On my desk lies a fairly worn book; its cover is red and black like the colors of a fire. Today is the first day back from Spring Break and I timed my lessons to where my sophomores could start the novel "Fahrenheit 451," by Ray Bradbury, when we returned from our week-long respite.
I pick up the book and turn it over fondly in my hands. I relish entering into our dystopian journey and look forward to meeting the characters with my students for the first time. There is such a compelling energy in the start of the work.
It is here at the beginning I also find one of my favorite characters in literature, Clarisse McClellan. Her part is fleeting, but her minimal existence in the story is the catalyst for the change the hero goes through. And such is the case in life it seems. Our part is fleeting, minimal, but as with Clarisse, it’s filled with opportunity to affect others.
As we read, I pull passages from the text and we make connections. For example, the main character in the novel asks Clarisse how old she is, and she answers with the unusual anthem that she is “seventeen and crazy.” I truly appreciate this description of herself as I look across the faces in my classroom, whose ages range from 15-17. I explain to the class that Clarisse is not stating she is truly insane or a “radical,” rather that she does not fit into the norm her society embodies. Indeed, she enjoys long walks in the evening, the smell of autumn, and conversations rather than media.
She sounds pretty rational to me, but in Bradbury’s world gone insane, the sane are considered crazy. There is also a loss of compassion in Bradbury’s world, and people only care for themselves and their material possessions. It reminds me of a society that is afraid of what it might lose if it has to share something. A society where morality is based in allegiance to a name or slogan rather than determined by basic human goodness. For example, compassion or even sympathy for the less fortunate. In an insane world, if someone is less fortunate, it is their fault. And in some cases, they should be punished for it.
Isn’t that insane? Should we punish someone who is less fortunate or suffering, someone who is running from persecution? Should we punish a child who is already scared and tormented? How is that right? How is that sane? Does fear make it right? Sorry, I stopped talking about the book a long time ago.
So we conclude that Clarisse is not truly crazy, rather impassioned. And as my students and I dance through Bradbury’s thick use of imagery and metaphor, I hope that they grasp that. She is not driven by an apathetic society or political banter, rather what she knows is true and good.
In summation, a passionate outcast from her time, Clarisse is someone to appreciate beyond her crazy declaration and her dystopian world. Often times, in reality we find ourselves in a crazy world and are faced with unbelievable circumstances that seem blatantly wrong.
Luckily, we have the political right and left created by moralistic politicians and unbiased media to help us think about what is best for humanity. I will follow one…or the other, with a loyalty that is prescribed in their own clever slogans -words that will transcend their actions and represent the truth as they see fit to give it to us (we studied satire last unit).
It is the end of the day, and as I walk out my door and down the hallway to the exit where my car rests, a student yells just before I turn the corner, “Hey Mr. Theodore, I’m seventeen and crazy!” I smile and think, yes you are, random student. Extra credit for you! It is a crazy world and I am crazy too.
Brian Theodore is a language arts teacher at Corbin High School and lives in Corbin with his wife, who is also a teacher at CHS. He can be contacted at Theteachersdesk.email@example.com.