Some Kind of Perspective

For the last few months, during my weekly English as a Second Language classes, I’ve been teaching stories from The Best American Short Stories of the Century, a better-than-average collection edited by John Updike. The stories give us an excuse to discover new vocabulary and American idioms together, but much more importantly, they offer context. We began the semester with Benjamin Rosenblatt’s “Zelig” and talked about the turn-of-the-century immigrant experience. We read E. B. White’s “The Second Tree from the Corner” and discussed where the things of true value might be found in our lives. We read Mary Ladd Gavell’s “The Rotifer” and debated whether or not any of us truly has the power to effect positive change in another’s life. Not surprisingly, I had much more to learn from my students than they from me.

Last night we discussed James Alan McPherson’s “Gold Coast,” a story about an interracial couple set in Boston during the late-1960s. I began the night by drawing some comparisons between the America of 1968 and our current climate. “Because of the civil rights movement and President Johnson’s escalation of our military involvement in Vietnam,” I told them, “many Americans really wanted change.” I told them a bit about the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that year and about the riots that broke out in so many urban areas. I reminded them of the assasinations and the rise of groups like the Black Panthers, and, because the story addressed the topic directly, we talked a bit about hippies and “limousine liberals.” And I told them about how Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey by nearly a million votes, even though 56% of the population voted against him. “America was deeply divided,” I told them. “Kind of like now.”

And then one of my Mexican students reminded us of the 1968 Olympics that were held in Mexico City, where only ten days before the games opened 267 students were gunned down and more than 1,000 were wounded during a protest at the Plaza of Three Cultures. And then two of my South Korean students told us of their government’s secret decision to send troops to Vietnam despite the public’s protest against such a move. And then one of my Chinese students, a remarkable young woman who exudes joy like no one I’ve ever known, said, “Yes. The same in China. During the Cultural Revolution.”