The three papers assigned for EH 220 correspond to three major focuses of the course. Paper one is designed to emphasize that each of us will have a different response to a text based in part on our individual experiences, background, and value system. Paper two is designed to emphasize that the structure of a text can provide a means of interpretation. Paper three is designed to emphasize the similarities and differences between lived experience and literature. Taken together, these papers are practical exercises in making connections between literature and life, and they form the backbone of the course.
Please find a description of your first paper assignment below. Please follow the links to a sample paper for your first paper, to a description of and a sample of your second paper, and to a description of and a sample of your third paper by clicking on the highlighted phrases.
This first paper could be called the "what, how, and why essay" because it answers those three questions about your personal and individual response to a work of literature from our anthology. Notice that the topic of this paper is not an analysis of a work of literature but, instead, an analysis of one reader's response to that work of literature. Since you are that one reader, you are an expert on the topic, and you should use first-person pronouns to help explain your response.
Your essay should have three parts. The first part, which will consist of a sentence or two in the first paragraph, is the "what" part. Choose a specific response to the work, and one that you can explain clearly using evidence. For example, you might say, "I disliked the main character of the story," or "I was fascinated by the controlling metaphor of the poem." You might even say, "I was frustrated because I didn't understand what the playwright was trying to say to the reader."
The second part, which will consist of a few paragraphs, is the "how" part of the essay. In this section, you must gather and organize evidence from the text to explain how the author evoked your response. If you disliked the main character of a story, then in this section of the essay you will cite specific examples of the character's value system or use of language or whatever else that could help explain your dislike. If you liked the controlling metaphor of a poem, then in this section of the essay you will explain how that metaphor appears throughout the poem. If you were frustrated with a playwright's message, in this section of your essay you will cite specific passages in the play that were unclear to you.
The third part, which will consist of another few paragraphs, is the "why" part of the essay. In this section, you must gather and organize evidence about yourself to explain why you responded the way you did. No two readers are alike. Each of us brings something different to the works of literature we read. What in your background, your experience, your education, and your value system helped shape your response? Did the character you disliked resemble someone you knew in high school? If you were frustrated with the author's message, could that be because you have been taught that writers always put hidden messages in their works or that literature is like a riddle to be solved? If you liked a particular metaphor, can you account for how that metaphor has appeared in your life experiences?
This essay may not be easy to write. Part three, the "why" part, involves an activity that you may not have had to practice much in your previous literature courses. Part three asks you to examine yourself and to account for the part you play in your response to a text. Part three asks you to dig below the surface of your response. Just saying that you enjoyed a poem because you like nature images, or saying that you were irritated with a character in a short story because he was an immoral person--these statements are not enough. They are the beginning of what you must do in part three. Why do you like nature images? What are your moral standards and where did you get them?
As with all college-level essays, begin your assignment early enough that you have a chance to think, plan, and generate material before you begin writing. Revise your essay at least once, paying attention to matters of paragraph structure and the development and clarity of your ideas. Then be sure to proofread your essay before you print it. Remember--spellcheck will not catch everything that you might want to correct before submitting an essay. Remember, too, that even if you cite only one poem, you must attach a "work cited" page to the end of your essay.
Note: this essay's greatest strength is its use of details from the writer's life experiences. Its greatest weakness is its lack of enough details from the text. The essay is about 4 pages long, double-spaced, using 12-point type.
A Personal Response to Oedipus the King
While reading the play Oedipus the King, my response to the work became more and more clear as the play continued. When I finished the play, my reaction to the work and to two particular characters was startling and very different from my response while I was still reading. My initial response was to the text, and it was mostly an intellectual one. I felt cheated by the play because the challenge of solving the mystery of the plot was spoiled for me by the obvious clues laid out in the work. My second response was not as intellectual; instead, it came more from a feeling that the play evoked in me. I felt a strong disappointment in the drastic actions that Oedipus and Jocasta took at the end of the play. My two different responses to Oedipus the King, one intellectual and one not, now seem to feed off and to amplify each other as if they were one collective response.
The play's plot, in a nutshell, develops like this. After solving the riddle of the Sphynx, who had kept Thebes under a curse of some kind, Oedipus is invited to become king of the city. He marries Jocasta, the widow of the previous king, and they have two children. When the play begins, Thebes is again under some sort of curse, and Oedipus tries to find out its cause so that he can rescue the city. He is told that the cause of the curse is that the murderer of the previous king is still in the city and has gone unpunished. In the process of searching for the murderer, Oedipus discovers that it is he, himself, who is responsible and that he is actually the son of Jocasta and her previous husband. Horrified by his sins of incest and murder, Oedipus claws out his eyes. Jocasta commits suicide because she is so disgraced.
