Larry Efird: Pictures of courage

Published 11:53 am Sunday, May 29, 2016

Whenever I teach a novel, I feel as if I am introducing one of my closest friends to my students. We just finished reading Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage” in a 10th-grade honors class, and before we began, I told them that although many of them might not like the book, it is one of my favorites. (I like to be honest with my students, but the part I did not tell them was that I know a few English teachers who dislike that book too!)

Why do I love “The Red Badge of Courage”? Perhaps it’s for the archaic, yet eloquent, prose. Or maybe it’s because I’ve always had a love for anything related to the Civil War, and that having lived in Vicksburg, Mississippi, for six years, where the ghosts of the Civil War and the Mississippi River are still very much alive, captured my literary heart.

I tell my students that if they can find one memorable quote to take away from any book they’ve read, then reading the book was worth it. I also try to define for them what a literary classic is, as opposed to a work of high interest or something trendy that teenagers like to read. I’m one of those old school folks who think that high school kids should still be able to read masterpieces such as “A Tale of Two Cities,” “Silas Marner” and “Pilgrim’s Progress.”

One such quote in Stephen Crane’s “Red Badge of Courage” comes at the end. The main character, Henry Fleming, also known as “the youth,” deals with his fears of being wounded or killed while serving in the Union Army throughout the entire book. Many of his insecurities parallel what teenagers go through on a daily basis as they face fears about grades, their college plans, and whether or not they will have a successful life. Though they don’t have to worry about living through the Civil War, they do have “Civil Wars” in their own lives.

In a single class, I learned that one student had seen both of his parents dead, in separate incidents, before he finished ninth grade. Another student has “waited” for her mother to come home for years, but knows that won’t ever happen because her mother is addicted to drugs, having abandoned her long ago.

Yet another confessed to me the reason she did not have her homework assignment completed was because her father had been hauled off to jail (again) in the middle of the night. She also told me that her mother wouldn’t get out of prison for four more years. And that’s only counting the situations I know about. I suspect there are others.

I don’t usually tear up in public, but I found myself wiping my eyes as she gave me her excuse. I then realized her homework wasn’t nearly as important as her life and her current situation. I told her how much I admired her courage and how she didn’t need to settle for a life like her parents’. I also told her how important her education would become as she completed high school in a couple of years, and not to give up, that all of her teachers would do anything we could to see that she makes it.

She almost smiled, and told me that her older sister would graduate this year, becoming the first person in her family ever to graduate from high school.

I’ve often thought about how much courage teachers need in our profession, but that was a poignant reminder of how much courage some high school kids need to face their own daily battles. That’s one reason I want my students to read truths such as the following, penned by the literary masters:

He felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy and strong blood. He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death.

Henry Fleming, a teenage boy turned Civil War soldier, faced his greatest fear — death — and survived. I know many students who are also survivors. Their stories give me courage.

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.