Friday, January 08, 2010


         Messing around in a dictionary the other day, I came upon the word “affinity”, and began mulling over its connection to my English classes. One definition of the word is “a similarity of characteristics suggesting a relationship”, and as I thought about my classes, a crowd of similarities and relationships came to mind. It occurred to me, for instance, that all of us – my students and I – are similar in a very basic way: our bodies interact with the same air. As we’re discussing a short story or learning about using dependent clauses, the trillions of cells in our bodies are being refreshed by the zillion oxygen atoms pulsating in my classroom, and “used” oxygen atoms, in the form of carbon dioxide, are flowing by the zillions out of all of us and back into the air of the classroom. While I’m explaining the homework assignment, this ocean-like process of oxygen-give-and-take is surging among and through us, teacher and kids alike. In this sense, we all have a fundamental affinity with each other – a relationship as close as breezes in a great wind.  And this is just the start. There are, I realized, countless other affinities among all of us in my English classes. Each word we speak resonates inside each of us as a word we’ve probably heard innumerable times in innumerable contexts. It’s as if we’re all joined in an endless web of words, and each spoken word strikes the web and sends ripples ceaselessly out to the frontiers – or as if we are a fleet of small boats, and far beneath us the words we speak flow in unseen currents, carrying us along in ways beyond our understanding. A final affinity is simply the complex and inscrutable relationship among the works of literature we study. Each work we read could flash endless connections -- if only we could see all of them -- to every other work.  These types of affinities actually seem infinite in number. A poem could relate to any another poem, to any tree swaying outside in a wind, to a student’s grandmother’s illness, to single word on a street sign, to the sweep of stars overhead. In great literature, affinities are everywhere, because great literature (and who knows, maybe English class) stretches out to everywhere – opens all doors, breaks all boundaries, touches dust and stars.

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