My disappointment in the lack of mystery in the plot of the play was evoked by the continual clues appearing throughout the play. For example, in Oedipus's first speech to the people of Thebes, he condemns the murderer of the previous king, stating that "he will suffer no unbearable punishment, nothing worse than exile" (261-62). This is the first of a multitude of clues about the outcome of the play. Perhaps the most obvious of the clues is in a speech by the blind prophet Tiresias who knows the answer to the mystery but who is reluctant to reveal it. His words, "So you mock my blindness? Let me tell you this. You with your precious eyes, you're blind to the corruption of your life" (469-73), were so obvious to me that I lost any chance to figure out the mystery of the play on my own.
As the play neared its end and Oedipus was about to discover the truth about his past, I began to hope that he and Jocasta would somehow dodge their fate and thereby add an interesting twist to a plot that had become pretty boring to me. However, instead of being pleasantly surprised at the ending of the play, I was shocked by the drastic actions of the two characters I had had so much hope for. Oedipus was indeed both the son and husband of Jocasta and the son and murderer of her previous husband. Both Oedipus and Jocasta reacted violently to the revelation of his crimes--he gouged out his eyes and she committed suicide. I was appalled bly the fact that two characters who had seemed noble, wise, and powerful and who were the symbols of good in the play would end up so pitiful.
Throughout the play, Oedipus was treated with the respect of a god; he was called "king of the land, our greatest power" (16) by the people of Thebes. Jocasta was treated with similar respect. When Oedipus accused Creon, Jocasta's brother, of plotting against him and spreading rumors, it was Jocasta who was called upon to settle the dispute of the two most powerful men in the city (770-775). The play's emphasis on the greatness and innocense of Oedipus and Jocasta led me to admire both of them. I was shocked and a little hurt that Sophocles allowed two individuals who had so much going their way to fall so quickly and so hard.
I was really emotionally affected by the downfall of Oedipus and Jocasta. Usually, I'm not very upset reading about a tragic character and his eventual fall, but in this play my response surprised me. Jocasta's suicide really bothered me, and I saw Oedipus's self-banishment as almost a suicide. Suicide has been a very difficult subject for me to understand. The sources of my difficulty and probably the sources of my response to Oedipus and Jocasta are experiences I had with two classmates in the years before I came to college.
In sixth grade I had a friend who seemed to have everything collapse in on him at one time. He and his mother had been abused by his father for several years, and his mother had finally divorced his father. My friend and his mother were left with no money and no place to live. The only thing they had for sure was each other. I developed an admiration for him because he seemed to have conquered his sufferings and survived a difficult time in his life. But just as things were looking looking up for my friend and his mother, he committed suicide, not only taking his own life but also breaking his mother's heart. When I read in the play how Jocasta had killed herself and how Oedipus had gouged his eyes out, I had the same feeling that I had had when I heard of my friend's death. I admired Oedipus and Jocasta like I had admired my friend, but I guess all of them were unable to handle their fate.
Another part of my response to the end of the play comes from my belief in the preciousness of life. I am shocked and hurt that Oedipus and Jocasta chose to harm themselves, and I believe that some of the source of my shock comes from an experience I had during my senior year of high school. On the day that John Carrol High School moved from Highland Avenue to Lakeshore Drive an awful event occurred. We held our last pep rally at the old football field, and when it was over, the cheerleaders boarded a bus to go to the new school. As the bus was leaving, one of the cheerleaders stuck her head out the window. Her head hit a telephone pole, and she was instantly dead. I can remember the sight and especially the sound of her death. The girl I had talked to just a few minutes before was gone. She had been the most popular girl in school, and someone who seemed to have more life than life itself. I admired my friend for her attitude towards life just as I admired the nobility of Oedipus and Jocasta. But because I saw my friend die, I cannot understand why anyone would choose death over life.
- Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Trans. Robert Fagles. The Bedford Introduction to
- Literature. 4th ed. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: St. Martins, 1996. 1120-1161.
