Ironically, I had just read a book by Sherman Alexie when I had the compare contrast essay come around last fall. My husband, a consummate NPR listener, had found a selection of short stories that we liked to listen to, and when I mentioned finding the perfect story for Compare/Contrast, he suggested Alexie’s story, “Flight Patterns.”
Initially, I was worried about playing this piece. Actually, I still am. I am worried that I will offend anyone not white who is in my classroom, and I am worried about offending the white students. It’s kind of odd, having a story that could potentially offend everyone, but the story is so well crafted, and the reading so perfected that I persist in playing it. So far, no one has complained, and the feedback has been positive.
I spoke to my Tues/Thurs class yesterday about the household I was raised in. My mother, now 76, was raised in a sixteen room house in Andover, MA. Her father, my grandfather, was part owner of Emmons Loom Harness Company, a company that made parts for the looms that were prevalent in Lawrence and Lowell. She had grown up with servants, both African American and Caucasian, and still to this day has an air of contempt towards anyone she perceives as less than her. She occasionally still uses racial epithets and although some members of yesterday’s class suggested that it was her generation – which it was – I had to partially disagree.
My father was at the opposite end of the spectrum. His mother was a single mother since his father had split after he was born (only to marry another woman and have another child that he abandoned one town over!) My grandmother worked in the Boston Navy Yard during the war, and my father was raised by his mother, uncle, and aunt. He often told me that his mother told to him, “If you see someone older than you, man or woman, who needs a seat on a train or bus, you get up and give it to them, no matter what color or creed they are.” My father never used racial slurs and often told me the story about his mother to underscore his belief that everyone was equal in his eyes. His family had very little money, but they were rich in so many other ways.
It was a weird household to grow up in, and there were some real arguments between my parents. When I got to be about eighteen, I looked at both of them and chose my father’s ideology on life. In that light, I hold to what my grandmother taught him about the equality of all people. I tend not to judge people and while I might grumble about a bad writer, I never grumble about the writer being bad.
That being said, I believe that this story has a lot to say about people, about our country, and about life. I mentioned yesterday that there is a new wave of Tweets sweeping the area and there are colleges on both the East and West coasts that are seeing this surge of racist commentary directed towards Asian students. Ohio State University is the most recent to be looked at as having these problems, but they are becoming more numerous. I think that the themes about stereotyping in “Flight Patterns” have not gone away, they have just gone into smaller doses and are more hidden.
I also mentioned the 14-year-old Afghanistan girl who was shot in the head for standing up to the Taliban last week. She is stable, but she was put into this position by standing up for girls’ education rights. She is under close watch in England, and several people posing as family have already tried to get to her. She is under constant threat of her life being ended, all because she wanted an education. Things happen, such as the mention in the story of Selassie bombing his own people in Ethiopia, that seem incomprehensible to our ways of seeing things in this country. It is important, I think, to remember that our way is not the way of the rest of the world, and I think that this story helps to bring that to light both to William and to the rest of us.