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In Class: Humanities I Asks the Big Questions

Dec. 17, 2018 — Today, Meg Donnelly’s Humanities I English class is contemplating one of the biggest questions that a person can ask — “Who am I?” In fact, they think about this kind of thing at every meeting of the Humanities I course that’s required of all NMH ninth graders. 

“Who am I?” is a central theme in the book they’ve just finished — Jennifer Finney Boylan’s memoir, She’s Not There, which involves the author’s change in gender identity. “What new territory is explored in this book? What amazed you?” asks Donnelly, as small groups articulate their reactions and debate what it means to be a woman or a man.

“All novels are ‘Who am I?’ books,” notes Donnelly, launching an inquiry into the differences among memoir, biography, and autobiography. Memoirs such as She’s Not There, students venture, don’t have to proceed in chronological order or be strictly factual. “Yes, I like what you’re getting at; memoirs can be more impressionistic,” Donnelly replies, and compares this literary style to the way Impressionist painters portrayed their world. Seeing a few blank faces, she invites a student to Google “Impressionism” and share images of Monet, Degas, and similar painters. Comprehension dawns that, just like their paintings, memoirs suggest rather than present only stark facts. “Does good writing tell the truth?” she asks. “No, it tells a truth; your truth. You don’t have to present all the facts to tell your truth.”

Donnelly’s students had written mini-memoirs filled with their truths, and today they each read their opening sentences. “Yawning, I clomped down the stairs as if my feet were made of metal,” says one student. “His voice roared,” reads another. “I caught myself just before I cracked my head open,” offers another classmate. 

Donnelly moves deftly from person to person, praising some prose or inquiring gently whether a weaker sentence succeeds at “dropping us into a moment.” If not, it’s rewrite time. There’s no shame in that, though. “Don’t throw away your first drafts,” she suggests. “They capture something important.”

The next assignment is to write about a change that took place within themselves, such as a time when they went from being scared to taking charge of a situation. This writing prompt evokes the second big question at the heart of Humanities I: “What is my place?” The class is about to tackle One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, set in a mental hospital. “This is usually college-level reading, but I know you can do it,” Donnelly tells her students. “It’s all about ‘What is my place?’”

Soon, time is up. As the students file out, perhaps still thinking about their place in the world, Donnelly adds one last morsel of food for thought, from poet Mary Oliver: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”