Learning From Our Participants: Books@Work at the Veterans Domiciliary
June 7, 2016 | Karen Nestor
This week, we are pleased to feature Books@Work board member Karen Nestor, as she reflects on her recent experience teaching in a program with the Veterans Domiciliary at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center. Karen is a longtime educator, having taught every single grade level from kindergarten to graduate school and has deep experience as a researcher, often employing a biographical approach. Our program at the VA Domiciliary was made possible by the generous support of Ohio Humanities and several individual donors.
For most of my life I have believed in the power of literature to affect the human heart, but sometimes, a discussion of good literature provides an unexpected flash of understanding into the profound impact that stories can have. This week I had such an experience as each person in a room became a teacher and each person became a learner.
This flash occurred at the Veterans Domiciliary, a residential program that is jointly run by the Veteran’s Administration and the Volunteers of America, and that serves Veterans facing a variety of serious issues, including homelessness, trauma, addiction and other life-challenging hurdles. Books@Work brought a mini-version of the program to the entire cohort of Veterans currently at the Domiciliary, as a surprise “activity” for their weekly large group meeting. Everyone received a copy of a very unusual story, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” by Gabriel García Marquez, and one of the professors read the story to all of us as we followed along. Then we all broke into typical, professor-led Books@Work groups to discuss the story.
As one of the facilitators, I had prepared for the discussion with some trepidation. Marquez’s magical realism can be difficult to comprehend and even a little weird. I wasn’t sure how solid my own grasp of the story was, but the Veterans had no trouble at all penetrating the story and sharing their insights:
- The first person to speak broke open the story by telling us that his own father had drowned when he was only a boy. He had everyone’s undivided attention as he used his personal experience to provide meaning to the story.
- Another man talked about the way that different cultures react to death and how the village in the story respected and honored the death of the man.
- That quickly led into a discussion of the drowned character and how he became a god to the people in the village. One even compared him to Neptune, coming out of the sea like a mythological god.
- A man who seemed reluctant to speak at first spoke eloquently about how the story represented “transcendence” to him.
- Several spoke of the hope that the drowned man brought to the women and men in this remote village.
But then the discussion took a dramatic turn, when another man said: I see this story in a different way. I see that the drowned man is all of us right here. We all have big problems, but then we all have the chance to become something different, just like he did. To peel back, as another described, the layers of seaweed and debris to find their better, “most handsome,” selves. To become someone who has a positive influence on the family and the community. At that point, heads started nodding and everyone began to add their views.
They talked about the people who have been there to support them. They talked about how they have been there to support others. They talked about being bigger than you could ever expect a person to be, like the man in the story. Several talked about how the people in the story began to build bigger doorways and bigger houses because they saw that their life could be bigger and that all of us can do the same. In a matter of fact way, this work of literature was the vehicle for them to explore their own world and the things they are learning in their lives (all in less than 40 minutes).
That flash of understanding lit up the room as they made the leap from a strange story set in a foreign land to learning important things about their shared human realities. And I saw the flash of understanding as I recognized that their interpretation of the story was much deeper than my own and that they had shown me layers of meaning that I could not have reached without their role as my teacher. Books@Work has shown me once again that literature continually opens the heart and expands the mind when people come together to share ideas in these extraordinary interactions.
Thank you to Karen for sharing her reflections on this extraordinary Books@Work event. For those interested in Marquez’s story, a link to the text may be found here, and to a beautiful reading, with music, here.
Image: Edgar Degas, Seascape, 1869, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, [Public Domain] via Wikiart.org