Call to Character, eds. Colin Greer and Herbert Kohl, New York: Harper-Collins, 1995. 456 pages. $25.
We can teach students about Rosa Parks, Dolores Huerta, Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, and John Brown — larger-than-life heroes who struggled to end slavery and injustice. But how do we teach children to stand up for the overweight girl sitting next to them in algebra? How do we get them to accept the gay math teacher down the hall? A Call To Character, a collection of stories, poems, plays, proverbs, and fables assembled by Colin Greer and Herb Kohl, gives teachers and parents a resource for that moral journey. (The book is a progressive answer to William Bennett’s Book of Virtues, the best-selling paean to the status quo and the rewards of acquiescence and compliance to the “natural order” of things.)
Each section of the Greer/Kohl book is full of literary gems that illustrate a trait. Greer and Kohl did their homework: the pieces represent writers who cross race, class, nationality, gender, and age lines. Any teacher or parent could pick up the book and find a selection to arouse discussion about “doing the right thing.” As Greer and Kohl state in the introduction: “Character develops and is tested throughout life; it is not fixed once and for all. Self-respect is tested during hard times, and there are moments when compassion conflicts with self-interest. It is not easy to be consistently honest if one feels deprived. Loyalty to family and friends can often contradict loyalty to ideas or principles. There is no simple formula, comparable to 2+2 = 4, to be universally applied in the realm of morality.”
My students used the stories and poems in A Call to Character as prompts to examine their own lives as well as the lives of the characters, so they could “begin to develop their ability to be loyal, generous, empathetic, and honest social actors.” The classroom I used A Call to Character in was diverse. We had a few football players, a few Jefferson High School dancers, a few computer wizards, a few actors, a couple of kids known for their hair styling ability, a few kids who came to school sometimes and left without it touching them much. There were students of African, European, Mexican, and Vietnamese descent mixed together for 90 minutes a day. Silent and loud students. Gay and straight students. Students with and without homes. The stories students read and created — some autobiographical and some fictional — allowed us to cross those divisions so we could explore some of the real and imagined points of conflict that erected barriers between them. Included here are some ideas based on my experience using A Call to Character.
BEYOND BUYING ACCEPTANCE
Using Gary Soto’s story “The Jacket” and Eleanor Estes’ “The Hundred Dresses” as push-off points, we began an examination of our lives. In the first line of his story, Soto writes, “My clothes had failed me. I remember the green coat that I wore in fifth and sixth grade when you either danced like a champ or pressed yourself against a greasy wall, bitter as a penny toward the happy couples.” As anyone who teaches in a school in the United States can tell you, kids can be cruel where clothes are concerned. Many of the students shared times when they were put down because they didn’t have
RETHINKING THE CLASSROOM
the right clothes or tennis shoes. Each story shared seemed to spur others. Students wrote powerful narratives paralleling the pieces in A Call to Character. Some were funny, like Frank’s vignette about being forced to wear his gray leather pants to school when the rest of his jeans were dirty. “I looked like a moving couch,” he wrote. Dawn’s memory about how she wanted Keds tennis shoes so much that she painted blue squares on the back of her “wanna-be” Keds was a great lesson on the fleeting nature of fashion, and the high price some students pay to be “in.”
Beyond sharing memories, the stories students wrote spawned a discussion about buying acceptance at the mall or changing oneself to be part of the clique. Would Andrew have been accepted if he hadn’t been forced to wear his old brown sweater and bell bottoms? Was it worth stealing clothes from Nike Town or Meier & Frank in order to fit in? What price did students pay? When did they learn to look beyond appearances and accept themselves and others without the Nautica, Guess, and Adidas labels attached to their clothes?
There was lots of laughter as students recalled their own attempts to be part of the “in crowd,” but they were also able to talk about the shallowness of people who reject us for our material possessions. Ultimately, what really counts? Can we move beyond the bumper sticker that announces, “He who dies with the most toys wins?” Can we ever buy enough name brands to save us from rejection?
