The Scarlet Letter (again)

by Mrs. Sabraw

If you have been reading my writing since 2009, then you will remember this entry.

If not, I repost it, not only because I find it entertaining to recall the world in which I operated, as deftly as a sushi chef, but also because it is still relevant.

This time of year invariably takes me back to all Septembers since 1984, when I agreed to teach honors American literature at Mission San Jose High School. The first novel in the queue was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, written in 1850.

Most of us educated in the United States read this novel, a perfect pairing with American Colonial history.

I taught capable and gifted students, a daily challenge which necessitated a particular psychology  that I call upon now to cope with all of the blather and self-consumption that blooms in Silicon Valley from say, the Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn groups.

Those of us in our 60’s and 70’s may recognize this student:

The Scarlet Letter Lecture


Good Afternoon, Jonathan. I understand that you missed my lecture about the Puritans and their relationship to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Is that right?

Yes, that is why I am here Mrs. Sabraw.

Great. Do you have your notebook and materials to take notes?

Yes, I do.

OK. To begin, the Puritans were a religious group whose beliefs originated from the teachings of a Swiss minister, John Calvin.

I know.

In England, members of the Church of England who believed that the Puritan viewpoint  was too extreme  abused them.

Yeah, I know.

Wow. You know quite a bit for someone in the 11th grade whose main focus is girls. Well, in 1642 a group of Puritans left England after its friends were tortured for their religious zeal. They had been branded with B’s for Blasphemy, had their noses slit and parts of their ears cut off. The Puritans, such as John Winthrop, were willing to risk scurvy and beriberi in the long and arduous trip to avoid such torture.

I know.

We are going to be reading Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter which tells the story of a puritan community in which the minister has an affair with a married woman and they produce Pearl, their impish odd daughter who dresses in scarlet clothing and asks pertinent questions and thinks critically.

Yeah, I know this.

Hmmm..I imagine that if Pearl were going to school here in California, she would be GATE identified; that is, she would be a mentally gifted minor, an avid reader, and terrific critical thinker who would perform at the top of her class.

I know.

But Alas, Pearl will be insecure and worried about her place in the world, not just because she is the product of her parents’ sin, but because she is so smart. Often times really smart people live with a profound sense of insecurity because (Now, Jonathan, I want you to listen really hard here) they know what they don’t know, as Socrates expressed, and that fact creates an awe about the entire life experience, a respect for all who have been and all who will come after us.

Yeah, I knew that too.

The children who teased Pearl were average human beings who felt A-OK about life because they thought they knew it all.

I know.

So, to wind up my lecture, Jonathan, the point of it all is that sometimes torture over beliefs causes people to leave their comfort zone and venture into new territory. Often, great authors decide to personalize those harrowing journeys in fiction. One such author was Hawthorne who wrote The Scarlet Letter in 1850 and created one of the strongest female characters in American literature. I just wanted you to know that I know that you know all of this material before you start the book.

I know.

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in Education, On fiction, Writing and Teaching and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to The Scarlet Letter (again)

  1. Paul Costopoulos says:

    I’m afraid that I was not reading you in 2009. Had I been, I probably would have commented thus: that boy is living what Pearl must have lived and needs help fast. But that is just the old child welfare worker pointing his ears.

    • Cheri says:

      Ha! Pearl was way ahead of Jonathan…but yes, as a child welfare worker, you might have been instrumental in changing the “know-it-all” behavior.

  2. Brig says:

    One of my favorite passages of yours was and will always be… “Often times really smart people live with a profound sense of insecurity because (Now, Jonathan, I want you to listen really hard here) they know what they don’t know, as Socrates expressed, and that fact creates an awe about the entire life experience, a respect for all who have been and all who will come after us.”

  3. Cheri says:

    Thanks, Brig. I’ve always felt “not knowing” was an asset to life. How to experience awe? How to express gratefulness for those who came before us? How to imagine the world we are leaving our grandchildren? That mystery, that unknowing, I find entirely comforting. I appreciate your long and loyal readership. And by the way, Happy Birthday!