This second paper concentrates on one aspect of the text itself--the assignment asks you to analyze how setting contributes to the theme of gender in a short story. Please limit yourself to a discussion of setting, but remember that setting involves both time and place. When does the story happen--what time of day and what time of year? Where does the story happen--are there contrasts within the setting that can help shed light on the actions or the value systems of the characters? Not all stories will use all aspects of setting to convey meaning, but you should examine all aspects as you make your decisions about what to focus on. You should take your cues from our class discussions of the way setting works in the stories we read.
Before you begin writing your paper, make some lists of details about setting. Where exactly does the story take place? What are the characteristics of the interior or exterior of the house that the main character lives in? What is the neighborhood like? When exactly does the story take place? Do events happen on a particular day of the year? Does the story happen during the day or at night? Does it happen in winter, spring, summer, or fall? Could the weather be significant?
Once you have this material together, look for patterns that can help you organize your essay. If you see contrasts--between day and night, for example, or between the upstairs and downstairs of a house--then you might consider organizing the body of your essay in two main chunks. If you find time as significant as place in your story, you might consider organizing the body of your essay in two main chunks. Notice that I have not suggested that you begin with a three-main-point format. Let your material dictate the structure of your essay. Life rarely falls neatly into a five-paragraph essay, and literature rarely does either unless someone conveniently either disregards textual material or inserts material that doesn't belong. If you find yourself writing a five-paragraph essay, stop. Create a new plan and begin again.
Your essay should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning should introduce the material to come in the middle of the essay. You should have a clear thesis expressed in a thesis statement somewhere in the first couple of paragraphs. That statement should indicate what the purpose and focus of the paper will be and how it is organized. Do not, however, make statements like "In this paper I will explain how night and day symbolize good and evil in such-and-such a story." Instead, say something like "Night and day provide a clear contrast through which we can judge the characters in this story." In other words, don't talk about yourself or your paper. Talk about the text.
The middle of your essay presents the evidence you will use to draw your conclusions at the end. Gather enough evidence, and organize it well. Think of yourself as a trial lawyer. Would you ask the judge or jury how many pieces of evidence you need? Would you present evidence in the order you found it? Or would you make sure that you made your case as completely and clearly as possible?
Finally, in your conclusion, draw your conclusions from the evidence in the middle of the essay. Do not repeat your introduction (introductions have very different purposes than conclusions). Do not summarize the material, either. Instead, make a case for your interpretation of the short story. Make sense of the facts. If you find that you have already drawn conclusions earlier, in the middle of the paper, then revise your draft so that your conclusions come at the end.
As always, remember to document your source when you quote directly or paraphrase or summarize a passage. Likewise, attach a "work cited" page to the essay.
If you would like some support as you write this essay, you may make an appointment with one of the tutors in the Writing Center. The tutors can provide help at any stage of the writing process--planning, drafting, revising, and editing.
Note: Although this essay concentrates on three aspects of setting, the writer (a student in the spring 1998 section of EH 200) avoids the five-paragraph format. This essay is four double-spaced pages long, and its paragraphs often take up nearly a page. In other words, the writer is not in a hurry to finish, but instead tries to provide as much information from the story as is necessary to make his point. One word of caution: this writer misunderstands the social context aspect of setting. Social context does not mean the context in which the writer wrote the story but, rather, the context in which the characters engage in the action. For social context to be an aspect of setting, the author must give readers a sense of the society that the characters live in.
Elements of Setting in Chopin's "The Story of an Hour"
Setting exists in every form of fiction, representing elements of time, place, and social context throughout the work. These elements can create particular moods, character qualities, or features of theme. Throughout Kate Chopin's short story "The Story of an Hour," differing amounts and types of the setting are revealed as the plot develops. This story deals with a young woman's emotional state as she discovers her own independence in her husband's death, then her "tragic" discovery that he is actually alive. The constituents of setting reveal certain characteristics about the main character, Louise Mallard, and are functionally important to the story structure. The entire action takes place in the springtime of a year in the 1890s, in the timeframe of about an hour, in a house belonging to the Mallards. All of these aspects of setting become extremely relevant and significant as the meaning of the story unfolds.
