I think that literature can inspire action and change your mind. Not forever, but at least now and then, in little ways. And I think I may be living proof of it as of last night.
(First, you should know I spent most of the summer working on an essay on teaching the revolutionary spirit through Les Misérables!)
Around 7:30 last night, my husband Rich and I had an experience that, in retrospect, seems like it was uncannily similar to Les Misérables, Book Eight, “Le Mauvais pauvre” (chapters 1-7). Remember the scene, where Marius looks through a hole in the wall (Judas de la Providence), and is stunned to witness the abject poverty of the family next door? The stunner is this line: “Il était en quelque sorte, lui, le dernier chaînon du genre humain qu’ils touchassent, il les entendait vivre ou plutôt râler à côté de lui, et il n’y prenait point garde!” (2:28; “he was in some way the last link of the human race that they touched, he heard them live or rather breathe beside him, and he took no notice!” ). Empathy fills his heart, and he is spurred to kindly action thereafter (at least for a while).
Here’s what happened to us.
Rich and I were sitting on our front porch after dinner, watching the lightning flashes illuminate the darkening sky, when we saw a boy wobbling by on a slightly too-big bicycle, with a large black dog running alongside him. At first, we thought: wow that is amazing; what a well-trained dog. It is unusual to see a dog that stays alongside its owner on a bike.
But soon we realized that the dog was not obeying her young owner, rather it was running all around and the boy was trying to coax the dog to come with him. Meanwhile, even though the street was quiet at that time of twilight, there was still some traffic now and then. Every time a car (or worse yet one of those obnoxious SUVs going too fast on our street—speed limit 20 MPH), travelled by, we would brace and anxiously watch in fear of the boy or the dog getting hit by a car.
After a few minutes of watching that, we couldn’t stand it anymore. So we put on shoes, grabbed a dog leash and ran out to help the boy. The dog is a large, frisky puppy and clearly not obedient yet, but she is friendly and we easily got her on a leash. We tried to show the boy how to ride and hold onto the leash at the same time, but it was clearly not going to work with such a strong dog and a little boy.
So I gave him the leash and I got on his bike, and rode alongside him to his house, which turned out to be right around the corner. But oh so far from our comfortable world. The boy lives on Yukon Street, literally two blocks away from us, but around the corner toward the ghetto. His house is rundown, the front gate is broken, trash lies in the street, and worse, no one was at home when we got there and the front door was locked.
I stayed with him for a few minutes when a big black Cadillac drove down the alley and it was his mom and little sister. They had been out driving around the neighborhood trying to find him and the dog. The mother, Orlene, was visibly shaken, just like we would be if our young child went missing around twilight on a summer night. After she calmed down, opened the house door, and ushered the kids in, we got to talking. She is a single mom of four kids, ages 7-17, and clearly has her hands full. She works as a school aide in the South Bend schools.
After talking a bit, I said, “How old is your son?” When I learned he is 10 years old, I perked up and said, “Would you like to enroll him in a class I teach for free at the public library?” And she was very interested. Next thing I knew, we were headed out for another little walk—Orlene, her daughter, and their dog—back to my house! They sat on the front porch while I ran inside to get a flyer for the class, “Write YOUR Story” and now the boy (whose name is Zondré) is going to be one of my students!
While we were talking on the front porch, Orlene told me the story of Gilgamesh. I did not know that story—and what a wonderful story-teller she is!
It was a magical moment. Right here on Riverside Drive in South Bend, Indiana.