Last week, Karen Nestor wrote about her experience teaching in a Books@Work special program with Veterans living at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center Domiciliary. Karen’s was an hour-long program for the entire residency—but, in partnership with Ohio Humanities and several individual donors, Books@Work has been serving this community with weekly seminars over the past six months. Each week in this program, a group of Veterans came together with a professor to discuss a short story. Recently, I had the chance to speak with Professor Peter Haas about his experience guiding these discussions. Peter is an ordained rabbi and served as a chaplain in the United States Army before entering academe. He retired in the summer of 2016 from Case Western Reserve University, where he was a professor of Religious Studies and former chair of his department.
You worked with the Veterans for longer than people typically do in our seminars – for eight weeks. How did you choose the stories, and how did you balance the different people coming in and out of the program?
I chose the stories and sequences in a way that made sense for the core group, so that they would be able to link stories back and forth. For the repeat participants, the stories became a kind of thematic vocabulary. For instance, being perceived by outsiders in a way that is false, or in a way that entraps you in other’s perceptions. “A Piece of String,” “The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket,” and “The Open Window” were all about misperceptions: about others; about reality; about what you do when your perceptions are false, or disappointing.
All of the participants already knew each other from the Domiciliary, so even newcomers were comfortable jumping into the conversation. College students are often afraid to speak up. For adults, the stakes feel less high: life experience means it’s possible for them to join the discussion immediately.
I always began the seminar by asking the participants if they had any comments to start off with. And I was really struck by the participants’ strong identification with the characters: “I’ve been there.” The last story we read, “A Hunger Artist,” is set right after World War I. One of the first comments was a question. “Why are people so fascinated with starvation?” The participants spoke about what it’s like to be in combat, to be in the military, and how the story reflects that reality. It was a tremendous insight, and I’m not sure how anyone but a Veterans group could come up with that.
Tell me about a few particularly compelling conversational moments.
There were quite a few. James Joyce’s story “Araby” is about growing up poor in a Dublin slum. One of the participants spoke up: “That’s my story. That happened to me.” He grew up in poverty, in a strict Catholic family, and had difficulty relating to women. This was his story – he achieved an insight.
There was another epiphany moment with “The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket.” In the story, a group of children is making lanterns and they go out looking for bell crickets, but they find grasshoppers. A girl comes over, and there’s a spark of recognition – puppy love. The author says “we have to be careful” about identifying the real thing. And because these are adults, who have been through relationships – marriage and divorce – the parable resonated with them. “I thought I had a bell cricket and it turned out to be a grasshopper.” They identified with that idea – you don’t always know what you have until it’s too late, one way or the other. The parable became a vocabulary for talking about other incidents, other stories.
What difference do you see in how adults – and Veterans at that – come to these stories versus the college students you usually teach?
Well, the VA Domiciliary really has a kind of heart-grabbing population. The participants have been through therapy and rehabilitation, and they have a kind of insight into themselves that sometimes you don’t see even in other adults.
We read one short story – it was about 150 years old – and one of the participants spoke up: “My gosh, this is my story.” He had lived through a similar kind of situation and had similar experiences, and he identified with the main character. His opening up enabled the whole group to talk about their experiences.
In contrast, undergraduates worry about the technicalities: structure, symbolism. They don’t have the experience some of these Veterans have: tough times, big decisions, bad things happening. The stories resonate differently with each population.
Do you feel like you got anything special out of these sessions?
I was often moved by how much the participants identified with the stories, how much the stories touched them. I appreciate the power of short stories now in a way I never have before. I see things I never would have seen. It’s kind of an experience to me, too, in that way – just watching them relate to the story.
And also – I’m a Veteran. As we shared our stories, we found that we had close connections to each other. Many were at Fort Knox, where I was for a time, or we trained in the same places. I’m more of a peer in a way, which I don’t have with undergraduates. We are equals, and that makes a difference.
Our program at the VA Domiciliary was made possible by the generous support of Ohio Humanities and several individual donors.
Image: U.S. Marine Corps, Korean War Veterans Memorial National Monument, 2010. [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons