Friday, November 20, 2009

Contingency of Confidence

L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time sets the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence within the fitting backdrop of a high-octane fantasy adventure story. Meg’s ‘faults’ herself, and is faulted by others, for her emotional reactivity, but it is by the strength of her emotion that she saves the day in the end.

At Govans Elementary last week, I was taken aback by the emotional maturity of two fourth-grade girls—to maintain anonymity, I’ll call them S and D.  Caught in the crossfire of destructive, passive-aggressive emotional warfare that only girls can wage, S and D were stressed.  The teacher, Mr. Pugh, called them over to me, thinking that my senior female insight could be useful in ‘fixing’ the situation.

But in an emotional war, there’s no quick fix.  Even in the unlikely event that one side surrenders with a truly contrite apology, underlying resentment generally remains, ripening the undercurrent of hostility for the next war.

I asked the girls what the deal was and they launched into it right away, cataloguing the battle tactics of B and V, their friends-turned-enemies.  Among the offenses were the Cold War silent treatment, the snappy verbal challenges to seemingly innocuous remarks, the guerrilla-warfare-timed crude mockery, and the artful classroom-seat-stealing move (that one is deadly and highly effective, in my experience.) I did not need to tell S & D that B & V were pulling out all the stops to get a rise out of them—of this, they were well aware.  They expressed that it was so hard not to react, because at times they felt they just had to say something.  After commiserating by telling them how well I knew that feeling, I reminded them that such overt aggression on their part would ultimately just prolong the hostility. They each responded with “I know.”  I mainly audited during this exchange, sensing quickly that most, if not all, of my ‘insight’ was already known by these two extraordinarily rational ten-year-old girls.  Like Meg in WT, volatile emotional responses were self-evident.  Staying in control of them is the quandary.

Interestingly, this incident fell in a week where I had been hearing about roommate drama from a number of different friends and acquaintances—to be expected at this point in the semester.  It amazes me that we never ‘grow out’ of our need for some outlet of emotional release.  I suppose this is a credit to the immense power of the human emotional response to offenses by friends; these seem to fall under the undefined umbrella of those ‘things which are not seen’ that ‘are eternal,’ according to Aunt Beast (205).  In my experience, spilling your grievances to a third party can only get you so far.  Achieving productive control demands some degree of self-sufficiency that only confidence can provide.

Meg’s post-tesseract, post-freeze emotional outcries before her climactic moment of heroism were one of the most jarringly realistic aspects of the novel for me.  Out of control, she says things that are totally out of character, slewing spiteful vitriol at her father and Calvin intended to elicit guilt and pity from them.  L’Engle faults Meg by using the subject of her “faults” in the narrative: “All Meg’s faults were uppermost in her now, and they were no longer helping her.”  Through diction in the narrative and poignantly realistic emotive dialogue, L’Engle drives home the idea that the resources we are born with may be our recuperative strength or our most compelling hindrance, based on our minds’ capacity to cooperate with our hearts.  Without her strong mind, Meg could not have fought the final face-off with IT; without her passionate heart, she never could have won.

Mrs. Carter of Govans deserves a ‘shout-out’ here, since her advice to the girls really hit home: S & D told me that she told them they were beautiful and confident, and that nothing anyone said was going to change that.  Self-confidence may be fostered by surrounding ourselves with people we love and trust, but, like most things in life, it is not guaranteed.  L’Engle’s timeless work and the girls of Govans Elementary are testament to the contingency of confidence on our ability to mediate between mind and heart.

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