When Louise Mallard first hears that her husband was killed in a railroad accident, "she wept at once," and "went away to her room alone" (12). As she mourns, looking out of her window on the second floor of her home, a sudden change of heart begins to come over her. She notices "the delicious breath of rain," " a peddler . . . crying his wares," "notes of a distant song," "countless sparrows . . . twittering," and "patches of blue sky," "all aquiver with the new spring life" (13). As she stares at the sky, she begins to think about her newfound independence from her husband, uttering the words "free, free, free!" (13). What makes her develop such a sudden change in attitude? Could it be that she sees rebirth in the world through her window? Spring has always been a time for revival and renewal, as flowers bloom, animals awaken from winter hibernation, and sudden spring showers cleanse the earth and air. The "breath of rain" seems to cleanse Louise as well, as she views this as a way to start her life afresh. In this story, the time of year somewhat symbolizes her own internal springtime, further developing the rationale behind her character. If this story took place in a different time of year, it would not be as coherent. There would be no explanation for Louise's sudden attitude reversal from mourning to enlightened anticipation of the future.
The Mallards' house, the area where the entire action of the story takes place, is extremely significant in understanding the subtleties of the plot and characters. The house is two stories tall, with two main rooms shown in detail: the front parlor, which is downstairs, and Louise's bedroom, upstairs. The two floors are significantly different, both in the mood and in the emotions brought out in each one. It is in the parlor that Louise first hears of her husband's death and later ultimately discovers that he lives. Yet she achieves true enlightenment and understanding upstairs, in her bedroom. The particular level of the house that Louise is in conveys certain emotions and reveals two different aspects of her character. Downstairs she is the good wife, mourning the loss of her husband at first and later swooning from what the doctors believe to be "joy that kills" (14). Downstairs she must act like the typical late-nineteenth-century woman, completely devoted to her husband and family. Her husband has the key to the front door and the downstairs area, and, apparently, is the one that holds the power over that part of the house. Upstairs, however, Louise looks forward to her new life without her husband, her "monstrous joy" (13). In her upstairs room, she is free. She is the sole owner of the key to the door, and the room is somewhat of a sanctuary to her. Upstairs she is allowed to think as she pleases without having to worry about the thoughts of other people.
These two floors of the house are vital in understanding the internal conflicts that Louise undergoes throughout the story. Once she learns of her husband's death, Louise goes "away to her room alone. She would have no one follow her" (12). She needs to get away from the downstairs part of the house as soon as she can. At that moment, Louise needs time alone, and soon she begins to gaze out of her bedroom window, which reveals the rebirth of spring that surrounds her. It is here that she receives enlightenment about her upcoming freedom, fully taking in her newfound "elixir of life" (13). As the effects of the springtime begin to settle upon her, the calmness and security of the room assure her as well. She sinks into "a comforable, roomy armchair" and thinks about the life ahead of her, having no one to hold her back (13). Apparently she feels repressed by her marriage, but perhaps she has not realized it until now: the narrator says that the lines on Louise's face indicate "repression and even a certain strength" (13). Once she is upstairs, however, the inevitable upcoming freedom overwhelms her and takes her over. Josephine, her sisister, attempts to get her to leave the room, but Louise refuses, still basking in the amazement of her freedom. However, when she finally does go downstairs, she is greeted with the shock of her husband's arrival, and soon dies (14). The difference between the floors of the house, therefore, can be seen to represent the different aspects of Louise's personality, shown in her attitudes toward her own life. When her husband arrives, Louise apparently finds no reason to live her meaningless, repressed life any longer, as she sees that she will never get her freedom.
Another essential part of setting is social context, the beliefs and actions of society that surrounds and molds the plot and characters. In the 1890s, the proper woman had certain regulations and factors that she always had to obey. The first duty of a wife in these conservative times was to her husband and family. In this story, Chopin shows her own unhappiness with this particular role of women in society. This theme of feminine assertiveness is evident in many of Kate Chopin's works, as she suggests that women should have the right to live for themselves and not always for others. Nevertheless, in this time frame, women did not have the liberties that they now possess. Society viewed it as scandalous for a woman to divorce her husband, and because of this restriction, Louise Mallard is trapped. She cannot leave Brently, although she feels held back by him, because society would not support her as a divorced woman. Social context thus becomes very important in determining the meaning of the plot of the story and its implications. It does not seem that Brently is cruel at all towards his wife, as she remembers him as having "kind, tender hands" and a "face that had never looked save with love upon her" (13). Perhaps her excitement at his death is because she does not love him as much as when she married him. "And yet she had loved him--sometimes. Often she did not. What did it matter!" Louise thinks to herself (13). Or perhaps she just feels that she cannot live for herself when her husband is around, and that she will always be bound to serve him. Whatever her true reasons, the social aspects of the situation may be the most evident and the most essential part of the setting in this short story.
