The very first novel I taught in my very first classroom was A Separate Peace by John Knowles.
What a mistake.
I was ill-equipped to teach the novel. I had no concrete direction in which to navigate the perfectly crafted prose. The events of the novel closely align themselves with the events of World War II, weaving its way to the painfully poignant conclusion that encapsulates exactly what Knowles intended to depict about the ugly, inevitable truth of war and life; specifically through the battleground of adolescence.
Instead, I fought back sophomoric giggles with my freshman as they insisted the friendship between the two was more romantic in nature. I’m still not sure why the students thought the relationship was funny–especially given how progressive each was. I believe my laughter came from fear of being discovered as a fraud; I giggled along so that my very smart students wouldn’t smell that fear and attack. It didn’t work. My students were far too smart.
In hindsight, I should have given more time to the ending of the book, instead of waving my own white flag in defeat. Especially given the ending; that self-evident ending in which Gene reveals the heart and purpose of the novel.
“I never killed anybody and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there.”
I’m sure my students wondered exactly who the enemy was, given they’d just read 200 pages painstakingly detailing the events before and after a regrettable, split-second decision. In a fit of jealousy, Gene jiggles a branch to send his best friend plunging from a large tree. The fall breaks Finny’s legs; he heals, but eventually he breaks his leg again, undergoes an operation, and dies on the operating table.
Presumably, the enemy to which Gene is referring to is Finny.
But I don’t think so.
I think Gene killed the enemy of his own jealousy, impulse, and anger. I think Finny showed Gene how to be a man of character, through innocently believing that everyone was a friend, and friends will go to war for each other; even if it means losing their own lives. I like to think that Finny knew that with his passing, he would be able to inspire Gene to dedicate the rest of his life to becoming much more like Finny: compassionate, collected, and giving.
I first read the news of Stuart Scott’s passing yesterday on social media, and nearly all sharers posted this with their farewells:
“You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and the manner in which you live.”
Before Stuart Scott passed away yesterday, he had already defeated his debilitating disease. There are not many people who would move their co-workers to tears on national television like this:
There is no way to watch either one of these videos and consummate professionals without getting a little choked up. It became clear that Stuart Scott lived for his bride-to-be and two beautiful daughters. The media coverage and moving tributes of this great man made it clear that he lived in a respectable, inspirational manner.
Like Gene, long before Stuart passed away, he’d never really developed a “hatred for the enemy.” Cancer did not become his life. It was simply an enemy; one that he would defeat simply by forbidding it to rule his life. Instead, he focused on his love for his family, friends, and co-workers. He was on active duty against this enemy, and yet, he had already killed that enemy before the war began.
I think Hannah Storm said it best, “the world lost Stuart,” just as Gene had lost Finny. And yet, just as Finny knew his passing would inspire Gene, I think we too, must be inspired by Stuart, a man who lived admirably, bravely, and victoriously.
My hope for all of us is to find out what our “enemy” is, confront it, and conquer it before it conquers us. My prayer for Stuart Scott’s loved ones is that they continue the legacy of this great man. My prayer for Stuart is that he’s found peace, separate from the body that was so broken. Pun intended.