28 May 2013

What I Learned from Jay Gatsby, or I'm Too Old to Party Like it's 1922

Anyone who knows me knows I sort of love The Great Gatsby. You know, in the same way that I sort of love Doritos and sleeping in. Which is to say, obsessively love it. With wild abandon. And I am always thrilled when my students, each year, fall in love with Gatsby, Daisy, and all the rest (well...not so much Daisy... they usually hate her). But Gatsby, Gatsby I love.
 

 
And then, this year, the unthinkable happened.
 
I gave the book to one of my freshmen who wanted to read it (it's in our curriculum 10th grade year) and when he finished, I asked what he thought. His response? "I liked it... until Gatsby turned into a possessive d-bag."
 
Right through the heart.
 
I was dumbfounded, and no matter how vehemently I tried to explain to this very smart young man that he was just wrong (and why he was wrong, and how very wrong he was), he just could not understand Gatsby's actions and attitude toward Daisy. To put it in his succinct, freshman vernacular, "The guy's douche-y."
 
And then it hit me: how could a 14 year old sympathize with a 30 something year old man who is desperate to relive his past? How can a freshman in high school relate to Gatsby's undying hope that the best part of his life--the best part of himself--is not already behind him? Because, the kid's 14. What past could he want to relive? Middle school is kind to no one.
 
I read Gatsby in high school when my grandfather, a retired English teacher, gave it to me. I read it again in 11th grade Adv. American Literature. I loved it each time, but it wasn't until I had my student staring me down, insisting Gatsby was just an unreasonable jerk, that I realized that I didn't really love it until I was much older, teaching it to my students. And I've had to accept that maybe--though it pains me to say it--the biggest difference in my attitude had to do with my age.
 
Don't we as adults all understand his fascination with the green light? Don't we all connect with that dream of what could be--or in this case, what could have been? Gatsby's profound longing for that idea of himself and who he might be is something we relate to because, like Gatsby, most of us have lost it. We know that, as we grow, some things just don't work out like we planned, and we just have to move on. But how many adults out there would love to be able to recapture a lost part of themselves? To relive a moment of glory? To go back to the days where the world lay before us and everything--absolutely everything--seemed possible? We're all Gatsby, in some way.
 
And it made me realize that really, that's what growing up is. It's a gradual release of dreams in exchange for reality. An acceptance of "what is" rather than "what could be." At some point, more possibility lays behind us than in front of us. Our lives turn from chasing dreams to surviving reality. And while we may have the green light, few of us can afford (literally) to pursue it with the abandon of Jay Gatsby.
 
This is not to say growing up is sad. But, despite the many joys and discoveries that accompany getting older, growing up is--at its core--a gradual loss. Of innocence. Of dreams. Of possibility.
 
And so, his struggle resonates with me in a way that my sophomores probably can't understand. And that's okay. They love Gatsby for his youthful optimism. As an adult, I see him differently; I see a man utterly bewildered by adulthood and adults, by lost dreams and the burden of time passed. So we relate in different ways, but at least we still relate.
 
And that is the magic of that book for me--the depths of one character, one tragic man standing on a blue lawn with arms outstretched, waiting for his life to take him to new heights--and his ability to pull us all in, just as he pulls in his guests at his parties. His magical belief, however tragic, that life can be better, is noteworthy. It is, as Nick says in the early pages of the novel, "his extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again" that enthralls us. Because we all know that feeling of infinite optimism. We were all children once.
 
And so, as Fitzgerald so perfectly put it, "we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."