In "The Story of an Hour" as well as in all other works of fiction, setting does more than portray when and where the action of the story occurs. Setting also provides something of a template for the story to take part in, giving it boundaries and distinctive characteristics about the situation. Setting preys upon reader stereotypes and preconceptions about the certain time frame or location in which the story takes place in order to bring out more meaning. In this work, Chopin develops the story based on the reader's knowledge and understanding of a woman's place in late nineteenth-century America. But the specific setting--the time of year and the structure of the Mallard house--also gives clues to help readers understand Louise and attempt to determine the cause of her death. Louise may die of heart disease, as the doctors say at the end of the story, but setting indicates that the disease was not "joy that kills" (14).
- Chopin, Kate. "The Story of an Hour." The Compact Bedford Introduction to
- Literature. 4th ed. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: St. Martins, 1997. 12-15.
This third paper brings together a number of emphases in the class by requiring you to see a text in the context of other texts and of your lived experience in your service activity. The focus of your essay is to compare your lived experience, or those of the people you spent time with in your service activity, to the experiences of characters in a story, play, or poem and to the experiences of one or more characters in Shipler's book on the working poor in America. Your purpose should be to show how authors take life and turn it into literature by shaping it with the elements of plot, characterization, setting, tone, and/or point of view. This will be a longer and more complex paper than the first two, and you should begin earlier than you did on the first two. This paper will also be based on the journal you have kept in response to your service activity.
If you would like some support as you write this essay, you may make an appointment with one of the tutors in the Writing Center. The tutors can provide help at any stage of the writing process--planning, drafting, revising, and editing.
Note: The writer of this paper uses a first-person approach when discussing his service experience, but he switches to an objective approach when discussing the literature. In addition, he does not assume that his reader will be able to remember details from the literature or tap into his memory about her experiences. In fact, he does not write as if his paper is intended for his teacher. He provides a clear context in which any reader can understand the details that make up his point.
Real World: Birmingham
When I enrolled in Literature and the Social Experience at Birmingham-Southern College, I expected that I would be taking an ordinary English course. I imagined that the course would merely consist of reading pieces of literature and writing papers about what I had read. When Dr. Tatter informed the class that there would be a fifteen-hour service-learning requirement, I thought he was joking. I did not understand how serving the community could possibly enhance my comprehension of literature. Additionally, those service-learning activities were something that I would have to complete outside of class. Since I am a commuter student, the odd hours that were associated with the service-learning activities initially presented somewhat of an inconvenience in my schedule. Though I was annoyed at first because of this slight inconvenience, my views rapidly changed when I witnessed firsthand the demoralizing consequences that are associated with the lives of those who live in poverty. Through service-learning I was able to see that my slight inconvenience was but an anthill compared to the enormous mountain that the poor are forced to climb each and every day.
For my service-learning activity I decided to attend First Light Women’s Shelter, which is a homeless shelter for women in downtown Birmingham. Every Wednesday I, along with a group of other volunteers, would travel the short distance down Interstate 59 to the shelter at First Light. When we arrived at the shelter, we would proceed to talk to the women who were staying there. After talking with them for a short while, we would serve the women dinner promptly at 6:30 p.m. Once dinner was served and the kitchen was cleaned, we would return to Birmingham-Southern and go about our personal business. Even though my weekly time at the shelter was incredibly brief, I was able to learn a lot over the course of the semester. While at the shelter I was able to get to know many of the women. Several had a history of alcohol or substance abuse, while some just needed a place to stay. Still others felt victimized by the system and the society that we live in today. Through my experience, I was able to discover that the poor are often labeled with negative stereotypes. Although these stereotypes may be true for a select few, this should not condemn everyone who experiences poverty. The women at First Light unknowingly helped me to eliminate many of the biases I had regarding the poor previous to my experience at the shelter. As my service-learning continued, I was able to see that the poor are essentially taken advantage of because of their lack of power.
