Teaching “Captain Love” by James M. Chesbro

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. Tshirts

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.”

Exercise:

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.

Writing Prompt:

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?

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James_Chesbro.jpgJames 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.comThe 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.

In the Classroom: Teaching “Citizen Vince” by Erin Davis

“I CitizenVinceCoverImagedidn’t think I would like it, but I binged that book like it was Netflix!” This reaction by one of my students to Jess Walter’s Citizen Vince perfectly sums up why I have taught this novel in my community college English 101 classes for the past seven years. Many of my first-year college students enter my classroom as reluctant readers, skeptical that any book their English instructor makes them read will be relevant to their lives. They expect it to be hard. They expect it to be boring. They certainly don’t expect it to speak to their own hopes and struggles. When they read about the life of Vince Camden, Walter’s credit-card stealing, pot-dealing protagonist who—in spite of the opportunity given to him by the witness protection program to start his life over—remains stuck in his old habits and old patterns of thinking, my students are surprised to see themselves in Vince. And they want to read more.

It’s not an instant attraction, however. Some struggle with the structure of the first chapter: “why doesn’t the author tell us who Vince is before we start reading Vince’s thoughts? Why just jump right into his head like that? It’s confusing!” Others complain that the chapters are too long (the longest is 48 pages). Some are put off by the profanity: “The first f-bomb appears on page 8,” one of my students announces as she walks into class. “Is that normal for a college book?” Still others tell me that they don’t want to care about a guy who hangs out with prostitutes and sells drugs: “I shouldn’t have to read about people like that!”

It doesn’t take long, however, for most of my North Idaho students to get hooked. After all, Citizen Vince is a page-turner, a crime novel set in nearby Spokane with plenty of twists and turns and humor to engage them in spite of their initial resistance. But along the way, Vince grapples with some big questions, questions that my students grapple with, too: What does it mean to be normal? Are we destined to repeat our past or is it possible to truly change? How does one begin to take responsibility for one’s choices? What does it mean to be a productive member of society? My students begin to root for Vince because they find something familiar in his quest for redemption.

Like Vince, my students long for a better life, but they worry about whether they are capable of doing what it takes to achieve it. They enroll in community college because they know that they want something more for themselves, even if they don’t yet know what that “more” is. My favorite passage from Citizen Vince recalls a scene from Vince’s past, when, as a young man just out of prison in New York City, he would observe the college students in Washington Square and wonder what they had that he didn’t:

“Something was missing. Was it simply the sense of opportunity that came from having money and education? Was it a question of patterns of thought; were they conditioned to make better choices? Or was it some personality trait—a drive, an assuredness, some measure of place in the world—some quality that Vince could define only by his lack of it.”

This point in the novel is magical to me, because it is here where so many of my students locate themselves in the text. Walter’s portrayal of Vince’s insecurity, his sense of separateness and otherness from those college kids, resonates deeply in my classroom. My students identify far more with Vince in this scene than with the students he watches, and this passage often leads to a class discussion in which we begin to break open their assumptions about academic success and unpack the worries they have about their place at the college table.

During a discussion of Walter’s use of setting in the novel, one of my students proclaims “Location, location, location—that’s what this book is all about!” She explains that it’s not just important to notice how Jess Walter describes the places in the novel, like saying that Sam’s Pit, the dive bar in Spokane where Vince hangs out “works like a drain for the city,” but to notice how Vince thinks about those places. Other students agree, pointing out that when Vince’s thoughts about where he is begin to change, he begins to change. It is at moments like this when I tell them that they are exhibiting the kind of scholarly habits that I expect of college students: they are asking questions about the text, examining it to see how it works, and making claims about its importance.

It’s no wonder that Vince’s attention to his surroundings and shifting sense of belonging come up in our classroom discussions. Most of my students find themselves in my English 101 class because of its location. They have enrolled at our community college because they need a local, affordable place to go to school. Recent high school graduates are there because they were told by their high school counselors that they need to go to college in order to have a good career. Many of my older students find themselves in my classroom after years of working a string of minimum wage jobs. Tired of barely making it, they’ve returned to college in search of financial security. Still others are veterans for whom my composition class is one small part of a larger adjustment to civilian life. My students’ reluctance to read is often intertwined with their uncertainty about the shifting landscapes of their own lives. Citizen Vince surprises them by speaking to their struggles and making them readers. “Are you sure this is literature?” one of my students asks me after class. “I didn’t know they made books like this for guys like me.”

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ErinDavisErin Davis lives and writes in Spokane, Washington and teaches English at North Idaho College. She holds an M.A. in English-Literacy Studies from CSU Long Beach, and has focused her teaching career for the last eighteen years on the needs of first-year writers and first-generation college students.