Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Trayvon Martin, Ponyboy Curtis, & Robert Frost

The last two days, I am thinking of this poem:
Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
---Robert Frost
Unlike Stephen Colbert, who said on air in 2011 that it was the first poem he ever memorized, this was not the first poem I ever learned to recite (my elementary school teachers had a long list of others that I was forced to memorize & recite formally.) However, it was the first poem I ever really cared about--and that's all because of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. One of the most popular books for my generation, it was later made into a movie with an all-star cast that included Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, C. Thomas Howell....some of the biggest heartthrobs of the 1980s and a precursor to the later so-called "brat-pack" flicks.
However, I didn't learn the poem because of any adolescent longing or stereotypical teenage crush. I actually knew the poem long before the movie came out, and long before my generation experienced the thrill of that famous cast all on one screen. Because I was a bookworm, I had stumbled across Hinton in my local bookstore. I quickly became fascinated with her tales of adolescents struggling with real-life issues. Her characters' lives were so different from mine--adults were largely absent and drugs and violence were ever-present concerns. And yet, their fears about belonging and dreams about the future were just like my own.
In The Outsiders Ponyboy's love for literature rivaled my own and his admiration for that particular poem fascinated me. At that point, I didn't like poetry (thanks to all of that recitation in elementary school combined with the ridiculous teaching of counting syllables and finding ryhme patterns). I became mesmerized with the idea that someone so "cool" could find poetry alluring and understandable. So, on my own, I made myself memorize the poem---I wanted to be like Ponyboy.
And in my perseverance, I discovered that the poem actually made sense. For the first time, even though I didn't know the rhyme pattern and hadn't counted the syllables, a poem had meaning and value to me. I realized that, like the sunrise, good things don't always last forever. The poem also seemed to point to the fleeting nature of those things which are only built on illusions--the perfect combination of light and atmospheric elements mixing together at just the right time to create a beautiful image that will only last for a few moments. One might spend an eternity searching for that same wonderful moment, only to find that it can never be recreated in just the same way because the concept of its perfection is pure fantasy.
Flash forward to the present. Yesterday while teaching Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay," I got the sudden brainstorm of playing the scene from The Outsiders where Ponyboy recites the poem to Johnny as they watch the sun rise. Many of my students were familiar with the book and the movie and watching the clip really seemed to help them get the poem. In the midst of our discussion (and I'm not sure exactly how this came up), we had a quick side discussion of the shooting of Trayvon Martin. And then we went back to Frost, and then onto other poems.
But all day long it plagued me. I kept seeing images of C. Thomas Howell as Ponyboy and Ralph Macchio as Johnny with their young, sweet faces intermixed with that angelic face of Trayvon Martin. All day long. And then I thought, is there really a connection with Trayvon and Hinton's 1960s' misunderstood greasers? After a day of contemplation and the nagging sounds of all those boy actors screaming "Let's Do It for Johnny!"--I finally came to the realization that, yes, the connection was not only there, but as significant to us now, as the problems of the greasers were to us in 1983.
In the book, the poem foreshadows the loss of innocence of the main characters. In the movie scene, the recitation is clearly foreboding and ominous (remember that Ponyboy & Johnny discuss the poem right before they run into the burning church). But, historically for literary critics, the poem has had other alternative meanings. In 1953, Alfred R. Ferguson wrote "perhaps no single poem more fully embodies the ambiguous balance between paradisiac good and the paradoxically more fruitful human good than "Nothing Gold Can Stay." Here, Ferguson was discussing the ways in which Frost uses the metaphors of Eden and Original Sin to point to the idea of felix culpa (this is Aquinas's concept that God allows evil to happen in order to facilitate greater good).
In The Outsiders, the greasers seek to revenge the wrong done to Johnny by the socials, by his father, and by society. They are sick and tired of the inequities of a society that paints them as bad because of their lack of money and social status. They are misunderstood, abused, and cast aside because of factors outside their control. Yet, as Hinton shows us---good never comes from more bad. The greasers' determination to seek revenge ends in more violence and more devastation. This is surely not what Aquinas meant when he talked about a greater good coming out of atrocities. By the end of the greasers' story, a few of them have died and none of them (outside of Ponyboy) have much of a future.
Judged by outside factors. Misunderstood. Victim of circumstance. Ostracized. Hurt. Maimed. Killed. And most heartbreaking---further victimized by the society's elevation of small infractions to indefensible violations in order to act as justification for the crimes against them. Sound familiar? I am describing Hinton's characters; but I am also describing the real life Trayvon Martin.
We should all be sad. And we should all be as angry as those greasers were when they stood in Johnny's hospital room screaming in unison, "Let's do it for Johnny! Let's do it for Johnny!" We need to act. We need to gather together and do something. The atrocity against Trayvon Martin is real. And it's wrong. And it means something because it tells us that 50+ years after the Civil Rights Movement, we are still a country plagued by racism. We have to stop it.
But this time, let's follow the basic idea of felix culpa. Let's make a greater good out of the evil that took Trayvon. If we truly are to be "the land of the free" we have to make real, lasting change. We cannot be the "sunrise" nation. Ideal, beautiful, and alluring, but built on nothing more than the fleeting illusion of a perfection that was never designed to last. We must change the destiny of this country and that starts now. There are no simple solutions to racism. But there are things we can do. Every single one of us must make individual changes in how we think and how we act. We must dedicate ourselves to ensuring that others also refuse to participate in racist thoughts and racist actions. The time is now--"Let's Do it for Trayvon!" And let's do it for ourselves, our children, and our future as good, moral people united by the idea of liberty and justice for all.

1 comment:

JeffCottrell, LVN said...

I am gonna go back to your earlier question and say, I feel the Emmitt Till case is far worse than the Trayvon situation. In Trayvon's death, there are allegations of self defense, Emmitt got shot just for talking, damn. I do not feel that the Trayvon Martin case will have a big, long term impact on this country, one could use the Martin scenario to argue that the Till case didn't either. I am unsure if it is just race issues that are the problem, I think it is senseless violence. If we got rid of racial tension, we still have people making fun of and hurting others just because they are from different neighborhoods, or have a different color of clothing draped over their bodies. Can these types of crimes be fit in with racial crimes somehow? I wonder about the subsystems of these types of crimes. Do we, as humans, generally put up a wall againts outsiders? Hmmm.... (I am "thinking out loud", hahaha). Another thing I have heard people bring up and debate is, could the Trayvon Martin media uproar be there to distract us from another topic, one the I personally feel could actually have a real impact on this country in the future? I am refering to the Supreme Court and it's dealing with "Obamacare". Should we be out rallying to pass or drop this bill, like we are responding to Trayvons death? Atleast, with the bill, we can read it, and actually form our own opinions. In the Martin case, almost every single human, including all celebrities, who are responding, are basing their actions on speculation. The only people who know what truly happend are Trayvon, Zimmerman, and perhaps, some witnesses.