Sravani Sen-Das

Ever since I can remember, I have had a love affair with the movies. Nothing else makes me feel more at home than a darkening theater as the lights go down and the music rises. You have no idea where the story will take you, and you can shut out one world and get lost in another. At one moment you feel like a young boy wading into the waves of the world with Mahersala Ali in Moonlight, at another you are crying uncontrollably with Timothee Chalamet as he deals with the pangs of first love in Call Me By Your Name. I agree wholeheartedly with the legendary film critic Roger Ebert who wrote that “movies are the most powerful empathy machine” because they allow you to “live somebody else’s life for a while, walk in somebody else’s shoes, see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, live in a different time, have a different belief. The great movies enlarge us, they civilize us, they make us more decent people.” 

Though I love this description of the movies, sometimes I can’t help looking at a film and thinking, there is no way I’ll empathize with this story. This happened one summer in a little town in Maine where I was with Mr. Das and his father, who was visiting from India. The film was called The Man who Knew Infinity, and was about Srinivas Ramanujan, the Indian mathematical genius whose contributions to the field of number theory is the stuff of mathematical folklore. The more Mr. Das and his father talked about the movie, the less I wanted to see it. They were speaking in what I can only describe as a foreign tongue, peppered with alien terms like “number theory and string theory,” “partition,” “infinite series,” and “gamma function.” After giving up on gaining even a basic understanding of Ramanujan’s theories, I thought that there was little in the story about numbers and proofs that would capture my attention. As the lights dimmed and the film moved from the lush landscapes of southern India to the dreaming spires of Cambridge, I found myself gripped by the story of the relationship between Ramanujan and his mentor, the British mathematician Hardy. The two had nothing in common besides their love of numbers: Ramanujan, a devout Hindu Brahmin, was led by intuition and saw in numbers proof of the existence of God; Hardy an atheist, was led by reason and evidence, and only believed in that which can be proved. Hardy insisted on rigor and intellect and this only reinforced Ramanujan’s alienation in an institution where he felt like a second-class citizen, an institution in which his accent, clothes, habits, and food rendered him the other. In the pull and tug of their relationship, I found myself asking questions about different teaching and learning styles, about book learning versus experiential learning, about who we see as a scholar and who we don’t. In their gradual collaboration and mutual understanding, I saw what I love about the classroom—the mutuality in teaching and learning that enables a union of head and heart.

For me, the moments of mutuality have occurred when I have followed Toni Morrison’s advice and paid attention to the “characters who have disrupted my plot.” One such defining moment in my learning came when I was at the very end of a master’s program in modernist literature at the University of London. I had worked for hours on my culminating thesis proposal; I wanted to examine the Irish poet William Butler Yeats’ cyclical vision of history and his theory of gyres, and I eagerly unveiled what I thought was an inspired plan to my thesis advisor, Dr. Hampson. He waited for me to finish and said, “That’s not the history I want you to explore. I want to see you in your writing—how do you feel about reading English literature as a colonized subject, about your country being the stage which British authors have claimed for their stories, do you think you are drawn to Irish authors because of your shared history of colonization?” I remember to this day the impact of his words on me—he may as well have hit me on the head with a hammer. I couldn’t hear him because my ego made me hear his advice as criticism. I was at the beginning of a transformation; I just couldn’t see it. I came into his office with a perfect plan and left his office in a state of chaos, determined to ask for a new advisor. What did he know about my country and my history? The gall—a British professor asking me how I felt about my colonized identity! We wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place if his country hadn’t come interfering in mine. What did the history of my country have to do with my reading of literature? Apparently, a lot. In order to get back home to Surrey where we lived then, I had to travel by British rail and the London underground, and there is something about a train journey—the waiting in stations, the sliding doors, the arrivals and departures, the insistent rhythm of rail on track, the repeated reminder to “mind the gap”—that leaves you in a different place than when you started the journey, in more ways than one. Baldwin wrote, “The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” I looked back at my education in India and saw the gaps and silences in my curriculum for what they were—a study of British writers and thinkers with a few Indian writers thrown in, a legacy of our colonial history. I changed course and embarked on a study of James Joyce and found in him a mentor who helped calm the unrest in my head. In Joyce’s declaration, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to wake,” I began to understand my own experience as the only student of color in a graduate class of white students, when I experienced time and again a simultaneous process of identification and alienation as we responded to the modernist literature we studied in the class. I remember thinking, “Did no one else see the problematic representation in the novels we read? Why wasn’t speech afforded to black and brown characters even when stories were set in Africa and India?” Clearly, my teacher had noticed those unarticulated moments and was paying attention to me when I wasn’t paying attention to myself. Throughout his time as my academic advisor, he kept pointing me to critics and writers who had challenged the modernist classics we read in class, and it was his way of saying, you are not alone, other people have felt the same, read and push at the boundaries of how we define literature.

