The first major assignment in my first-year Composition class is a literacy narrative. One of the biggest leaps I’m asking the students to make in the sentences they construct is to shift their guarded writing objective from trying to “prove” a thesis, to the more courageous attempt of trying to reveal a sense of humanity in themselves as narrators and the people they write about. They want to glorify or chastise, but I want them to consider how the writers in our curriculum create characters with some complexity, characters that are human.
The first drafts the students create regarding learning to read or write tend to include early memories of a parent or an influential teacher. I love teaching Jerald Walker’s “Captain Love,” published in River Teeth, because this concise and moving essay allows me to invite them to question how the honest narrator portrays his father.
Walker’s essay begins with his blind father coming home from his job as a high school teacher. A rainstorm had soaked his father’s white dress shirt, making the t-shirt beneath visible. The twelve year-old Walker deduces that his father had accidentally put on his eighteen-year-old brother’s t-shirt, on which was a picture of a man and woman having sex.
As we enter into Walker’s opening scene, I want to navigate the students through the essay by pointing out how the writer develops his father into a person whose limitations go beyond the obvious physical impairment of blindness. As a boy, Walker knew his father would “explode” if he told him he was wearing a pornographic t-shirt, which had become visible. Even though Walker informs us both of his parent’s are blind, I want to emphasize that the adult narrator looking back on his twelve year-old self does not depict an angelic boy whose wings fly him above the challenges of having blind parents. In fact, he tells us that “sometimes,” while “feeling mischievous, as I was that late afternoon when my father came home wearing porn,” he enjoyed telling on his brother, “smiling at the thought of my brother’s fate.”
I split the room in half. One side needs to find assets and shortcomings for the father, and the other searches for these examples in the narrator. Each side of the whiteboard is dedicated to each character. I ask them to name a quality they observe from their assigned character and to list a short quote that demonstrates this characteristic.
Once they return to their seats, and we discuss what they have written on the board, it becomes apparent that the father is not unrealistically depicted as an invincible man with endless patience. After Walker told his father what he was wearing, the father curses. He takes the t-shirt off, and “snatched the T-shirt over his head so violently it tore, which set in motion a tearing frenzy.”
We re-read the paragraph where the adult narrator reveals his ability to see that “despite my father’s rage, he would one day forgive this too.” Walker states his father “forgave all of his children for our transgressions.” And eventually, together we settle into the specific examples of the “many violations” Walker shares,
like how we gathered our vegetables in our hands during dinner and, under the pretense of getting more milk, dumped them behind the refrigerator; how we kept our lights on in our bedrooms well after lights-off time; how we tiptoed into the kitchen to sneak cookies; how when told to turn off the television, we put it on mute; and how, if we were in the front of the house playing a particularly captivating game beyond our curfew, we remained silent as our father stood on the porch, his hands cupped to his lips, calling our names—transgressions we might have gotten away with if lights and televisions did not hum, vegetables did not rot, neighbors did not snitch, if cookies ate themselves.
Toward the end of class, I tell the students to recall an experience that stands out in their minds about an adult figure they know very well. Summarize the experience on one side of the page, naming both the attributes and shortcomings of that adult. Then on the other side I challenge them to write this experience as a scene. Try to avoid any commentary. Include some dialogue. Take us to a specific place.
I remind them what makes Walker’s father “Captain Love” is after working all day to support his family, he comes home to realize he had been wearing his son’s pornographic t-shirt. He eventually moves past his anger and “forgave his children.” How is the adult they are writing about human?
James M. Chesbro’s essays have been listed as notable selections in The Best American Sports Writing 2014 and The Best American Essays 2012, 2014, 2015. His work has appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Connecticut Review, The Huffington Post, AOL.com, The Good Men Project, Superstition Review, Weston Magazine, The Connecticut Post, and Spiritus. He is the co-editor of You: An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person (Welcome Table Press, 2013). Essays are forthcoming in Under the Gum Tree and Pilgrim. James teaches full-time at Fairfield Prep. He holds an MFA from Fairfield University, where he is an adjunct professor of English. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and children. Please visit his webpage and follow him @Jamie_Chesbro.