  4. Richard says:

    I find it embarrassing to go back and read my comments on the original posting.

    Fortunately, this blog has educated me. I shall now read the book and then try to say something intelligent. I live in hope.

  5. Jim Block says:

    Hi Cheri, I cannot comment on your latest blog post because of the internet service here or the lack of it. But this is what I wanted to say to you about it. “The problem is not people being uneducated: the problem is they have been educated just enough to believe what they been taught. And not educated enough to question what they’ve been taught.” Love, Jimmie

    Sent from my iPhone


  6. shoreacres says:

    Ah, yes. Sometimes, you even can dance to it.
    Listening to the lyrics doesn’t hurt, either:

    I know what I know
    I’ll sing what I said
    We come and we go
    That’s a thing that I keep
    In the back of my head.

  7. As probably the most senior of your readers Cheri, I can say that even the things you know well become a little less important. There are always so many new and interesting things to learn. AK

  8. Linda, you have caused me to reorder Graceland and a couple other Paul Simon!

  9. bogard says:

    Hi Cheri,
    I couldn’t pass this up without an example from one of my millennial grad/professional students: Having argued with me about the functional significance of a vestigial muscle in the leg, and despite my mounds of solid, incontrovertible scientific evidence, her response to me was, “Whatever dude!” A week later I was validated by a real world example from professional sports. The know-it-all generation indeed. Just astounding. One more week and I will no longer have to endure/contest such things. Hope you and the Judge are doing well and looking forward to the Fall. Are you coming down our way? Go Cardinal!!

  10. Cheri says:

    Congratulations on a fabulous teaching career. What loss for your department, but what gain for your personal life. Please let me know when/if you are traveling down the California coast. We are not coming to the South this fall…alas…
    Your anecdote is shocking to me because it came out of the sassy mouth of a grad student!

    By the way, tell me about the functional significance of a vertigial muscle, dude.

    • bogard says:

      We have several examples of vestigial muscles (root: vestige) in the body. The one in this example is the plantaris muscle, a very small muscle behind the knee with a very long sting-like tendon that follows the calf muscle all the way to the heel bone (calcaneus) for attachment. As many as 11% of humans do not have one, so we can clearly function normally without it. The only time it is problematic is when it is injured, usually in conjunction with an injury to the gastrocnemius muscle e.g. tennis leg), but it can get injured in isolation as well. A gastroc injury is significant, a plantaris injury alone is a nuisance, but heals quickly with little or no loss of function. It’s long tendon can be harvested to be used as a graft to repair other tendons for ligaments,i.e. it can be sacrificed without any loss of function. Another example is the palmaris longus muscle in the forearm, and again a significant portion of people lack one or both of these muscles (around 15% of population). Generally, kind of like the appendix, which is another vestigial structure. So there ya go.

      • Cheri says:

        One more day, Dr. Bill. Let me be the first person from California to congratulate you on a lifetime of expertise, tremendous scholarship, and patient instruction at the university level. Since I have known you since you were a teenager, I can say with confidence that your next phase in life will be filled with your kindness and deep imagination. Maybe a book? I’ve always wanted to write and photograph a book called Shacks Across America. Of course, had I thought of this earlier, I would have a treasure trove of photos.

        I had never heard of the vestigial muscles…and hope that I have them.

        Since I have been working out, I have have discovered lots of little muscles and tendons I never knew existed.

  11. Chris says:

    Let me share the experience of a close friend and fellow educator. She was working with a first grader who was struggling with reading, exasperated, he threw up his hands and said, “Stop, Mrs. S. you’re making me more stupider!” I guess he knew what he knew and what he didn’t know. She couldn’t help but give him a huge hug.

  12. Cheri says:

    I find his comment telling, but before I weigh in, I am wondering how you interpret it.