These startling moments that knock you off your feet continue well beyond your days as a student. Though I have taught Hamlet countless times over, each time feels like the first time with a new class. A few years ago, I was excited to teach one of my favorite scenes in Hamlet: Act 3, Scene 1, often referred to as “the nunnery scene.” The scene sees Hamlet at his best and his worst, and familiar as it is, I am always excited to read it every year with a new class. On this particular afternoon, I was pleasantly surprised that the class seemed to be as much into the scene as I was; and, intent on taking the lesson to the finish for which I was meticulously prepared, I was hyper focused on the text. At some point, it dawned on me that the class seemed to have divided itself into two distinct groups—boys versus girls—and that the conversation was heated. Just as I was feeling pretty pleased with myself about a lesson well taught, I realized that some students were in tears while others looked like they wished the ground would open and swallow them whole. Shakespeare was a master storyteller but even so, could a man of his genius move a class of Fifth Formers to tears on a late Friday afternoon? It took me some time to calm everyone down and figure out what was going on: the class was definitely talking about a bad breakup involving hurtful language—except their story didn’t involve Hamlet and Ophelia! I learnt that day that there is no knowing where a good story will take you, never mind one written four hundred years ago and set in another country.

I wonder if Shakespeare could have dared imagine that, centuries after he wrote Hamlet, his words would lead a group of seventeen-year-olds across the ocean to draw parallels with their lives and his fictional characters’? It is Shakespeare’s ability to communicate the human experience in its entirety that led Virginia Woolf to lay the laurel wreath on Shakespeare’s head. She said that Shakespeare is timeless because of his ability to transcend gender divisions and write from the perspective of both male and female. Virginia Woolf, a writer who knew what it felt like to be excluded from writing and education because of her gender, and who, as a result, was far ahead of her time in her understanding of it, said, “In each of us two powers preside, one male, one female … The androgynous mind is resonant and porous … naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.” She credited Shakespeare as being one of the rare writers whose genius was a result of possessing a mind that could be described as a “man-womanly mind” or “an androgynous one.” Was Shakespeare born with an androgynous mind? Or is the mind developed by the stories we listen to, to the “empathy machines” we pay attention to?

The events of this past summer have taught us the importance of listening—of making attention a form of ethics. If we are trying to find meaning in the pandemic, in why the world came to a grinding halt, surely the answer is that it forced us to stop our mindless busyness and productivity and pay attention where attention is due, to put racial injustice and Black Lives Matter at the top of our consciousness. In some measure, to make sense of the chaos and feeling of helplessness we experienced over the summer, a number of faculty came together and spent the summer listening to voices both outside and inside Groton. The stories in Black@Groton told us that not everyone feels the embrace of our community, and our alums reminded us that we needed to bring multiple perspectives into our curriculum. We divided ourselves into two groups and collaborated on curriculum both within our classrooms and in our residential life program. We asked ourselves some fundamental questions: how do we decide where we belong and whether we belong? What helps belonging? What hinders it? How do we build trust in our classrooms and enable courageous conversations?
Walker and Grace started the year speaking powerfully about missing the community that sustained them when we were forced apart by the pandemic last spring. I echo their sentiment that community is the best of Groton, and add that because it is so, we need to be vigilant that we nurture it and be prepared to mend it when there is a rip in its fabric. The German-American political philosopher Hannah Arendt, who fled Hitler’s Germany and immigrated to America, wrote in her seminal essay collection, Men in Dark Times, “The world is not humane just because it is made by human beings, and it does not become humane just because the human voice sounds in it, but only when it has become the object of discourse. However much we are affected by the things of the world, however deeply they may stir and stimulate us, they become human for us only when we can discuss them with our fellows … We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.”