STANDING UP FOR OTHERS
Kohl and Greer write, “Many people are silenced. Some are victims of political or religious oppression; others are stigmatized because of their culture or sexual orientation. It takes courage for silenced people to learn to speak out on their own behalf.” My students wrote of their pain, but few ended up challenging or speaking out against the status quo that caused them to buy or steal acceptance. After our first round with stories, I realized that students needed practice speaking out for themselves or others.
Because I wanted to capture the decency and morality that was emerging in student stories, I decided to push the character traits Kohl and Greer set out in their book more thoroughly. But instead of merely recounting personal experiences, I wanted students to learn how to intervene when they observed others being ostracized. In their own stories, they might have come to some inner awareness, but none of their pieces demonstrated anyone speaking out in the ways that Marge Piercy or Jade Snow Wong do in A Call to Character.
I asked students to create their own fiction stories that paralleled pieces in the book. To facilitate the process, I created or co-created improvisations with my students. Each improv was written to put students in a situation where a character’s morality is tested, where “compassion conflicts with self-interest…[or] loyalty to family and friends… contradict[s] loyalty to ideas or principles.” Some sample improvs from our unit on compassion:
- Several students are in the hallway discussing a teacher rumored to be gay. The teacher walks past.
- A group of friends are playing ball at the park when a person of a different racial background asks if s/he can join the game.
- Several friends are at the beach during the summer when they spot an especially large person in a bathing suit.
- A group of students are in class early when a new student appears on the scene. The new student is “poorly” dressed.
- Several friends are at the food court at the mall waiting in line. The person in front of them has difficulty speaking English. The line is being held up because of the confusion.
“Compassion implies solidarity, which consists of standing with others who are in pain or are less fortunate than you are. It means accepting their struggles as part of your struggles and implies making conscious sacrifices in their service.” My students needed to practice this acting in solidarity with others that Kohl and Greer write about. Sometimes during the improvisations, they would resort to easy answers or their laughter at the homeless person or large woman in a swimsuit would overwhelm the sense of decency I was trying to develop. They had a hard time letting go of the laughter that is part of the social currency that makes some “in” while the others are “out” because they don’t want to take the risk of being “out” too. The improvs forced them to practice the role of compassion. They had to be the one who stood up and said, “That’s not funny.” They had to practice acting and speaking for someone’s pain, but they hadn’t had much experience. Students worked in small groups —three or four people per group — and chose two improvs from our list. After students looked over their set of improvs, they decided who was playing each character, and then ran through the scene. I had to remind them that someone in the group had to step up and “do the right thing.” Sometimes students had to regroup and do their improv over because no one disrupted the crowd’s hunger for blood.
After each group of students performed, we talked about what happened. This was the time we examined those moral maps. Who defended the homeless man? Who stopped their friends from putting down a student who wears “wanna-be Nikes” or Goodwill clothes? It helped to question the characters while they were in role. “How did you feel when people made fun of you for wearing the same clothes every day? Why do you wear the same clothes? Where did you find the courage to defy your friends and stand up for the gay teacher?” Although students were willing to play most roles, often they were uncomfortable if there was an issue of homosexuality. They asked me to play the role of the gay teacher.
After all groups performed at least one improvisation, I asked students to write an interior monologue from one character’s point of view. It may have been a character they portrayed or observed. As students read their monologues, they often excavated the emotional territory these pieces triggered. How do people feel when they are laughed at, left out? How do they feel when they gather the courage to stand up for someone else, when they fight back against ignorance and hate?
The conflict in the improvs became kernels for short stories students wrote about self acceptance, compassion, and empathy. Joe’s story about the homophobic high school student who learns compassion for his gay math teacher should be read in high schools across the country. Justin’s piece about the boy who acts up in class, but who cries in the hallway because he can’t express his fears in public, makes for interesting insights for students who wonder why their classmates act out.
What Greer and Kohl provide is an outline for compassion. As Marian Wright Edelman said of their book, “Finally, we have a book that highlights values that remind us to care about each other and not just ourselves.”