I fell in love with reading at a very young age and was so excited when I got to high school and was required to read novels for English. I loved every book assigned—except one. The Old Man and the Sea and I did not get along.
Ernest Hemingway’s Pulitzer-prize winning novella tells of an old fisherman who has gone eighty-four days without a fish. He finally catches the biggest one he’d ever seen or even heard of, only to have sharks eat it on the way home. When he gets back to his shack at the end of the story, he’s lost everything.
Teenage me was so angry when I finished the book. I hated it. To me, there was nothing more depressing than working your butt off for something only to have it taken away. I thought it was the worst ending of any novel ever and after reading a few more by Hemingway, I decided that man hated happy endings.
Which is why it’s funny that I now teach The Old Man and the Sea to my sophomores. Why in the world would I assign a book I hated when I was their age?
When I started teaching, I knew I wanted to help students fall in love with reading. I was aware that not everyone loved to read, but I wanted to change that. What I didn’t know was how many of my students would actively hate reading. Some of them actually spend way more time and effort avoiding it than they ever would just reading the dang thing. But I also wasn’t aware how many struggling readers I would have. Years ago I had a class that consisted of twenty boys and two girls. I have no idea why it turned out that way, but it did. This being Louisiana, the majority of my students was avid hunters and fishermen. The majority was also several grades below where they needed to be in reading. So I chose The Old Man and the Sea because it was short, easy to read, and accessible on several levels.
Obviously I feel it was the right choice, because I still choose to teach it every year. I love seeing my students succeed, seeing their pride at not just finishing a book, but understanding it. Who knew that the book I hated the most in high school would be the one I spent the most time with as an adult? But because I’ve spent so much time with it, and because I am no longer sixteen, I see it as a very different story indeed. It’s not depressing; it’s hopeful.
If you had told me this years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you. I read the book and saw nothing hopeful in it. That’s because as a high schooler, I didn’t want to believe that you could work hard for something and come away empty-handed.
As an adult, I know how very real that it.
The theme of the novel is “man can be destroyed but not defeated.” That is one of the most hopeful statements I’ve ever read, but it took me years to realize it. Life is hard. If you’ve lived it long enough, you know this to be true, no matter how lucky or privileged you are. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, sometimes life is just going to throw horrible things at you. You have no control over these things. You do have control over your response to them.
The old man went eighty-four days without a fish, but he went out every single day anyway, believing that today was his day. When he hooked a fish bigger than he could fight alone, he did not give up. When the sharks attacked, and he began losing his tools in the fight to save his fish, he did not give up. When he realized he was not going to bring the fish in, when he was bloody and bruised and more exhausted than he had ever been, he still did not quit.
The fact that we humans are capable of this kind of fight, this kind of determination, is the most hopeful thing of all.
It means we have the strength to keep going when faced with life’s adversities and disappointments. When we realize we will never get to be a parent. When we pour ourselves into our writing and fail to snag an agent. Or it fails to sell. Or it sells but no one reads it. Or people read it and hate it. It’s a helpful reminder when you’ve spent months training for a race only to have it storm all during said race. We can keep going, keep fighting, even when we are sick, or sorrowful, or so beaten up that we truly don’t think we can stand again.
We can’t control the world, but we can control our response to it. My response is to keep moving because I believe that even if I am destroyed, I am not defeated.
Huh. Maybe Hemingway did write a happy ending after all.