During a job interview a few years back, the Chair of the English department asked, Why English?
I didn’t have to think of the answer.
Literature saved my childhood. It filled my loneliness and the many silences I tolerated as a child with words and characters and worlds I had not known.
A young girl, I had no adult voices that volunteered to guide me, or help me make sense of my experiences with violence, abandonment, adoption, two very different mothers and two equally different childhoods. I lived in a world without words or communication, but in books I discovered what was lacking in my life. Reading gave me the words with which to articulate and understand my pain, my loneliness, the complex people I had known, and the reasons for which they behaved as they did. An astute and eager student, I somehow learned the value of literature, and listened intently to the messages they sent me through their characters. The following writers carried me safely from elementary school all the way to college, comforting me during my adoption; they were my real mothers, my teachers, and my only sisters:
Beverly Cleary: As a child, Beverly Cleary introduced me to the adventures and mischievous deeds of Ramona, the kind of girl I wasn’t given the freedom to be. Confined to the public walls of the library or the stifling rooms of my mother’s apartment, my childhood was filled with great silences and loneliness. But Ramona showed me a normal childhood: she rode bikes, played with friends, got into trouble, and was allowed to learn lessons that only came from making mistakes. Through Ramona and her many experiences, I witnessed the kind of childhood I had never had myself, and I grew with her in laughter and tears, in mischief and playfulness, even though it was only by leafing through the pages of her fictional life.
Judy Blume: During my teenage years, Judy Blume’s charactersin Forever, Kathryn and Michael, instructed me on the complex nature of love and sex, how first love leads to intimacy and your first sexual experience, and that it is OK if the relationship ends. When it comes to first love, end is inevitable for it is an experience of growth and development for girls and boys. Not allowed to date until College, I learned about dating through books, and I learned that kissing and loving another human being wasn’t a sick or disturbing notion; it was a way of life among normal people.
Emily Dickinson: A child-poet, I spent hours trying to analyze the complex messages entrenched in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. We shared loneliness, and she helped me discover that being different was an empowering struggle. And different I was. Emotionally isolated in an austere home with an equally cool and emotionally detached mother, I didn’t have much interaction with other people. Like Dickinson, I stared out my window and watched life go by, and I wrote about it as she did. Awkward, shy, and dejected, I discovered a sister in her; I felt empowered by her wisdom, her powerful language. I imitated her dashes in my poems, and I dreamed of contracting TB so that I would die as she had. There was this calmness in Dickinson and her work that made me feel at home with myself; as if being me wasn’t so bad despite what my mother told me. She gave me the courage to revel in my difference.
Charlotte Bronte: Without the friends that my son relies on for his social development, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre became my childhood friend. She and I suffered parallel lives, and the first time I met her, when I was around twelve, I couldn’t believe someone had imagined my childhood. Jane Eyre and I were both orphaned at a young age; while her parents had died, mine had separated and agreed on giving me away. She and I both ended up being taken in by our rich uncles, whose spoiled children ostracized and openly rejected us. Feeling burdened by our presence, they placed us in orphanages. Even though Jane remained in her orphanage until her eighteenth birthday and I only stayed in mine for one year, we still shared the conflicts of abandonment and seclusion in living in one. And of course, we both became teachers, found love, and discovered madwomen in our attics — hers was the wife of the man she loved, and mine was the mother that had given me birth and the precarious life I was forced to maneuver without adult aid. Jane showed me courage in the face of abandonment and hypocrisy. She taught me about the kind of determination that is needed to survive loneliness, childhood, toxic people and their selfish vices. She educated me on the necessity of knowing who I was and holding onto my identity even when others fought to change me. She balanced strength and vulnerability, kindness and willfulness, and she became the guardian of my childhood.
Jane Austen: As I grew older Jane Austen’s Elizabeth and Emma introduced me to womanhood.They taught me about the unfairness with which women were treated in society, and they helped me draw connections between female subjection in a patriarchal society and my birth mother’s powerlessness. They set the standards for the kind of women that used their intelligence and virtue rather than their beauty and sex to gain success in life. Oppressed and subjugated, they lived by their rules, never settling for less than their worth, even if their society devalued them because they were women.
Harlequin Romance Writers: A slew of them during my high school years, Harlequin Romances demonstrated the complex and wonderful nature of love and sex for adults. They contradicted the lessons I had acquired from my mothers by filling in the blank spaces that existed between the sex I witnessed in my childhood and the asexual atmosphere engendered during my life with my adoptive mother. They showed me that sex could be pleasurable and fulfilling, bringing two people together with love and mutual desire. Sex didn’t have to be violent, or cost money, as my birth mother demonstrated; sex didn’t have to be dirty and sinful if committed outside of marriage, as my adoptive mother told it. Sex could be a thing of love, a union of lovers; the kind of sex one has depends how one appropriates it. Both my mothers, and for different reasons of their own, took sex to a place of corruption and distortion. Neither showed me a good side of it, but my books did. My stories treated love and sex with fairness, with respect, and in doing so they were the better teachers for it.
It was through these books and these strong heroines that I learned about life. I discovered words, feelings, and experiences that matched my own in characters designed by great literary minds. I unearthed my identity through literature, guided by the brightest and wisest fictional voices of the past. And because my own narrative had been denied me, I find it imperative to guide my students to self-awareness through literary analysis. Aspects of my life were reflected in literature, and I teach because I want to help students like me – silenced, lonely, abandoned, and hurting – find answers to their problems and be guided out of their turmoil with some semblance of normalcy and self-acceptance.
What about you? Which writer, which book, which character from literature came to your rescue?
While you’re thinking about it, watch this amazing video of Keira Knightly in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Copyright© 2010 by Marina DelVecchio. All Rights Reserved.