This being the first blog since I’ve started volunteering at Govan’s Elementary, it might be appropriate to write a few first words about the kids and how my first day might relate to themes in Chaucer. While my first day didn’t consist of working with the kids, and instead sitting in the back folding “decodables” (small reading booklets created by ripping several perforated pages out of a larger booklet, then folding and stapling them together), I was still able to pay attention to the manner in which the teacher interacted with the students and the way the kids behaved and interacted with each other. Two things in particular I found to be especially relevant to Chaucer in what I noticed on that first day. The first was a pretty obvious and certainly universal practice between first graders of beginning to recognize the differences between genders and start having notions about what it means to be “male” and “female.” Certainly at this point the kids have no definite conceptions of societal gender norms, but are still being influenced and impressed upon by their parents, the media, and what they do in school. At this point, what this accounts to is mostly just a general divide between the girls and boys: the children stick to those who are most similar to them and are interested in the same things. This is a generalization of course and the kids have no problem playing with the other gender, but the preference of playing with their own gender exists.
The other thing I noticed was more specific to the teacher I was working with and certainly doesn’t apply to every elementary school teacher, although I’m sure there are others with the same traits. The way he interacted with the students, however, was almost with a cynical sarcasm, a sense of humor that if he were working with high school students, would probably categorize him as one of the “cool” teachers, a funny and ironic teacher that subtly pokes fun at the students in a friendly way. As the children he is working with are all first graders, most of his humor goes right over their heads, but there seem to be one or two exceptionally bright students who catch on, who will laugh at a joke that he is making mostly just for himself, probably to keep himself sane amidst a class of hyperactive and untreated attention deficit kids.
Why this relates to Chaucer, and to the other books we have been reading for that matter, is the way in which humor is used often as a method of talking about serious issues, or satirizing people or institutions in order to achieve some other goal. In Chaucer, nothing is safe as his characters are drunken, sexual, crude targets of Chaucer’s wit and their social classes and the institutions they represent are torn apart for the corruption and hypocrisy within. Of course, this satire may not be obvious to everyone: the miller’s tale, for example, is a crowd pleaser filled with sex, bum kissing and farting that many will find funny simply for the sex, bum kissing, and farting and not because it is a part of a larger critique of the social classes of medieval England. Just like Huckleberry Finn, The Canterbury Tales will mean something different to different people who read it. Is this wrong or ineffective if people take a piece of fiction as something other than what it was intended to be? Certainly for people who “get it” a piece of satire is brilliant and important, but when something is taken the wrong way, it can have disastrous results. Misinterpretations of the written word have often led to unnecessary conflict (many times the misinterpretations of holy works), radicalism, and “idolization” of characters that aren’t meant to be taken at face value. Whether or not these are side effects of the works or are just an outlet for ideals already in place is up to debate.
How the gender roles the kids are developing relate to Chaucer is directly related to this sense of satire that Chaucer writes his tale with. Certainly there are many sexual stereotypes and gender roles throughout the work, but any educated reader will understand Chaucer’s greater purpose and the irony in which he writes about women treated as sexual objects and men who are only interested in women in lusty manners. However, someone who doesn’t understand this irony only sees the outer crust, the story as entertainment rather than social commentary, and the impressions the story makes on them will be completely different. This is simply an example of the question I asked earlier: where should the line of misinterpretation be too dangerous to let people cross? People are extremely impressionable, especially young people, so this seems an honest question.