My mother loved Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!” From the opening chords of Joe Zawinul’s arresting composition, the tune tackles you with the composer’s plaintive Wurlitzer electric piano and Adderley’s triumphant alto sax. Whenever my mother heard it, she stopped everything and began popping her fingers in a rhythmic back-and-forth move we later christened the “Nana Dance.”
My favorite part is just at the beginning, when Adderley introduces the song to the live audience. He says, “You know, sometime we’re not prepared for adversity. When it happens, sometimes we’re caught short. We don’t know exactly how to handle it when it comes up. Sometimes we don’t know just what to do when adversity takes over.” I know exactly what he means, and so do my students.
We had a very good week. My English III students finally plunged into The Crucible, and when we set up a mini-stage in the class for them to perform the final act, the entire room took on the air of theater and important business. Later, they identified lines from the many characters with great alacrity, and, on Thursday and Friday, they energetically charted and debated who was round or flat, dynamic or static. We enjoyed one another, and, in the end, agreed to disagree on whether or not the preserving of John Proctor’s name justified sacrificing his life.
Mostly, we talked about adversity, about hardships and tempests. In 1692 Salem, greed, envy, high honor, and faith fed an ill wind that led to nineteen hangings. Students, of course, had difficulty understanding how “spectral evidence” and dream states could carry such weight in a court of law. But they had no trouble calling Abigail Williams a “b” (the popular euphemism we borrowed in lieu of profanity), and they experienced no difficulty in articulating the central conflicts in this fact-based play.
We decided that adverse conditions are just a part of life, as necessary as breathing. There is some comfort in lifting adversity to a necessity. It means a life lived well must have its share of dry spots. Without hardships, how are we to measure growth, much less attain it? Like all dynamic characters, how are we to change without obstacles? “In life and in literature,” I tell them, “struggle produces results.”
I have always loved winter, that ready metaphor for life’s crucibles. My students always seem fortified when I reassure them that no one is immune to difficulties, not even the rich or well-connected. I remind them that, whatever their circumstance, there will be triumphs and defeats, delights and disappointments. “Mercy, mercy, mercy” is an ephimeral request everyone makes at one time or another. What differentiates us is not whether we stumble, but how we respond. I want at least a few things I teach to find a place in their medicine bag when they bunker down and wait for spring.
In AP English Language, I administered the timed argument question from the 2009 exam. Adversity was again the star. The question cited the Roman poet Horace, in part, and then asked students to challenge, defend, or qualify his assertion. The quote read, “Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant.”
Unlike some past prompts, this one rang clear, and the students dove into it. After annotating the entire question, I asked volunteers to share the list of appropriate examples I insist they make before they write. I had never seen them so confident. The list grew as more and more examples of adversity’s saving grace filled the board. Interestingly, almost all chose evidence drawn from their own cultural groundings. Movies like Precious or Malcolm X competed with sports heroes like Michale Vick and Donovan McNabb. Luminaries plucked from the Civil Rights Movement wrestled with books like The Color Purple for top billing. It occurred to me, midway through the exercise, that standardized test results would no doubt rise, and achievement gaps shrink, if students could always feel so at ease with the validity of their knowledge.
Clearly, the notion that the things we lack provide some kind of character advantage comforts us. The urban students in my classroom have all heard about who they are not, or what they do not possess. So many of the educational reform flags waving throughout the nation bear their likeness. They are the mishaps requiring correction. They are the miseducated stymying growth. They are the misfortunate darkening the skies. Without a radical disruption in the way our nation approaches education and teachers, some say, my students will become the wreckage on the side of the road–good for a slight diversion, but nothing more.
Of course, I wish their grammar skills were stronger. I wish they read more and texted less. If I could gift them anything, it would be overseas travel, great books, and jazz. Maybe the things they lack are growing them. Perhaps the hardships they face–of which I strive constantly not to be numbered–are teaching them. But I do not have time to wait around and see what their generation yields.
So I focus instead on the things they own now, not just adversity, but also aplomb, curiosity, intellect, and “swag.” I choose to build from there. Thus far, it seems to be working, and I’m glad.