Thursday, June 24, 2010

When My Student Meets Richard Cory

(In which my storybook eyes are not enough.)


One thing I like about conversation classes is that the topics may come from anywhere and anyone can say something about it. Depending on the language proficiency of the student, a single topic can last for an hour or two, even days. In one of our classes, Judah and I talked about suicide, the reasons and effects. And because (I think) he’s dead serious about improving his writing skills, I gave a reaction paper about “Richard Cory” as his assignment.

Richard Cory
by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Though I know it wasn’t right, I expected him to criticize Richard Cory’s actions, write about how wrong his choice was. (And I thought I am not very puritan!) But after providing a brief summary of the poem, he wrote:

But I don’t think we should question Richard Cory’s decision. Why would I condemn him? I do not know his sufferings. No one knows my real sufferings, too. His pain might be too much. So I think if he killed himself, he has enough reason and right.

I didn’t mind the part where he advises people to stop caring much about others – they’re old enough. But what struck me very powerfully was his trust in a person’s decision making and his understanding of other’s pain which was (ironically) manifested by his acknowledgement of his own ignorance regarding how others suffer.

“Judah, you mean he did the right thing by killing himself to escape pain?” I probed after I handed him his essay.

He examined the purple ink on his work and sighed. Then he started and peered over the top of his notebook.

“Right thing? I don’t know,” he sighed again and put his notebook on his lap. “But for me, maybe he just thinks the pain is not tolerable anymore so he just wanted to die. People will think, ‘Oh, he’s crazy! He’s rich and all that then he did this? Crazy!’ But what do they know? It’s his life.”

Right then, after I ignored the fact that he evaded my question, I was convinced that our difference does not only lie in our religion or our language. It’s in the difference of our perspective as well. His insouciance was a perfect fa├žade for a soul sensitive to human sorrow.

To question others why they did something – left, broke someone’s heart, ended their own lives – means questioning ourselves about what we know and how much we understand beyond the surface. Besides, pain – real pain – isn’t always skin deep. It doesn’t always show in the contour of one’s face. And reasons, what are they? When are they enough? When are they valid?

Wealth. Education. Fame. Richard Cory had them all. But if he chose to end his life despite all these, then Judah must be right – his reasons shouldn’t be questioned.