The Close of this Chapter to Start the Next Book

By Laryssa Olsen

As I find myself at the close of both this semester and my college career, I reflect not only on my own learning over the past few months or these four years. Instead, I appreciate how learning alongside others has impacted this growth. I am not the same student, friend, or human being that I was when I began this journey to become an educator myself. I do not learn in the same ways, have the same study habits, or have the same ideals that I arrived with at the threshold of Geneseo. While I recognize that this chapter of my life is closing, I anticipate the next story that will begin as I continue moving forward with the peers, colleagues, and educators who have supported this journey from its very beginning or have accompanied me somewhere in between. Toni Morrison’s second book of her trilogy, Jazz, serves as a model for how we can persevere through the obstacles in our lives given collaboration with those around us alongside an understanding that progress is not always forward, but may appear cyclical as well.

At the beginning of ENGL431, my classmates and I were asked the question, ‘what are we thinking about as we stand at the threshold of this course’? At its inception, I began thinking about this question with some of my own questions. How are we in conversation with our own thoughts as well as those of our peers? How is the literature we read in conversation with each other? In order to talk about the place where I am now, I find it necessary to return to these questions which I began the semester with. And, I believe that I may have found some answers! Collaboration is how we build and create the conversations which are pertinent to our learning and growth, understanding that our ideas are meant to be shared and respected given the unique and personal lived experiences that we all bring as individuals. Our collaborative essays I feel were the greatest indicator of how learning and growth is an interactive process rather than an exclusive one. When writing a singular piece with seven other scholars initially startled me, it’s the thinking, relationships, and writing that was produced that has reinforced learning as a social sphere. One constant among each collaborative essay this semester was understanding that our thoughts and learning are meant to be shared and discussed. More frequently than I could recall, individual ‘aha!’ moments led to excitement felt by the whole group as we determined how to incorporate these revelations into our final work. These were the pieces that put together the whole of our collaborations, our writing as a patchwork quilt of our learning and thinking. My learning and my peers’ learning coexist, I learn from them and they learn from me through this cycle of my personal thoughts and their response and vice versa. Learning is not an independent journey, it is one which demands collaboration. It is here that I find the conversations which I initially questioned before I had the opportunity to think and learn collaboratively. 

Morrison’s work is another example of how we answer my second question posed, how are there conversations among the literature which we are reading? The conversations amongst Jazz and Dante’s Purgatorio I found to be the epitome of progress as not always forward, sometimes cyclical even. Dante’s Purgatory limits sinners to move forward towards Paradise through their own strength against sins in collaboration with the prayers of the living. Only through these means can sinners find themselves reaching the firmament. It’s yet again cooperative efforts that yield the final result. Jazz similarly embodies this same construct, as its characters search for atonement and redemption emotionally following the betrayal of adultery and the physical violence of homicide. It is through collaboration of the one who injured, Joe, and who has been injured, Violet, that they are able to bridge the barrier which was wedged between them. Purgatorio expresses that this is done through confrontation of past vices in order to reach salvation. Violet and Joe begin at the threshold of their own Purgatory’s, Violet haunted by Joe’s betrayal and Joe haunted by the aftermath of violence towards those he loves. While they grapple independently, no progress is made with their atonement. It takes confronting these vices jointly where they can finally reach their paradise, spending their time together walking through the city or getting milkshakes but more importantly, “A lot of the time, though, they stay home figuring things out, telling each other those little personal stories they like to hear again and again…” (Morrison 223). Collaboration is found in these small moments of their lives, repairing their relationship through conversation and revisiting their past in order to prepare for their future. Moving forward requires them to acknowledge the past while not dwelling on it, and thus the cyclical nature of atonement is recognized. 

