“She had wandered, without rule or guidance, into a moral wilderness… Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods… The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers—stern and wild ones—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.”
– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
When I was in 5th grade, my Mom received a letter from the school that detailed my need to attend the “puberty” class. This class was split between boys and girls; the male topics were all about hair growth, deodorant usage, and unexpected erections. I only know of these subjects from second-hand sources – I actually bailed due to feigned illness. I didn’t want to go because it seemed unbearably awkward and I guess my Mom let me skip to preserve my childhood for as long as possible. Flash forward to high school. Most of my sex education came from friends and the wrestling coach – Mr. Bittenbender. Mr. Bittenbender was one of those “five-decade” teachers who got a job post-WWII and refused to retire; his tenure was so long that he actually had my Dad as a student.
Well, Mr. Bittenbender taught health and prescribed to the 1950’s style of teaching – short, simple, and outdated. Sex ed to him was showing a chart of the female and male body while simultaneously yelling about STDs and Communism. There was no talk about condoms, birth control, or even intercourse; just a poster of a wiener and vagina with an old guy touting the virtues of forced sterilization. As if the Administration knew the flaw in this pedagogic method, they enforced a second layer of sex ed through English class. This sex ed was the most dirtbag of them all – The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The Scarlett Letter is a great classic but why did every single high school student have to read it? Why didn’t we read Moby Dick or A Tale of Two Cities? Why was The Scarlett Letter the absolute must read? One answer. Sex. The Scarlett Letter follows the story of Hester Prynne who is convicted of adultery and forced to wear the letter “A” on her bosom for the rest of her life. It is a tale of Puritan hypocrisy and the ability for a person to be both condemned and redeemed from their past. The book actually details how Hester rises above her label to become a revered member of society and a person sought out for wisdom. The character – who is arguably most tormented – is not the accused adulterous but rather the adulterous Pastor who keeps his secret and eventually dies from guilt.
The problem though with this profound message is that it sails over the heads of high schoolers. Nathaniel Hawthorne writes with such obscure syntax that most of his sentences drive even the most ardent teenagers to Spark Notes. Instead of reading the complicated story, students usually only get through the first part where Hester feels like crap because of her adultery. What point gets most hammered into the heads of teenagers? Sex is dangerous. Sex can destroy your life. Sex can be a devastating label. And hence this is the dirt bag sex ed which most of us had to endure. I can’t imagine a young girl going from first-hour Health to second-hour English and not feeling overwhelmed to the point of joining a monastery. Of course, sex is complicated and shouldn’t be taken lightly…but neither of these approaches did much to steer me in the right direction. I laugh now, but I wonder if a Bittenbender clone will be teaching the same stuff to my children? Will The Scarlett Letter still be used to fill holes in the curriculum?
Let’s flashback to your high school years when pimples were regularly popped and homework assignments were regularly turned in late. Everyone took an English class and I bet in that English class some sort of Greek Mythology was studied. I remember reading Greek poems in those huge textbooks and being assigned questions that went something like this, “Who are the main characters?…What did the God Apollo represent?…Why is this particular passage so boring?” I dreaded these questions and usually wrote BS answers with lists of adjectives to satisfy the teacher, “Apollo represents endurance, stamina, longevity, and perseverance.”
Fast forward to today and I am reading one of the most celebrated pieces of Greek Mythology of all time – the Iliad by Homer. The Iliad is a poem that doesn’t rhyme and takes up over 550 pages of text – it is the furthest thing from Dr. Seuss or a Haiku. I cringed when I saw that I had to read this classic and I really only had one happy memory from when I read similar poems in the past – recalling a sexy illustration of Aphrodite with a healthy amount of nakedness. This time around there were no juicy pictures but I did finally grasp the importance of this 2700-year-old text.