Often in life, two entirely unrelated events can share certain characteristics that make them appear similar. Likewise, I was able to draw a connection between my time at the women’s shelter and one of the pieces of literature that we had discussed in class. Lonny Kaneko’s short story “The Shoyu Kid” does a magnificent job of portraying how people can be taken advantage of by society. Kaneko is able to use elements of literature to allude to problems that are prevalent in the real world. The story takes place in the Mindoka Relocation Center, a World War II Japanese relocation center (Kaneko 62). As the story begins, the reader learns that three young Japanese boys—the narrator, Itchy, and Jackson—are in pursuit of another Japanese child whom they call “the Kid” (Kaneko 56). During their chase, the boys become separated, and Itchy becomes the only one who is able to spy on the Kid (Kaneko 57-58). The boys’ focus changes when the community becomes obsessed with finding and killing a rat. The community rounds up the rat and forces it into a hole that goes underneath one of the barracks (Kaneko 59). Once the issue of the rat is settled, the boys find the Kid and begin to question him cruelly about what he had been doing during the day. During their interrogation, the boys learn that the Kid had engaged in sexual activity with a soldier who guards the barracks (Kaneko 61). The boys severely criticize the Kid for his behavior, threatening and almost torturing him. The story ends as Jackson and his friends stare idly at a fire in the distance (Kaneko 62).
Personally, I believe that a great comparison can be made between “The Shoyu Kid” and the lives of the homeless women I encountered at the shelter. “The Shoyu Kid” emphasizes a particular time in American History when stereotypes reigned supreme. The story reflects the remarkable prejudice that white America held against Japanese-Americans during World War II. Since these Japanese-Americans looked like the Japanese enemy that we were fighting overseas, the American government decided to place them in the same category as the enemy. Many innocent Japanese-Americans were wrongly placed in detention camps based on an irrational stereotype. Likewise, the poor and the homeless are continually trapped by the stereotypical nature of our society. I must confess that before attending First Light, I was also guilty of this prejudice. Many times, the impoverished are viewed and judged by the negative extreme of the spectrum. Since someone is poor, society commonly assumes that a particular individual is a drug addict, or an alcoholic, or mentally unstable. We also often assume that the poor are in poverty because of their own laziness. Even though American society recognizes that what it did to the Japanese-Americans in World War II was wrong, our culture cannot seem to realize that we are treating the poor with the same attitude in the present. Just as American would not acknowledge that many Japanese-Americans were not a threat to national security, American society has trouble admitting that not all poor people are despicable. These negative stereotypes lead certain groups to have merely a whisper in the conversation that makes up power in our society. Sadly, as we have learned throughout American history, individuals who lack power are vulnerable candidates, and can be easily taken advantage of by others who possess power.
Lonny Kaneko’s “The Shoyu Kid” was not the only class reading assignment that seemed to parallel my experience at First Light. When I read David Shipler’s book The Working Poor at the beginning of the semester, I had no clue that it would prepare me for the situations that I would face at First Light. Shipler’s book is composed of real stories about real families who struggle to overcome the everyday hardships that are associated with living in poverty. However, one story seemed to jump out of the page and pierce my heart. In chapter one, Shipler tells the story of Ann Brash. The text states that a divorce “plunged her and her two children into poverty and temporary homelessness” (Shipler 22). Ann later admits that her “credit [was] awful” because she “defaulted on $18,000 in student loans and [had] $12,000 in credit card debt” which forces the interest rates that she pays to skyrocket (Shipler 22). Even though Ann pays her bills every month, “she did not always get her salary in time to meet the deadline; as a result, she gradually realized, the card companies were adding late fees to her principal, then charging the exorbitant interest on that ever-growing principal” (Shipler 23). Despite the fact that Ann is currently doing all the right things, she is still being punished for her past mistakes. Shipler writes that lenders who prey on those who are most vulnerable have “become a chronic problem across the country” (23). Ann espresses her frustration with such lenders when she exclaims, “I don’t even feel like trying; I feel that hopeless. There’s no way out of taking welfare, and I don’t want to do it, I just want to pay what I owe” (qtd. in Shipler 24). Far too often, the poor are judged according to their past mistakes and failures. Though the poor might be currently doing everything the right way, their previous mistakes reign supreme. Their vulnerability forces them to be preyed on by the system that we currently live in. Even though they have less money than the rest of the population, their high interest rates force the poor to have to pay more money to borrow than someone who has adequate credit. Is this justice, or is it yet another flaw that American society has in its system? Why do we tend to take advantage of the defenseless instead of offering a helping hand?
