Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Goddess of Earthsea, Part III

Ursula K. Le Guin
There are times I hate myself.  Take now, for instance.  As I've written previously somewhere in these blog posts, I started keeping a journal, every day, in January 1997, the month I retired from public school teaching.

When I returned to teach at Western Reserve Academy (2001-2002 school year), I tried to keep it up but had a hard time: I was teaching a full load, had two daily preparations (courses I'd never taught before), had other duties associated with boarding schools (meals, dormitory duty, committees, etc.).  And so ... my journal-keeping suffered.  And when I looked yesterday to see what I'd written about the teleconference my students had with Ursula K. Le Guin, I found ... nothing.  I'd not written anything at all for the entire month of May.

And so ... I proceeded to hate myself for a day, more or less.

But I do have some memories, and I do have some documents related to that day, 22 May 2002, so here goes ...

As I wrote yesterday, all WRA seniors had read and written about Le Guin's sci-fi allegorical novel The Dispossessed, and the other teachers and I had every student submit five questions.  The Senior Seminar chair and I then went through them all and picked kids who we thought had been especially thoughtful--and their questions became the ones we would use to initiate the conversation with Le Guin.

Almost all the questions were thoughtful--Do you believe in the idea that without decentralization there really is no true personal freedom?  If you had to live on [either of the two planets], which would you choose?  Is there a difference between a "good" war and a "bad war?

There were also some perfunctory, cliched clunkers--How did you ... incorporate your life experiences into the book?  When you were a child, what was your favorite book?  That sort of thing.

We decided, too, that we would pick eighteen students--a random drawing--to participate in the discussion--three from each of the six sections of the course.  But we also asked students to withdraw ahead of time if they really didn't want to do it.  A few did.

And so we all assembled that afternoon in a conference room in Hayden Hall on the campus.  The phone hook-up was ready.  And at the agreed time, I phoned the number Le Guin had given me.

She answered almost immediately (was it the first ring? I think so!), and I was immediately struck by how gracious and personable she was.  Laughing at herself. Confessing to slips in the book.  Asking the kids questions about their reactions to things.  She was wonderful with the students--never argumentative (even when a couple of them tried to be) but genial and humorous and understanding all the way.

The other teachers and I, per agreement, stayed completely out of the conversation.

The kids clapped for her when it was time to end ...

We exchanged another letter or so.  On 25 May, I wrote and said: "All the students were so impressed with your intelligence, your humor, your warm, self-effacing manner, and I could tell as I watched them that they realized they were involved in something quite special."  My letter indicates we sent her a gift.  I cannot for the life of me remember what it was.

And so I'm hating myself again, right now.

But I was so excited about what had happened that day (not excited enough to write about it in my damn journal, though!) that I arranged in each of my subsequent years at WRA to bring a writer to campus, a writer whose work our students had read.  In 2003, novelist Lee Smith, whose The Last Girls (with many connections to Huck Finn) our students had read, also spoke to our students via phone hook-up.  (I just checked my journal: I did write about that chat! Lesson learned!).  But after Smith--all the writers came to our campus.  I'll write about their visits one of these days.

Meanwhile, I'll remember the first, Ursula K. Le Guin, with much fondness.  And, every time I think about my journal, I'll hate myself ...

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