In our first community gathering of the year a couple of weeks ago, a student in my dorm reminded us that we need to come to these conversations with some awareness of the world; she asked that we not lay the burden of explaining race on the shoulders of our students of color. In speaking up so courageously, she is echoing what Arendt and her ilk have said about the art of listening: that in order for true understanding to happen, we need to come to the conversation with presence, with an understanding of how power plays out in human relationships, with the willingness to be vulnerable and to compromise; in short, with an awareness of our blind spots and biases. Now, I know terms such as implicit bias and blind spots tend to invoke strong reactions in some, but we are not brushing against these ideas for the first time. Writers and thinkers since time immemorial have warned against the dangers of the unexamined life. What is new is that the social sciences have given us terms and definitions for these age-old truths. Our education and socialization make us highly attuned to some narratives and blind to others. This doesn’t make us good or bad; it makes us imperfect. 

I spoke earlier about Virginia Woolf, a writer I greatly admire because she changed the course of history in her tireless fight for the inclusion of women in education. One day, Woolf was asked by her close friend, the modernist poet T.S. Eliot, to read a newly published novel by an up-and-coming writer, who Eliot thought had merit. Woolf’s response to the writer was scathing and damning. She dismissed the young writer’s novel as the work of an “unbred … self-taught working man … egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating.” Well, the writer in question was James Joyce and the novel was Ulysses, a novel now considered to be one of the most important works of modernist literature. When I first heard this story, I tried to drum up excuses for Woolf—she was in the midst of writing a short story that would turn into Mrs. Dalloway, she didn’t like interruptions, she was feeling worn down by her fight for equality and was distracted—but my excuses ran hollow. In her choice of language—“unbred”, “self-taught working man”—she showed the limits of her tolerance; she was guilty of the same class bias that led many in the math establishment at Cambridge to dismiss the unschooled Ramanujan’s work. Ironically, T.S. Eliot, Boston Brahmin, the quintessential Prufrock, who described himself as “a classicist in literature and a royalist in politics,” was able to look past their surface differences and recognize that Joyce and he—and Woolf—were all fighting for the same end: the need for literature to change. This anecdote doesn’t make Woolf any less a pioneer or her ideas any less important; it proves, as the writer Zadie Smith puts it, “there is no perfectibility in human affairs.”

As I heard Zoe talk about hope and Mr. Gnozzio talk about the optimism inherent in the Declaration of Independence, I thought of the genesis of Groton and other schools like ours with hundreds of years of history, built at another age and time, whose architecture and art make some feel at home, and others feel like strangers in a foreign land. Endicott Peabody founded Groton in 1884 as “a school where boys and men could live together, work together, and play together in friendly fashion with friction rare.” His vision for the school reflected the needs of his age and his time, but by saying who Groton was, he didn’t say who it could or couldn’t be. In his time, the “who” was limited to a small swath of society, and in our time, it’s so much more. Peabody built a solid floor—and he made sure he didn’t leave us with a ceiling. And by doing so, he enabled those who’d follow to “choose the tone” and “invent the language,” as Mr. Maqubela is doing now with his clarion call for inclusion; as many have done before us as they moved through our corridors and through our gates; as each one of us, adults and students alike, continue to do by claiming our place on the floor and turning our stories into art.