English Literature Seminar
This year, I’m taking a wonderful English literature seminar. The teacher is brilliant, the works are classic, and the 18 students are close, many of us friends since elementary school.
Two girls – good friends of mine – led the seminar on Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin. It tells the story of two opposite brothers – Sonny, a wild, talented musician and heroin addict, and the unnamed narrator, a pensive math teacher who lives a life of monotony. While the narrator seeks assimilation into the white culture, Sonny rejects white society and instead embraces his blues music. Yet each fears an aspect of their lifestyle: after being put in jail for heroin possession, Sonny writes that he ended up incarcerated because he was “afraid of something…and you know I have never been very strong in the head.” He is afraid of hurting others, of letting down his family. But the narrator, in his own way, is afraid as well.
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He has control over so many aspects of his monotonous life that the unpredictable lifestyle of his brother scares him.
At the end of the seminar, the leaders – an avid poet and lover of literature with wild, beautiful hair and exotic features, and a neat and driven student for whom reason and logic dictate every move – led an activity. They passed out slips of paper the size of a human palm; on it, we were to write our biggest fear – the one element of life that hinders us every day. The assignment was intentionally anonymous. When we were done, we folded our papers and dropped them into a gray knit hat.
Next, the girls had the students draw a slip – not their own – read it aloud, and tell the class why this might be worthy of fear.
It started slow. Juliette – organized, friendly, and athletic – read the first: getting hurt. “Maybe,” she began, “they are afraid of being hurt in a relationship.”
“Do you think they’ve been hurt before?” our teacher asked.
“Yes,” said Juliette. “It’s more rational to be afraid of things that have happened to you.”
We continued drawing. I am afraid that the smooth machinery of my life will come to a rusty, halting stop. Such a distinctly worded fear should have made everyone in the room turn to one individual, but instead, eyes read eyes to see if someone would fess up in their body language.
Success. A 9-5 job.
The activity called for the drawing of three fears, but we did nearly a dozen before the bell rang. Just before it did, however, I raised my hand. “Can we keep the fears?” I asked. “Not our own, but someone else’s?”
Others chimed in agreement. Sarah – outgoing and sensitive – suggested that we leave the secrets on the table in the front. As we filed out, we’d each take someone else’s fear.
As I packed away my binder and pens, I heard my friend Carrie – sweet, gullible and a procrastinator – behind me. “Anna,” she said to me, “I’ll protect you.” I saw her clutching a slip – my fear:
I am afraid of getting too close to people, because then there’s more at stake and more to lose.
It was a deviation from my usual optimism, so it took me a moment to figure out how Carrie had known it was mine. Once I did, though, it was obvious: my handwriting. How ironic that something on the surface – the way I looped my l’s and dotted my i’s – was what exposed something I had hidden for so long.
For an instant, I was mad at Carrie for making me feel so vulnerable. I had planned to take a classmate’s fear without guessing whose it was, and had assumed the same courtesy would be given to me. But the anger subsided, and I felt just what Carrie had promised – protected.
I was one of the last students out of the room, and only a handful of fears were still on the table. I took one without looking and hurried to my next class. It was not until much later that I even unfolded my slip. Once I did, though, I put it into my wallet. In the same way that we all have different fears, we all protected our classmates differently. I’m sure Carrie did not keep my fear with her as long as I did, at least not in the literal sense that I did.
We had made ourselves so vulnerable by putting our fears onto paper and then exchanging them, and perhaps that was the one thing we were supposed to fear the most. Truthfully, though, that was the most comforting part. It was a silent, undeclared plea for protection. And it was answered. I know that, in the same way that we all have the same fears, everyone sheltered theirs – both the one they had written and the one they had taken. To this day, I carry in my wallet a slip of paper, not bigger than my palm, with a single word on it.
Some of the secrets were long, some were short. But there was an undeniable overlap, because, in the end, we all fear the same things. And that’s what makes it so easy to protect each other, even when we are ripping off our armor and exposing our weak spots. In the end, we all protect each other because we all need protection. Our empathy for each other is the strongest component of the human race, and always will be.
Whenever I doubt this, I peel the slip of paper from beside my driver’s license, unfold it, and remind myself to protect. We are, in the end, afraid of only one thing. As my anonymous classmate wrote, so eloquently and so simply: failure.