’m learning is always the final answer to the string of “why’s”: because of God. (In fact, I now know that the longer it takes you to get to “because of God,” the more intelligent you are. For instance, Aaron and I are discussing someone we know who has diabetes: “Can you believe she can’t eat pizza?” Clara overhears and asks, “Why?” “Because she has diabetes.” “Why.” “Because her body can’t process sugar.” “Why.” “Because her pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin.” “Why.” “Because of God.” “Oh.”)
But the screaming had stopped and we rode the rest of the way to school, strangely contemplative, considering “we” consists of a tired mom, a three-year-old, and an eight-month-old. The car was silent. I remembered why I moved to Alaska. It had something to do with not killing birds on my way to school. The encounter with our physical world was jarring.
My own encounters with the physical world are few, and I think of them as the lime sorbet, what I understand to be a palate cleanser, one eats between courses in the extravagant meal of life. Like everyone else’s, most of the courses I eat happen in words—either words in my head, words I say in class, words said to me, words not said to me. Occasionally, however, I will feel the sun shine or my heart pump or I will smell a flower or the smoke of a prescribed fire. I will hear an ambulance or see someone cry. More often, I will hold my children and feel their soft cheeks on my collarbone. I will mop the floor with Pinesol. I will kiss my husband. The moments when I do not need words are the moments that give words their meaning.
My concern for my students can be wrapped up by something Sherry Turkle said in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other: It used to be, she says, we would say, “I have a feeling; I want to make a call.” Now, she says, it’s more like, “I want to feel something; I will send a text.”
It’s like my students are living in a world without antecedents—a world where pronouns are only referencing other indefinite, impersonal pronouns. Where words no longer reference real experiences but images or other words. When we live only in language, and that language refers to nothing but itself, we, too, start to live in a kind of nothingness.
Earlier in Of Mice and Men, a couple of the ranch-hands are trying to get an old fellow named Candy to shoot his old dog. They say the dog is too old, a burden to himself and to everyone else. The barn is divided between men who say “no, shoot” and those who say “no, the dog.” Those who say, “I feel something; I will love this old dog” and those who say, “I want to feel something; I will shoot this old dog.” The word “feel” begs for a direct object: I feel this, I feel that, I feel something. It is a word that cannot exist alone, syntactically or otherwise. “I feel feelings” is fleeting; it cannot last. I think if we want to feel something, we have to remember that “something” doesn’t refer to a word inside us but a world around us.