My first student read at an 8th grade level, just low enough to squeak into the literacy program. He was a successful, traveling chemical salesman. He wrote sales proposals and reports and most of them were passable, though he struggled with some of the more complex concepts. No one suspected he had reading problems, especially in a country where an 8th grade level was actually pretty good.
John’s real problem was comprehension. Aside from his familiar work material he couldn’t understand much else. The words came easily, he could pronounce them all right. He could even understand them…a little, but they meant almost nothing past the utility of his career. He dreamed of reading classics to keep him company on long, lonely road trips. He wanted to read Arthur Miller or William Faulkner. Television didn’t hack it anymore. He wanted, as they say, to take things to the next level.
A Paragraph of Beckett
Before our first session, I asked him to bring something he really wanted to read. He chose a Samuel Beckett novel. I don’t remember which one, but it was lush with words and imagery. Beckett had packed great meaning into every word. Though I was wasn’t particularly familiar with Beckett’s work, I knew enough to see it would be a challenge for even a good reader.
“Are you sure want to start with this?” I asked hoping he’d choose something a little less challenging.
“Yeah, I saw a Beckett play on a sales trip once, in Seattle. I’ve always wanted to read something by him. The play made things seem to real.”
“Okay, open the book and choose a random paragraph. No need to read it first, just point one out,” I said.
He chose a scene in which an injured man was holed up in a barn, weak with hunger, scared from being pursued, and at his wits end. He crawled to a cow and lay underneath, pulling the milk from the cow’s teats straight into his mouth. As the milk flowed in his hunger and fatigue flowed out. It was powerful.
I asked him to read the lines one by one. We talked about each one and what the strange words meant. We consulted a dictionary a number of times before he gained a good understanding of a single word.
“How did the man change as he drank the milk? Why milk?” I asked. “Why not kill an animal to eat? Was the barn perhaps the metaphor for a manger and what did that mean to the man? Was the suckling a rebirth? Could the man be strong and weak at the same time? How did he transform?”
We discussed each sentence, painfully at first and with him full of trepidation, but his own strength eventually grew. Enthusiasm lit his eyes. He began to become the man in the barn, feeling weak and humbled at first, but savoring the meaning of every word, every sentence. He came alive in a way he said he hadn’t felt in a very long time.
Squeezing the Nectar from Every Word
We discussed that single paragraph for three weeks, squeezing the nectar from every word, every thought. We connected the words to his world and helped define his place in it. Perhaps 300 words contained in a half dozen complex sentences and I watched him become a different person. He was no longer “just” a chemical salesman, but a man who understood new things, standing at the beginning of a life-long road trip of a different kind..
In his word, he was “jazzed” about what he was learning and feeling. He said he felt whole and joy. He was reading not just reports and safety information, but something real and visceral that was changing his life, word by word and thought by thought. I’d never seen a man with so much promise and enthusiasm.
Over the next few months, he missed some sessions – just a few at first, but then more and more. During the calls he was apologetic to a fault. He wanted to continue, but work got in the way. Finally, he admitted his boss had begun to give him extra work because the other salesmen were considerably less able. He took their trips and made their commissions and dreamed of Beckett. He was enriched, but not in the way he wanted.
Finally, he called to say he couldn’t come to sessions and stay on the road. He tried to convince his boss to cut back his trips to give him extra time for some “important personal business”. But, there was a warehouse full of chemicals to sell and quotas to meet. Bonuses depended on it and not just his own. For the owners to be happy, he had to sacrifice his “personal business” for the sake of the company.
He promised he’d be back. He talked of getting another job that left him time to live instead of work. Over and over, he apologized for wasting my time and each time I reassured him I got as much out of the experience as him.
I never heard from him again.
As I ate dinner that final night I thought of him on the road, in a Naugahyde booth, alone. In my mind he was eating pie, tasting the sweetness on his tongue, and he washed it down with the cold bite of a glass of milk.
I got up from the table and went to the refrigerator and returned to my own supper with a cold glass of milk. Then, I gave a silent toast to a man who knew his heart and mind, but wasn’t allowed to follow it.
I know we both tasted Beckett upon our tongues.
- Handing Beckett The Red Pen (andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com)
- On ‘Beckett and Brain Science,’ Breath, Voice and Embodied Learning (medicalhumanities.wordpress.com)
- Inspiration Point:Copy-Catting: Closed Space by Samuel Beckett (artipeeps.wordpress.com)
- ‘Krapp’s Last Tape': Pinter performs Beckett (dangerousminds.net)
- Samuel Beckett the sportsman – from cricket to Krapp’s Last Tape (guardian.co.uk)
- John Minihan’s best photograph (guardian.co.uk)
- The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett ed by Sean Lawlor and John Pilling: review (telegraph.co.uk)