Another story from Shipler’s book comes to mind when I reflect on my service-learning. During my last visit to the shelter, I was reminded by one of the women, Renee, that sometimes the poor cannot qualify for some of the government’s programs that are supposed to help those in poverty. For example, Renee had no income because she had to quit her job to care for her dying husband. When her husband died, she no longer received his disability check. Additionally, she did not have the young children or the medical problems to apply for most of the available federal aid. She was even too young to acquire her money from Social Security. Renee felt like there was nothing she could do about it; she was simply an unfortunate victim of the system. In his book, Shipler briefly tells the story about one mother who is “desperate to get her asthmatic child out of a harmful apartment” (230). Even though she has gotten a letter from a doctor saying she should relocate, the receptionist at the welfare department denies providing her with the emergency assistance she has qualified for. Devastated and frustrated, the woman proclaims that “she didn’t feel like the system was helping her” (Shipler 230). The reality of our system is that it is not perfect. Shipler writes that “although nobody needs government more than the poor and the nearly poor, they have little influence on its policies” (287). There are many flaws that need to be addressed, yet they are repeatedly swept under the rug because of the poor’s lack of power.
Ultimately, through my exposure to literature and the realities of my community, I was able to see a drastic change within myself as a result of the service-learning requirement of my class. Before spending time at First Light, I had a very ignorant view of the poor. I must confess that I fell into society’s trap, judging all poor people according to the negative extreme of the spectrum. Previous to attending First Light, I viewed all homeless people as lazy drug addicts and alcoholics who were simply trying to mooch off society. I felt that the women at the shelter had only themselves to blame for their current homelessness. As cruel and arrogant as it sounds now, this is really how I viewed people in poverty. Thankfully, I was able to eliminate and correct many of my personal stereotypes through my experiences at First Light.
The first woman that I was able to get to know at First Light was named Eudora. Over the course of eight weeks, I was able to learn a lot about Eudora and her life. As I came to find out, Eudora was not the appalling monster that I expected many of the homeless women to be. She was actually, in fact, a joy to be around. Although Eudora had previously been a drug addict, she enthusiastically explained how she had turned her life around and now relied on God to take care of her. She went on to tell me that God had pulled her through many tough times and that she would continue to rely on God’s omnipotent direction to guide her through the trials and troubles that she will see in the future. Week after week, Eudora continually reminded me that the gap between the middle class and the poor is not as prominent as it may seem. Even though we tend to focus on the economic disparities, the poor are human beings like everyone else in the world. As human beings, we can share a lot of common ground. For example, I was blown away to learn that Eudora had a nephew who attended the same high school that I did. Never in my wildest dreams did I think of anyone from my high school as being homeless. Now, as I look back, I see how blind I was to the reality of this world. I was only able to see the world through my own limited perspective.
The two-month span that I weekly visited the shelter taught me a great deal about not only the poor but about myself as well. My final visit to First Light offered an appropriate ending to my eight-week journey. If my time at the shelter had been an English paper, the last night was definitely a thorough concluding paragraph. During my final visit to the shelter I met Renee, whom I mentioned above. She was able to remind me about a lot of things. As I alluded to previously, Renee reminded me how government programs can sometimes leave certain individuals out of the picture. Renee went on to remind me of the constant fight that she wages against the stigma that is frequently associated with homelessness. She claimed that even though she had never done drugs, some of her own family assumed that she had become an addict because she was at a homeless shelter. Renee provided a living witness that not everyone who is homeless is an addict or an alcoholic. Through my time at the shelter and my conversation with Renee, I was able to see how shallow my previous assumptions about the poor had been. I agreed wholeheartedly with Renee when she told me that one can learn a great deal by actually immersing oneself in a particular situation. My time at First Light helped me to see the world from a different perspective that I would never have seen had I not taken the time to go to the shelter.
To conclude, though my service-learning began as a nuisance to my schedule, it ended up being an exceptionally positive experience. Through my service at First Light I was essentially able to see how “the other half” of society lives. Many of my preconceived notions about poverty were utterly shattered after I talked to the women at the shelter. For the first time in my life, I was able to learn more about the poor and comprehend what a day spent in their shoes feels like. Seeing the poor as individual people rather than an abstract concept also helped me relate better to the texts that we read in my English class. I have become aware that the poor are often taken advantage of by the society we live in. As a member of that society, I can only hope to be a progressive force and not, through ignorance, continue to promote the cycle of neglect that has engulfed the lives of those who live in poverty.
- Kaneko, Lonny. “The Shoyu Kid.” Literature and Gender: Thinking Critically
- through Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Eds, Elana Glasberg and Robyn Wiegman. New York: Longman, 1999. 56-62.
- Shipler, David. The Working Poor: Invisible in America. New York:
- Random, 2005.