Bookshelf dedicates this post to Tom A., a brilliant, inspiring English teacher at a Jesuit college prep, who shuffled off his mortal coil this morning after suffering a heart attack. He had a profound impact on my life, fostering a lifelong passion for literature and cinema as windows into humanity and the world. Tom was a giant among teachers, representing the apotheosis of academia: unwavering passion, insatiable curiosity, brilliant insights, genuine warmth, and dazzling wit. For many students, he was not only a teacher, but he was a deeply nurturing and caring paternal figure, a mentor, and an incredible friend who gently nudged you to be a better student and a better human being. He was one of the most engaging, thought-provoking conversationalists — weaving threads from great works of literature, poetry, theatre, and cinema from the past and present into a fascinating tapestry of ideas. You know — “big picture” stuff. My personal library of more than 7,000 books is a homage to the intellectual journey begun so many years ago in his classroom.
This afternoon, I visited the campus to pay tribute to him. As I walked around the empty campus, I played the tape inside my head to listen to some of the conversations that I we had over the past 40 years. (Coincidentally, he and I had just visited with one another three days ago, at a funeral mass for a Jesuit priest who was my first English teacher.) I felt a wave of sadness wash over me, realizing that his voice will never be heard again in these classrooms, these hallways. As I walked past one of the classrooms where he taught the Faulkner Seminar, a slight breeze picked up; colorful leaves danced before me and the warmth of the sun caressed my tear-soaked face. In an instant, I felt so grateful as I embraced the realization that although Tom is now gone, he lives inside me and so many students, across several generations, whose lives were inspired by his guidance and wisdom. Indeed, the work we do each day not only carries on his work, but honors a great man, a great teacher. This blog post, “The Power of Literature,” is dedicated to Tom. I will never forget you.
As an aside, if you have had a great teacher in your life — please reach out to them and thank them. Let them know what they meant to you. It will mean the world to them.
Inside stories lies transformational power,
Power that moves the invisible us,
Power that stirs our emotions,
To experience the experiences of others;
Stories allow us to imagine and live momentarily the lives of others.
And thereafter set a different course and perspective for the life we seek to live.
Emmanuel Reed Manirakiza (c.1993-2012) in a speech to the
African Leadership Academy held in South Africa in September of 2010.
This is an insightful and profound testimony about the power of literature, why literature endures, and why we read. But what makes these words so memorable and compelling is that they were not written by an academic, an accomplished author or playwright, but by a young man, a Rwandan refugee, who experienced first-hand the darkest side of humanity, seething with intolerance, hatred, and cruelty. Through an unlikely conjunction of events, perseverance and faith, Emmanuel managed to escape its evil clutches. As a young boy (6 years old) he witnessed the vicious slaughter of his extended family — his aunts, uncles, cousins; his father was stoned to death and he lost his mother and sister to cholera. For years, they lived as feral children, foraging for food in the Congo, the weeks and months punctuated by a seemingly endless cycle of fleeing and hiding until the war ended in 2001.
Fortunately for Emmanuel, an Anglican bishop took an interest in him and placed him at Sonrise School, founded for orphans of the genocide, and it was there that this frightened but tenacious boy (now age 9) blossomed as a student, a provider (earning money to support his sisters), as a community leader (helping others develop a trade, tutoring, mentoring), as a writer (writing for a newspaper and public performances of his poetry), and as an English teacher. Emmanuel’s scarred skin and the bullet fragments lodged in his calf were a constant reminder of the brutality that helped forge his character: “Perhaps because I was old enough to distinguish a boil scar from a bullet scar. It is also these haunting memories that remind me time and again that I have a responsibility to fight against evil and divisionism. Such ideology caused terror and brought tragedy that ruined my life and fellow Rwandan citizens’ life. It cannot be repeated.”
Despite the world he was born into, Emmanuel never considered himself a helpless victim. Quite the opposite, he was graced with a maturity and self-awareness to discover the one inescapable truth in life that separates achievement and failure, hope and despair, life and death: in the words of Jean Paul Sartre, “we are our choices.” Emmanuel lived by a motto: “tough times make tough minds”; however even a brave, determined, and resilient young boy had moments of doubt — but he persevered because he believed in himself and his choices. In his diary, during some of the darkest days of his life, he records his struggles with the turmoil that exists in his world and within his soul: “Emmanuel, do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of justifying why you can’t climb the ladder of success. You owe no one an explanation why you will not achieve your goals. Your success or failure in life largely depends on you and what you are doing with life today but not what life had done to you in the past. Though you’re to look for God and others for comfort and instructions, you alone are responsible for your choices and you hold the key to your future. Do not let the world define how far you can travel and how much you can achieve. The speed by which you run is set by the speedometer of your mind.” With the kind help of teachers and mentors, Emmanuel allowed the wisdom and insights of literature into his heart and into his life, a glimpse of the vast canvas of life and humanity not obscured by the shadows at its edges.
Tragically, Emmanuel life’s was cut short by a swimming accident; he drowned on July 15, 2012 in Kigali. He had just learned how to swim and enjoyed it immensely.
Knowing something about this remarkable young man, and rereading his words about literatures’s transformational power, one cannot help but feel humbled by the teachings of an extraordinary human being who severed the shackles of his past, to crawl through the pitch-black night of evil and hatred to reach daybreak, filled with the light of love and kindness. How extraordinary that he was able to look past man at his worst, transcend his suffering and sacrifice, and use the lens of literature to see man at his best; to renounce hatred and intolerance and have the courage to live and love with an open heart. Despite all the violence and brutality that he experienced, Emmanuel believed in the intrinsic goodness of man. And for all that was taken from him, he gave back so generously, so selflessly. Indeed, Emmanuel’s story is a powerful reminder that stories can heal and transform — and here’s the rub — if we let them.
The world will never know how much more Emmanuel could have contributed to the world; however this much is clear: his words (thanks to Andrew Powell’s blog) will continue to resonate, illuminate and inspire us to live our lives more authentically, more courageously, more responsibly, more generously. He challenges us to battle hatred and intolerance, and use our talents and skills to contribute to the world to help — and not hurt — one another. And it is important to share and reflect on this story; by doing so we honor him, his family, his teachers and mentors, and what he believed in. Like all great stories, Emmanuel’s story is fragile — it must be treasured, it must be remembered, and preserved so that it may speak to future generations. Emmanuel came to appreciate what any student of literature knows: that when we stop reading and sharing, when we stop reflecting and learning from these stories we will forget where we came from and who we really are; we sever the delicate thread that binds all of mankind.
One has to wonder: why was Emmanuel taken so early? Perhaps he was too pure, too innocent, too good for this world. His time, however short, was full of purpose and meaning; he touched so many lives so deeply, bringing illumination through his good nature, acts of kindness, and mature wisdom. Divine Providence must have looked upon this angelic child — who had suffered enough, sacrificed enough, and given enough — and knew that it was time for him to slip the surly bonds of earth to return to his eternal home, to be reunited with his family, leaving behind the struggle and the strife of human existence.
Related posts: William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty
Universal Human Values
The Poem I Turn To
Why Read Dickens?
The Benefits of Reading
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books that Shaped America