the border of No Man’s Land

I have been reading notes I wrote from 2008 to present, variously headed “NCTE Conference”, “The Canadians”, “Blau”, “Probst” and, my favorite, “Manifesto”. One bit of wisdom gleaned from the pages is that a language arts teacher’s job is to select the texts that afford the possibility of problem-solving. I recently read a story that will be sure to challenge readers, and to yield multiple points of view for authentic classroom dialogue. James McElroy’s story “No Man’s Land” from the recent collection Night Soul and Other Stories is the perfect candidate for my high school English class.

The pleasure I took in this  story was felt as a blend of the joy we take in acts of attention, the recognition of ourselves as allowing obstructions to prevent such acts, and the satisfaction at solving worthwhile problems. Night Soul and Other Stories

First, the difficulties posed by the text: the vocabulary is not a problem, and there is no sexual content or profanity; but the narrative style and fragmented glimpses of characters and relationships offer rich opportunities for problem-solving. When readers talk about confusion encountered in their reading, they are certain to enter into authentic dialogue.

Like any good story, this one needs a second reading before its craftsmanship can be admired; unlike some stories, this one may be baffling in the initial reading – it’s hard to know what to hold on to. I note this because if I were to assign this story, I would need to decide whether to scaffold the instruction prior to their primary reading by offering students a repeated motif, such as jobs, borders, or maps, or to expect them to read it cold, and hope they stick with it. “When to intervene” is my key question in all group reading these days, and I welcome anyone’s suggestions! It must depend on those readers that day, I expect. Either way, I would have to be up front about sharing the problems the text posed for me, and the satisfaction and relief I felt when the second reading worked to clarify much of what had been cloudy.*

Second, the story offers possibilities for self-recognition in our response to a few characters and their attitudes. Here as elsewhere in this post I want to be careful not to give away anything of the story itself, which relies on surprise achieved through a slow and steady layering of language and character details. But, continuing with the threads I mentioned above, I can imagine discussion related to jobs and why we take them, what they mean to us, and the difference between vocation and work. Borders and maps figure prominently and ambiguously in the text, allowing readers to consider all the ways boundaries impact our lives—physical, emotional, cultural; windows, city blocks, rivers, and countries appear in the tale – and maps document divisions and concepts, from streets and backpacking trails to semantic maps found in a classroom. Principally, though, the story can be seen as a poetic portrait of a schoolboy named Ali by an adult writer “Mr. Mo” who befriends him. We meet Ali’s family and his school teacher as well. The relationships in the story will be recognizable to anyone who has spent time in a classroom, a family, or a marriage. I am confident that after a second reading, a classroom conversation would make some headway toward discussing the inherent difficulties we bring to our relationships because we limit our views of others.

Brooklyn Bridge

Lastly, how do we negotiate meaningful relationships that rely on knowing the truth of the other, rather than on partial glimpses or stereotypes? Using an Osip Mandelstam poem about seeing as a child sees, McElroy suggests the prospect of childlike joy we might take in relationships with the people and things in our lives. Through innocent acts of attention, various characters attempt to get at the essence of a person or thing. In “No Man’s Land”, dialogue, narration, and a digital camera trained on Brooklyn Bridge are ways of capturing truth. But the characters, and we, come up against the obstacle that prevents us from seeing as a child sees. There is no need for me to get pedantic here by dealing directly with the story’s themes or recurring images. I simply feel this story would be terrific for an AP or college English class to tackle, since it opens up possibilities for getting at the many ways this author achieves his effects, and provides entry points for philosophical, artistic, social, and political meanings. The formal properties of the text change even as the sense of time, perception, and self-perception shift. Students would be engaged in describing a relationship between the writing style and the subject matter. There are so many directions a conversation about this tale can go, almost any class would find things to talk about, and confusions to resolve, without the teacher needing to introduce any.

The hardest role for me to play if I were to assign this story would be that of patient listener during class conversation. That is what my students need most. “No Man’s Land” offers its biggest challenge to the reader like me who finds it and wants to share his pleasure with others. Can I sit still long enough for them to give this text the attention it deserves? If so, I will have solved a teaching problem, removed the obstruction of myself getting in the way of their meaning-making, and taken great satisfaction in their unmapped conversation.


*An additional teaching problem the text poses, and one which could be made the subject of discussion among students, is the amount of historic and cultural background needed to make the story “easy”. Should the instructor provide a reminder about what it was like for adults in the wake of 9/11 to be aware of physical traits of “Arabs”? Does that happen prior to a first reading, or only later, and then only if students ask a question that would allow the teacher to help? I tend toward a “responsive teaching” approach that  offers help only when students initiate it by asking. In addition, I am indeterminate about whether to offer an anticipatory lesson to involve students before their reading, and set expectations for the story. Students could be prompted to think of a video game series they are especially fond of, or to read Mandelstam’s “To read only children’s books” (from Stone), or to view photographs of Brooklyn Bridge, or to write about a time they felt singled out or left out. The important thing would be to know the students so well that any suggestion would be likely to help them into the story, not seen as a pointless task. Because the text could be seen as what Frank Smith might call “nonsense” to less experienced readers, the goal would be to invite them into it, making it easy.

Cover Design Danielle Dutton/Illustr Nicholas Motte

Photo of Brooklyn Bridge by Pablo Fernandez at  Hadock’s Photostream  http://www.flickr.com/photos/hadock/with/5679486376/


2 Responses to “the border of No Man’s Land”

  1. August 15, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    Simply wanna comment that you have a very decent web site , I like the design it actually stands out.

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