Ethan walks up to me hesitantly.
Ethan: "There's no way out of the labyrinth, is there."
Me: "That is a fantastic question."
That probably doesn't mean much to you if you haven't read LfA (and if you haven't, you need to go read it. Like now). But the question he asked (or rather, stated) is the most central to the book. It comes from the last words of Simon Bolivar: "How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?" That question is central to the characters in the novel, and it's one with which we all wrestle at some point.
How do I live through suffering? Is there a meaning in suffering? How do I make it stop? What did I do to deserve it? Is there any way to get out of this labyrinth of suffering?
In the end of the book, John Green writes that he was born into Bolivar's labyrinth, as are we all. It's not something we can just not experience. So the question becomes, how do we get through the labyrinth of suffering?
That's what my 9th graders (and Andrew's 11th graders) are wrestling through right now. Andrew and I joke that our curriculum ends up becoming a mirror for our lives all the time. Teaching this book has become a way to understand our place in the labyrinth, and how we can best survive it.
Teaching this book also reminds me that when I was the age my students are now, I desperately needed an answer to this question. I needed to understand why being a human sucked so much sometimes.
Sometimes we condescend to teenagers and believe that because they are young, they can't possibly engage with the deep and meaningful questions of life. But that's false. In fact, whether we believe it's possible, they ARE on their own journey towards those answers. And many of them react like the characters in the book.
Like the Colonel, they try numbing the pain. That doesn't work. Like Miles, they try ignoring the pain. That also doesn't work. Like Alaska, they try feeling the pain. That doesn't work and leads to being paralysed with fear or anger or sadness much of the time.
One thing I've learned over the past year and a half that I've been team-teaching with Andrew is that the only to truly survive the labyrinth is in community. In trying to articulate why it is that we collaborate, and why I believe all teachers should collaborate, I came back to this point: working closely with people who are sharing the suffering the labyrinth imposes on all of us is the only way to find meaning - and even joy! - through the pain.
Many people are driven to teaching because it's something that seems like you can get good at it. We've all had good teachers, and most of the time, they make it look effortless. So many people enter the teaching profession who are perfectionists by nature, or people who feel keenly their own lack of being "good enough," or who fake arrogance in order to mask just how far they fall short of their own standard, so it's no wonder that we expect teaching to be something one can perfect. It's alluring to think that if you can just do this right, your entire world, your labyrinth, will make sense, will be meaningful, will stop hurting so damn much.
And that's a lie. And it's why 50% of teachers leave the profession in five years. Teaching, just like real life, is messy and difficult, and painful. It's isolating...if you never feel like you measure up, you end up shutting your door, shutting your mouth, and putting one foot in front of the other, day after day, hoping that through your persistence you will finally end up being good enough. That never happens.
I don't collaborate because it's easy. I collaborate because it's how I survive the labyrinth. I NEED people to help me take myself less seriously, to expose when my own ridiculously high standard is hurting me and my students, to take my brain crack ideas and make them real so I don't get paralysed and never do any of it. I need someone to pull me out of the darkness of the labyrinth and remind me that there's light ahead, and if I can't make it, then they will help me. That there's no way to be magically free of the labyrinth, but that it is built for people to face together, in community.
So I don't know how else to answer Ethan's question. I know that there's no way out of the labyrinth except through, and I know that going through it with people who love me no matter what is the only way to not give up and let the labyrinth overwhelm me.
I also know that him asking that question is worth the entire unit. Just for that one question.
I can't wait to see what comes next.