It is this cycle of recognition of the past, present, and future that came into play throughout our collaborative work this semester. Instances of allusions to Beloved are observed in Jazz, and in order to move forward with our second piece, our Jazz/Purgatorio collaboration, we returned to our previous collaborative essays and referred to past class notes. One example of this would be in order to understand Jazz and Violet and Joe’s benefits of living in New York City, we must understand the struggles of Sethe in Beloved based on her residence in the South. For Joe and Violet, leaving behind Virginia was also leaving behind their ‘Hell’ and in Harlem they could pursue opportunities that weren’t available to them such as earning more money for less labor or having a community of their own where they are accepted. This conversation among Morrison’s work shows both the collaboration between her novels and within our collective writing. 

With the past, present, and future in mind I must also take this approach when thinking about what is next for me, as I close the door of the past four years to stand at the threshold of a new one. It’s also not necessarily a door I am completely closing, as I will be continuing my education in the Birth-12 Literacy and Reading Masters program here at Geneseo on my way to becoming an elementary teacher. Recognizing this next step I reflect on all the steps before this, even way back to when I ran a school for my siblings and the neighborhood kids out of my basement. My love for learning has been instilled in me by my parents who are both educators and furthered by the stellar teachers which I’ve had throughout my primary and secondary school years. Whenever the question was asked of me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, the answer always was to be a teacher (and specifically whichever teacher I had that year in school!). Being a teacher is the one constant which has always stayed with me throughout the past 22 years. From teaching stuffed animals the water cycle in my room, to volunteering in high school to teach kindergarteners about habitats, to student teaching and having a class who looks to me for help on their multiplication facts but also when they’re having a tough day and need someone to talk to- this is what I’ve seen myself doing my whole life. My role models are not the celebrities we see on TV or the business leaders on the cover of Forbes, it’s the Mrs. Boscola’s, the Mr. Karlson’s, the Mrs. Hudgins’, the Miss Evans’. When I think of the type of person I want to be, my goals are as simple as impacting the lives of students just as these teachers have done for me and bringing the same love for learning to my students as I have found.  When I think of what brings me happiness, it’s watching light bulbs go off as two of my third graders understand how to round to the nearest place value after working with them until they get it and my kindergarten class seeing me down the hallway and running to hug me after gym to tell me how much they missed me the last 30 minutes of PE. When I think of a lifetime ahead of me learning alongside my students and them learning from me, I think that’s all I could ever ask for. 

The path ahead is not one which I will be walking alone. It’s with the family and friends who have cheered me on and picked me up when I fall, the professors who have metamorphosed the way I think and look at things, and the teachers who I now work alongside rather than sitting at one of the desks in their classroom. The path ahead stems from the culmination of a lifetime of collaborative learning from both my teachers and my peers and someday soon, students of my own. The close of this chapter only leads to the next story, and I’m thinking that it’ll definitely be one worth reading!

At the Threshold of our Journey

Standing at the threshold of this course and an exploration of the commonalities between both Morrison and Dante’s text, the first word that comes to mind would be conversations. How are we in conversation with each other, with our own thoughts, and among our individual interpretations? Additionally, how are the texts we read in conversation with each other? This is one question which I know based on the dynamic of our course already will certainly be answered by the firmament.

Where my background in Morrison’s work is limited, my understanding of Dante’s work supplements this and I feel that this understanding of Dante will assist me in making the connections between Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise. Based on even these first few classes, I began to see how these texts are in conversation with each other as we read Beloved and recognize the parallels in Inferno. I’m most curious about explorations into the inspiration Morrison found in the 14th century epic poem and how this influenced her writing. 

One conversation which I feel has proved my peers and I some difficulty, which only leads to further discussion and exploration, would be how a 14th century text could relate to a novel from the 20th century. At first glance, it was challenging to relate the two based on not only their differences in times of publication but in the authors and the stories they’re telling further. From such different eras and perspectives, how to analyze the texts even to begin with is a vastly different approach. However, when it came time to read Beloved, with my experience reading Dante it seemed to click and make sense even without these connections and conversations being introduced within our class meeting period. When we did discuss these texts together rather than separately, these connections became more comprehensible. 

