Image from The Paper Bag Princess (Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko)
Editor’s Note: Hi, DayofPHers (you don’t have to call yourselves that)! Robyn, Inge, and I have been reaching out to friends, colleagues, idols, and other acquaintances in the wide world of public humanities to see if anyone wants to write guest posts about their days of public humanizing. If you’d like to tell us about your day (or blog about another topic related to our Day of Public Humanities!), please get in touch! You can email us (dayofPH[at]gmail) or contact us via Twitter (@DayofPH). And don’t forget to talk about your work with us on Tuesday, May 9th, 2017! 🙂
After I saw Jim McGrath’s posting about a Day of Public Humanities go by on a listserv, I found myself considering which things I regularly do might classify as Public Humanities while commuting on my bike. I curated a public exhibition on Book History at Boston University, and I fashioned a digital version of a Rare Books exhibition at the Boston Public Library. I’ve also done conferences, written anthology essays, contributed to other Digital Humanities projects, and published scholarly articles. These activities classify as public, but what struck me on that bike ride, and what strikes me still, is that the most public impact I have is in teaching. It’s true that I work at a private institution (Simmons College) and my classes are held behind closed doors, yet the contemporary relevance of long-dead authors and the current iterations of age-old questions frame all my lessons. I believe literature teaches us history, empathy, and critical thinking—skills essential to thoughtful engagement as citizens and as humans.
Last Thursday I rode my bike over to the East Somerville Community School (ESCS), a public school with a bilingual Spanish-English program, where my son attends first grade. Somerville, MA, the most densely populated city in New England, is gentrifying quickly, but many strong immigrant and low-income communities remain and send their children to ESCS. As a result, my son’s classroom mixes higher-income, higher-education English-speakers and mostly Latino, often lower-income Spanish-speakers. The kids are mostly oblivious to this divide, though it troubles many of us English-dominant parents who want to connect better with our Spanish-dominant counterparts.
Because first grade had been working on a Fairy Tales and Folk Tales unit, I volunteered to read Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess (1980), a sort of feminist fairy tale. The teacher said they were working on understanding adjectives too, so before the story, we put together a list of the typical attributes of “good” and “mean” characters in these types of tales. Then, as a quick side project, we came up with a list of adjectives for princesses. This last list was telling—and depressing. All the adjectives were visual descriptors: pink, purple, pretty, long-hair, and the like.
In Munsch’s story, Elizabeth watches a dragon burn her castle and clothes, and carry away her fiancé Prince Ronald. Because there’s nothing else to wear, she dons a paper bag, finds the dragon, outsmarts him, and rescues Ronald. Ronald, when he sees Elizabeth, chastises rather than thanks her: “Elizabeth, you are a mess! You smell like ashes, your hair is all tangled and you are wearing a dirty old paper bag. Come back when you are dressed like a real princess.” Elizabeth doesn’t marry Ronald after all.
Part way through the story, I stopped and asked students if Elizabeth was like the princesses we’d described. Therein followed a debate about whether Elizabeth could be a princess if she wasn’t wearing a nice dress. The class was pretty firmly set on her not being a “real” princess until one boy pointed out that she was still wearing a crown in the illustrations, albeit a bent and tarnished one. Although they gushed about how smart and clever Elizabeth was, and clucked their tongues over Ronald’s rudeness, they still did not seem fully to accept that Elizabeth was a princess. They felt sure that princesses looked pretty first and foremost.
Eventually, I asked students to close their eyes and picture someone challenging a dragon. Then I asked if it were a boy or a girl they’d imagined. They all reported picturing a boy, although we’d just read a story about Elizabeth outsmarting a dragon. The lesson ended with everyone sitting quietly and considering why we might think only of what a princess looked like and why we might assume the person fighting the dragon would have to be a boy.
It was a first grade story-time, not a gender studies class, and yet I hope that the lesson reinforced (or, perhaps for some, introduced) the idea that girls and women have more capabilities than just appearing attractive. I hope that the moment of quiet thinking snowballs into more sophisticated interrogations about social equity in our city, commonwealth, and country.
I think the ideas presented in my Simmons courses have meaningful public consequences too. All term long, students have been commenting on how current events are replaying the early American texts we have been reading. Again and again, we find ourselves discussing how an essay, story, or poem is investigating the concept of “America” and the question of who can claim that label. Introducing these types of ideas, showing students other narratives, and generally cultivating empathy through the sharing of someone else’s story seems one of the most profoundly public acts we can take on as humanists. I’ve now visited my son’s first grade class multiple times. I started going for my son, but now I am also doing it for the students who may never have access to a course like the ones I teach at Simmons—the students who are excluded from narrow definitions of “American” crafted by the xenophobic, the misogynistic, the powerful, or the convergence of all three. As I left last Thursday, a young Latina girl asked when I would come again. The answer is soon. I hope in the meantime she acts like Elizabeth, the paper bag princess.
Lydia Fash is a lecturer of English at Simmons College.