I was reading the entries for our annual student essay contest this week. As I was doing so, I was struck by a notion that recalled to me something written by the late Harry Crews in the introduction to Classic Crews, a collection of some of his early work.

Harry Crews is not for the faint of heart. Since he believed one of his responsibilities was to write of the unutterable and the unendurable, I don’t recommend him to many people. If you decide to read his work, please consider yourself duly forewarned.

What came back to me in reading the student essays was a passage in which Crews recounts a lesson he learned while working as a carnival caller for what was then called the ten-in-one show. Today, we’d call it a sideshow. In those days, they called it the freak show. (I warned you.) I’ll delete the balance of Crews’s graphic language. But I’ll share this:

I had been able to rent a place to sleep from a [couple from the show] and I woke up one morning looking at both of them where they stood at the other end of the trailer in the kitchen. They stood perfectly still in the dim, yellow light, their backs to each other. I could not see their faces, but I was close enough to hear them clearly when they spoke.

“What’s for supper, darling?” he said

“Franks and beans, with a nice little salad,” she said.

And then they turned to each other under the yellow light … They kissed. Their lips brushed briefly and I heard them murmur to each other and he was gone through the door. And I, lying at the back of the trailer, was never the same again.

I have never stopped remembering that as wondrous and special as those two people were, they were only talking about and looking forward to and needing precisely what all of the rest of us talk about and look forward to and need … It was a painful and wondrous moment of self-knowledge.

As I read those contest essays, I couldn’t help realizing that as far as our students have come, as different as their backgrounds are from ours and each others’, and as wondrous and special as they are, they write about and talk about and look forward to and need precisely what all of the rest of us write about and talk about and look forward to and need.

It was a beautiful and transcendent moment of self-knowledge.

Image by Pawel86, courtesy of pixabay.com.