Long after I could read on my own, my mother still read aloud to me. My siblings teased me about it, but I was almost in junior high before I stopped climbing the steep stairs to my parents’ attic bedroom every night for an hour of stories about the Holocaust.
I would find my mother in a long floral nightgown, her glasses off. She’d have a copy of Ms., The New Yorker or National Review pressed close to her face.
I would climb into the high walnut bed that had been my grandparents and get under the covers with her. I’d lean my head against her arm or lap as she retrieved our book from the teetering stack of mystery novels, Old Testament commentaries and WWII histories on her nightstand.
The Holocaust and World War II fascinated my mother, so she read me lots of books set in that time period. She read to me about those who hid Jews from the Nazis, those who kept and lost their faith in concentration camps, those who worked in the Resistance, and those who went along with the National Socialist agenda.
Yes, my mother read me Holocaust bedtime stories. This didn’t seem odd to me until much later in life.
My mother is a storyteller who does incredible voices: Germans, old men, young girls, even barking dogs. A former debate champion, she is, in many ways, an actress. I remember closing my eyes and pressing my head against her white, pilled comforter and letting the characters’ voices wash over me. After a time, I could see each speaker clearly.
Sometimes we would take turns reading aloud; other times my mother would read alone, her voice the only sound in the room except the noise of cars passing by on the street below. We read wonderful books, books I’ll carry with me always: A Separate Peace, The Watchmaker’s Daughter, Number the Stars, The Hiding Place, The Chosen and To Kill a Mockingbird (its own kind of war story, albeit set in a very different time and place).
This choice of reading material, among other things, made me an odd child. When I was in grade school and playing pretend with my friends, my favorite game was War. When a little girl across the street showed me her unfinished attic, I immediately thought it looked like a great place for hiding Jews. When playing Hide-and-Seek, I kept still by pretending the S.S. were coming. When other girls were thinking about summer vacations or where they wanted to go to college, I was memorizing some poetry in case I ever found myself in solitary confinement.
My first encounters with injustice occurred while listening to stories on my mother’s bedspread. I’ll never forget hiding my face in a pillow and weeping while a just man, a man I was sure would be acquitted, was sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. Finally, gasping for air, I looked up at her and said, “That’s not how it was supposed to end.”
“No, it wasn’t,” she said.
Years later I asked my mother why she read those stories to me even when they so visibly troubled me. She told me she wanted to develop my “sympathetic imagination.” I think she meant that she wanted to give me a full account of what it means to be human — which includes the injustices, horrors and atrocities that human beings have dreamed up and carried out throughout our history.
The difficulty lies in not only having the courage to stand up for what is just and right and merciful when faced with systematic injustice and cruelty, but also in recognizing when standing up is what is called for.
That’s where reading stories comes in.
Now I teach English and drama to juniors and seniors in high school, and, of course, I hope they learn from literature and history more than how to read and write. I hope they learn harder things. Sometimes they do — like how easy it is to end up on the side of the oppressor with the best of intentions, even the “right ideas.” Or how easy it is to let the vineyard of all that is just and right and holy go to seed.
But it’s a tough transition from bedroom to classroom, from child to teacher. The dynamic is not the same. In an English class or during a drama production, a student is considerably less likely to clutch a pillow and weep real tears. We talk about tragedy and catharsis, but in the rush of the day we rarely experience them.
Still, we read and listen. In the process, maybe in The Peloponnesian War or in A Raisin in the Sun or in Flannery O’Connor’s devastating short story, “Parker’s Back,” some of my students will realize that the history of humanity is often a history of failures, that if vineyards aren’t tended from generation to generation they fall into ruin.
In the end, I, too, want them to use their sympathetic imaginations, their hearts and minds, to see injustice for what it is and, with their lives, imagine another way. But first, I know, they have to fall in love with a story. Sometimes even a sentence will do. A character’s life washes over them, and suddenly they find they can hear her voice or see the sorrows on his changing face.
Anna Keating lives in South Bend, Indiana, and teaches juniors and seniors at the Trinity School at Greenlawn.