Renée E. D’Aoust is the author of Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press), a ForeWord Reviews “Book of the Year” finalist (memoir category). For more information, please visit her website.
Many of my English Composition students are parents who juggle family, work, and school, usually in that order. In online courses, it’s common to have middle-aged single fathers or teenaged single mothers. Like me, they are often judgmental of others, and it is judgment that J.D. Schraffenberger’s essay “Dropping Babies” unravels. Our assumptions get in the way of close reading, especially as we learn to analyze the content at hand rather than impose our assumptions. How might I set aside what I know & believe, and meet a text with an open mind? But we have to get to know those assumptions before we can unravel them. J.D. Schraffenberger’s “Dropping Babies” helps us cover this ground elegantly and effectively.
I’ve already emphasized parenthood: a student doesn’t have to be a parent to feel the impact of “Dropping Babies.” By the way, I’m not a parent, and I’ve been teaching this essay for nine straight semesters with no plans to stop; it continues to reveal what it means to be human, to be sacred, to be humbled in a sharply defined moment.
That moment is the moment of letting a baby down too hard—the title doesn’t lie.
I love teaching J.D. Schraffenberger’s “Dropping Babies” because it thrills me to receive reading response papers that insist Schraffenberger should be arrested. Immediately. Often half the students insist that “the authorities” should be called: the students are concerned, stating, “The mother is crazy.” I interpret “the authorities” to be some kind of nebulous parental enforcement panel, though a few students do name Child Protective Services as the agency to phone. These students miss what I consider deeply nuanced honesty in the essay. To my relief, the other half of students attest to how Schraffenberger’s reflection resonates, recognizing those times when we are all questionable. One student wrote that she had “done this, too” while another wrote, “Schraffenberger is human. I wish I had those words when I was frustrated with my baby at three a.m.”
Schraffenberger writes: “I want to say it was only a few inches. I want to say I wasn’t myself, but babies, especially your own, have a way of showing you exactly who you are, or at least what you’re capable of in the middle of the night.”
Furthermore, Schraffenberger excavates a spiritual practice in an East Indian village where “dropping babies” is an act of faith. Schraffenberger writes: “In the Musti village of Solapur in western India, babies are dropped from the top of the temple’s fifty-foot tower and then caught on an outstretched bed sheet held taut by a throng of dutiful and worshipful men below.”
Some students choose to ignore this part of the essay entirely; it’s too much to encompass. Other students, though, see this kind of framing as another way to address our assumptions. No one yet has focused on the village as “other,” though not addressing that part of the essay is a form of dismissal. Another reason I love assigning this essay.
Back to those assumptions I mentioned. I’ve yet to have a student not assume that the writer is a mother. Actually, J. = Jeremy; the author is a dad. A good, basic reminder and lesson: Question the writer. Question the text. Question yourself, too.
A lyrically crafted essay with curve and pause in equal measure, “Dropping Babies” reveals the way our assumptions can interfere with close reading. Upon investigation, though, those assumptions offer greater insights. The craft of switching focus back and forth, essentially a compare-contrast form in blocks of two different settings, frames the perspective such that the essay jolts the reader out of complacency—essentially what happens to the author, too, as he sees his baby: “the surprise hovering in her eyes, like a sudden illumination of this dark new world, stripped all the hush of its silence.”
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