The Iliad is set in the 10th year of the war between the Greeks and the Trojans – Achilles is the great fighter for the Greeks and Hector is the great fighter for the Trojans. The gods – Zeus, Hera, Hermes, Apollo, Aphrodite, Athena, Ares, Poseidon, etc. – choose sides and constantly interfere with the happenings of the mortals. The main point of the plot is the journey of Achilles in his search for glory and his eventual victory over Hector – which is necessary for the final destruction of Troy.
Achilles is really a jerk throughout the book; similar to a big man-child who is mad about not getting his way – refusing to fight with his fellow soldiers because of pride. There are many symbolic points to this poem but the most pronounced involve the role of “rage;” rage controls the mortals and immortals – sometimes facilitating and sometimes handicapping. Achilles more than anyone wields rage like one of those dancing air guys at a car dealership – you never know which direction he’ll swing next. In the end, he loses his best friend, Patroclus, to Hector’s spear because of his rage – and subsequently wields its force to destroy Troy.
The question is, does rage hurt or hinder the greatest fighter? He looses Patroclus but gains all the glory for bringing down the great Troy. I think rage in our own lives, just like Achilles, is a force to be weary of. I know I have raged in the pursuit of being “right” to gain glory; that glory is important at the moment but what do we sacrifice – relationships, friendships, precious time? Pride, glory, and respect are a three-headed god which feeds on our selfish desires. Sure Achilles is remembered…but his rage and selfishness taint our view of his victories – his ultimate glory permanently smeared.
Theodore Roosevelt is by far my favorite president. He lived an extraordinary life that in many ways transformed the world we live in today. Do you like National Parks? Thank Teddy. Do you like Wall Street regulations? Thank Teddy. Do you like food that is safe to eat? Thank Teddy. Do you like Teddy Bears? Thank Teddy. His accomplishments while in office were extensive and to completely understand his political mastery you should read Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris. I honestly did not know much about Teddy’s political accomplishments before reading this book. In high school, we were taught that he carried a big stick and was a imperialistic bully. That caricature is quite inaccurate and not even close to his level-headed-fair demeanor in domestic and foreign affairs.
William McKinley was assassinated in September 1901 which transferred the head office to Vice President Roosevelt. The funny thing was, none of the big business men wanted Roosevelt to be president and that is why he was given the worthless position of Vice President. They were afraid that he couldn’t be bought and that their extensive monopolies would be attacked. Roosevelt was not anti-industry but rather respected the need to give laborers more rights to maintain social order and the need to prevent monopolies from controlling prices. During his two terms, Teddy negotiated the end of a major coal strike, brought 40 anti-trust suits to court, broke up the biggest monopoly in the world-Standard Oil, negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese War, won the biggest popular vote landslide in 1904, established 5 national parks, purchased the land for the Panama Canal, proclaimed 18 national monuments, protected 150 National Forests, pushed Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act, hosted the first black man for dinner in the White House, defended the Monroe Doctrine in Venezuala, and won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was able to accomplish all these things because he knew how work the media and befriend almost anyone he met. The “big stick bully” is not how he carried himself; when it came to decision making he took his time and always thought about every outcome with the highest degree of civility.
I really admire Teddy not only for his political accomplishments but his life outside the office. He was immune to discomfort and would be outdoors whenever possible-regardless of the conditions. Nature was his first love and he traveled throughout the US during his two terms hunting, camping, exploring, and vigorously exercising. Along with his love of the outdoors, he was an avid reader who could sit for hours immersed in books of all subjects. He could out smart, out hike, and out eat almost any man he encountered. Teddy’s life is an inspiration for my own life and sadly I am no where close to his manliness levels. I watch a lot of TV, I don’t like to go out in the rain, I need a noise-maker to sleep, I waste time online, and I hike with a walking stick to fend off small dogs. I strive to be more adventurous, more erudite, and more compromising like Teddy and I know it will take me a lifetime. My biggest obstacle to being more like my favorite president is TV; my goal is to watch less so that I can read more and spend more time outdoors. Small steps must be taken to stand on the great shoulders of Theodore Roosevelt.
In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.