One of the connections that has occupied my thoughts while reading and analyzing both works would be the significance of numbers and the role they play amongst the words of both Morrison and Dante. What is the relevance of Dante’s 33 cantos among three books, the division of the parts of hell, and that first line of Beloved, “124 was spiteful” with a lack of the number three- similar to the absence of Sethe’s third child? In particular, Morrison’s conversations of Sethe, Denver, and Beloved between pages 236 and 256 revolving around these characters and their relationship to Beloved I saw to highlight this importance of three- especially the ending lines of this excerpt repeated thrice, “You are mine, You are mine, You are mine” (256). Here is where I truly began to more closely examine Morrison’s craft and how the relationships of these characters are shaped by their experiences, both past and present, on their journey. I related this much to Dante’s journey through the three parts of Hell and how his pilgrimage also takes place at a point in his life where there is a notion of confusion and being lost at a midpoint in life. 

The concept of the journey is one which I can both observe in our readings as well as have experienced in my own life, connecting back to the idea of the conversations that we can engage in with literature. Class discussions have led me to understand the journey that these characters choose, such as Denver being confined to 124 and all she’s known and her departure or Paul D and his return following his egress. The journeys of the characters of Beloved and how they seem to serve somewhat ironically can be mirrored within my own journey recently. As a childhood education major, the culmination of my undergraduate studies I’ve always anticipated as student teaching my final semester and finishing my degree in the classrooms that I will someday soon be teaching in. However, having completed student teaching prior to my final semester and returning to college classes to finish my concentration in English almost seemed backwards initially as I stood at the threshold of the semester. I’ve been preparing myself to teach and felt so comfortable in that position that I was anxious upon returning to the routine of college classes and once again becoming a student. Nonetheless, I’ve found that to be far from the case even only a few short weeks into the semester. I’ve regained my confidence in working with peers to examine the literature we read outside of class and what we can then bring to our class discussions to work through the language and our different interpretations. This current part of my journey is one which I was apprehensive of, and although initially I was anticipating teaching so much so it’s all I wanted to get right back into following my experience in the classroom this past semester, it’s one I’ve found easy to settle back into. I’ve even found that this part is exceedingly rewarding, much like teaching has been for me. I enjoy the time I’m able to sit down and read literature which I know I won’t be focusing on necessarily as I teach third graders how to multiply and divide or about precipitation cycles. Where I was anxious to return back to the classroom as a student rather than a teacher, I’m reminded that one of the highest beliefs I hold as a future educator myself is that learning and growth is never linear and definitely as a teacher I also hold the role of student simultaneously. This reminds me of the duality of Dante as both pilgrim and poet, and myself as both a teacher as well as a student, and how these roles must be considered both separately as well as together. 

I feel the conversations which I have engaged with in this class have all the more increased my sense of belongingness, that despite being ready for this next chapter of my life I am fully anticipating as well as cherishing the threshold that we stand in not only at the beginning of a new term but also as many of us are preparing for careers, new paths that we may not have planned for, the semester in general, or any of the journeys we face throughout our lives. I’ve enjoyed the many different interpretations of Beloved and Inferno based on not only our experience or lack thereof with these texts but also how our connections to the text can be made with our lived experiences. I’ve appreciated hearing and coming to a better understanding of the individuals that make up our class as this is valuable awareness to have especially in a class where it’s our relationships we bring to the texts we read that make these conversations all the worthwhile. 

All in all, while thinking of the conversations which we have already began to discuss along with the collaborative projects that will be done this semester, I feel that the comfortability with looping back in this course proves to our advantage and reinforces my thoughts on the journeys we are taking within the course and outside- and how these may be more related than it may appear initially. At this threshold, I am eager to challenge myself and my thinking through the connections and conversations that arise from both Morrison and Dante’s work and am anticipating my final semester of my journey here at Geneseo to be most influential and transformative!