    • Chris says:

      I’ve thought about this for a few days. Without going overboard, I think the student’s response reflects a flaw or two we have in public education. I think it’s tragic that a student of five or six(any age) thinks of himself as stupid. I doubt that in the first five years of life he ever had such a thought. Public education creates this condition by putting students in boxes where at certain early ages they must perform certain tasks such as reading, regrouping in math, sitting for an hour and writing (the list goes on and on) to be considered proficient. What we need is an educational system that is ungraded in the early years and uses the child’s interests, talents, and curiosity to create a learning environment that is challenging, rewarding, and rigorous where all students have the opportunity to learn and to succeed. If we were to create such a system, I doubt that there would be such a high need for special education, intervention and school drop-out in later years. I believe public schools often turn kids often to learning – no one wants to be someplace where they are made to feel “stupid.”
      I don’t hold school responsible for all the problems in education nor or the problems students have before they ever enter the system. I just think we could do a better job of creating the conditions for learning in the early years.

      Another thought…
      Sometimes, it safer to be a “know-it-all” than to be honest with yourself.

      • Cheri says:

        Thank you, Chris, for such a thoughtful and measured answer. So much goes into the little person who marches off to school at age five. His parents, his environment, his nutrition and his genetics. I place a great deal of emphasis on the last one. And…the same factors shed light on the person who is teaching this little guy. Most likely a woman. I look forward to more of your comments on education. After all, you have a trunk load of vast experience.

  13. Richard says:

    I was completely bowled over by The Scarlet Letter and wish I had taken up your advice before.

    It is ahead of its time in psychological and moral treatment of the issues, particularly in the equality of women and the freedoms which are their due, personified in Hester, and of the tortures and wastage of the God-given joys of life by Dimmesdale’s anguished conscience.

    I loved the likening of of Pearl to an April breeze and the treatment of the sounds of a brook to sorrows past, present and future.

    Here, too, is Hawthorne’s assessment of the popular will concerning the cruelties of a ruling, religious elite and of a sheep-like crowd:

    …..”When an uninstructed multitude attempts to see with its eyes, it is exceedingly apt to be deceived. When, however, it forms its judgment, as it usually does, on the intuitions of its great and warm heart, the conclusions thus attained are often as profound and so unerring as to possess the character of truth, supernaturally revealed. ….”

    There is so much to relish in this fine, American, work of art.

    • Richard says:

      I meant to quote this remarkable passage, prompted by Pearl’s slight change in demeanour at the election day procession, after Hester and Arthur met together in the forest:

      Children have always a sympathy in the agitations of those connected with them: always, especially, a sense of any trouble or impending revolution, of whatever kind, in domestic circumstances; and therefore Pearl, who was the gem on her mother’s unquiet bosom, betrayed by the very dance of her spirits, the emotions which none could in the marble passiveness of Hester’s brow.

  14. Richard says:

    My mother often used to repeat a warning from her father:

    Know-all …. know nothing.

  15. Cheri says:

    I am so elated that you found the novel weighty. Most scholars consider it, along with Moby Dick, the first great American novel. Seems to me it took quite a few years for the new Americans to have time to really buckle down and produce a sophisticated work. Your assessments and selected quotations are fascinating to me. Why? The book is dense– in everything literary; what readers cling to at the end of the novels reveals much about their sensibilities.

    You will love this, Richard: in order to drive home the gravity of the scaffold scene, a midday public shaming, I would invite a student to be Hester for our 55-minute class. He or she would stand at the front of the class holding about 10-15 pounds of books while the discussions and my lecture proceeded. It became painfully clear what a grueling punishment it was, especially when I also allowed catcalls and mean comments.

    Quite effective, if I do say so myself.

  16. Cheri says:

    Well, there were many students who became Hester Prynne for an hour. I am sure that at least one of them has carried the letter P for years–Picked On!

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