If You Can’t Fix It.. You’ve Gotta Stand It.

I’m teaching Brokeback Mountain (the story, not the film) to my literature students as part of our thematic look at love.

When I gave the students the story, I offered them the option of not reading it.  For as outspoken an advocate as I am, I’m not willing to force my views on anyone, and I recognized that the story might be difficult for some people to read.  Two students took me up on my offer and asked me to assign them something else, which I did, all the while gently encouraging them to read the story anyway.

Tonight, just after class, one of the two who’d requested a different story (one was male, the other was female) came to me and told me that she’d changed her mind.  She was going to try, she said, to get through the story, even though she had a hard time getting past the sex.  She told me that she was raised to think a certain way, and that way did not make any room for the idea of homosexuality.

This led to a long and interesting conversation about what the story is really about.  “Look,” I told her, “I’m not telling you that your views are wrong; you’re as entitled to your opinions as I am to mine, and I respect that.  I AM saying, though, that we should only keep opinions as long as we find them to hold true, even and especially after letting them be good and challenged.”  I told her that the story isn’t about sex; it’s a gorgeous, heartbreaking love story, and a story about fear and self-loathing and society and relationships and coming to terms with one’s choices made with a closed heart.

When we left tonight, she promised me that she was going to read the story.  She’d decided that she’d been closed-minded long enough, and that even if it made her uncomfortable, she was going to get through it.  She may not become an activist, but the fact that she’s willing to pry loose some of her long-held assumptions is a huge deal.  I think the world just became a better place, and I feel honored and privileged to have played a small part in that.



Filed under compassion and cooperation, ethics, Gay/Straight Alliance, great writing, Learning, Literature, out in the real world, Questions, reading, self-analysis, student chutzpah, success!, Teaching, the good ones

13 responses to “If You Can’t Fix It.. You’ve Gotta Stand It.

  1. That is absolutely beautiful. Congratulations! 😀

    Out of curiousity, what alternate assignment did you offer?

  2. Clix, I had them read Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” and a bunch of poems. I was trying to get them to see the theme of love in literature as a complex and complicated thing, not all roses and swooning.

  3. I think that’s what so many people are missing — it’s about the love and not the sex — and I’m glad you were able to point that out to her. I know you are an excellent teacher and your students are getting so much out of this class.

  4. Whether or not she manages to read the whole thing, you’ve already seeded an important lesson: that all the convictions in the world are moot if you can’t hold them up in the face of contradictory arguments.

  5. I wonder what initially made her decide she’d give it a try. What a huge and wonderful leap. To my great disappointment I still haven’t read the short story, is there a lot of sex in it? I assumed there wasn’t room for much that it would be clear that it was a hard core love story. And such a beautiful one at that.

  6. Val

    What a beautiful story! That is so powerful 🙂

  7. jrh

    How cool is that! Congrats!

  8. Well done, Mrs. Chili. You should be proud of your student and yourself!

  9. I think that YOU are the reason she changed her mind. You have such a knack for encouraging people to grow….

    Big congrats on this one, my friend.

  10. That is great! It is about relationships — not always about just sex.

  11. Donald Foster

    I teach a Film Appreciation class at the Community College where I teach. One assignment has students read the original short stories on which the films Brokeback Mountain and The Shawshank Redemption are based. (Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King, respectively). We then watch the two films, and actually discuss not only the page to cinema process, but also how wildly similar the two works are even as their core differences are quite opposite. Over Spring Break I encouraged my students (all adults, mind you) to begin reading the original source materials. I was incredibly troubled by this email I received this morning: “Mr. Foster, I have finished reading Brokeback Mountain, and I did not like it at all. I found it controversial and very offensive.” I, of course, sat there with a blinking cursor and a blank “reply” box not knowing what to type. I have been using this assignment since 2006 and have never experienced such a blanket statement. Any advice on how to proceed? The above comments, by the way, were extraordinarily helpful, and bravo to Mrs. Chili. I’m curious, Mrs. Chili, what level are you teaching?

  12. For starters, Donald, I teach in a community college on all levels, as well as in a four-year university where I teach freshman composition. The class I was writing about in this post was mostly comprised of “upperclassmen” as defined in the community college setting; mostly second-year students.

    EVERY SINGLE TIME I teach Brokeback Mountain, I get SOMEONE who finds it offensive. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. It is true that I’ve never made it through that part of the unit without encountering SOME resistance, and it often comes from the neighborhood of closed-minded, “that’s gross, why do we have to read this,” and most often religion is used as the excuse for the reluctance.

    The FIRST thing I do when I get that reaction from a student is to ask them what, specifically, they find so objectionable. I don’t allow them to go off on the “my religion doesn’t condone, blah, blah, blah” nonsense; we’re not in church, we’re in school. I’m not here to preach a gospel, I’m here to get you to think for yourself and, perhaps more importantly, to think about things that are far outside of your own experiences. I have NO problem with students disagreeing with my assessment of a work – I don’t even mind if they “hated” it – but they HAVE to engage with it. In fact, I find that most of the really fruitful discussions I’ve had with students have come from places where they were either profoundly uncomfortable or stubbornly recalcitrant.

    Were I to respond to this student, I’d start by asking what she thought the story was REALLY about. Tell me about broad themes; what are the big ideas of the story? Who changes over the course of the narrative? What can WE – not-cowboy, not-gay students/readers/thinkers – take away from the experiences of the characters in the novel?

    I would then ask the student to really THINK about what it is that disturbed her so. I might intimate that *I* am disturbed by the story, too, and that’s why I keep coming back to it. It’s NOT a neat story with a happy ending; it’s complicated, it frustrates our notion of what a narrative should do, and it leaves us with FAR more questions than it answers. I DON’T LIKE Ennis; I find him infuriatingly block-headed and dim. EVERY TIME I read this story, I want to reach into the pages and grab the man by the throat and tell him to stop for just a second and THINK about his choices. He’s all too willing to allow others to define him; he lives his life in reaction to fear (whether that fear is justified or not), and his pathology is apparent to everyone but him. Is THAT what’s making your student uncomfortable, or is it the “gun goin’ off”? Don’t settle for easy answers here, Donald; push that kid into thinking beyond the knee-jerk dismissal of the “other.”

    Come back and let me know how this plays itself out. THIS is why I blog; we have so much to share with each other!

  13. Zoe


    I’m a 20-year-old student from middle east and I study English. I just wanted to share my experience with this story.

    At first I saw the movie and at the end I said to my brother who’s a big fan of literature and movies : “It was a stupid movie, don’t watch it”.
    I only said that because I’m a girl and I just couldn’t understand why Ennis and Jack treated each other that way; I mean if it’s a love story why do they act so weird and they don’t even talk that much…

    But then I realized I think that way because I hadn’t consider they were both men and hadn’t yet cared what kind of personality Ennis has.
    Right after that I realized it was based on a short story; so I read it and understood much more from the story because it actually gave me some idea of what’s going on inside Ennis’s head!

    Then I watched the movie again and I loved it with all my heart. I cried so hard for Ennis for being so miserable and so sad. I felt pity for him for being silent, yet burn with all the confusion, all the desperation inside of him. I have met men like that in real life; so I know what’s going on in their hearts!

    If you know any other stories of that kind, please let me know. I’m really really interested!


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