For my English class, I rewrote the story of Goldilocks in simple language. Partly because I don’t really know all the details and partly because I wanted it to be a little different from the version my students might have known, I took some liberties with the original tale. The idea, then, was to read the story out loud several times and then ask a handful of questions about the story. It was a listening exercise. Here’s my rewritten version of the fairy tale:
“Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks. She had a very big family. She had five sisters and seven brothers. She was the youngest child in the family. One day, she went walking through the forest. Because there were very many people at her house, nobody knew she left. She arrived at a small house in the forest and she decided to enter. Nobody was inside, but she saw three bowls of soup on the table. She was very hungry, so she went to the table and looked at the soup. She tried the biggest bowl of soup but it was very hot. So she tried the smallest bowl of soup, but it was very cold. The third bowl of soup was bigger than the cold soup, but smaller than the hot soup. She tried it, and it was perfect, so she ate all of it. After she ate, she was very tired, so she went into the bedroom. There were two beds. The first bed was the biggest and it was much more comfortable than the little bed, so she slept on the bed for twenty minutes. After twenty minutes, three bears entered the small house, a papa bear, a mama bear, and a baby bear. They wanted to eat their soup, but when they found it, the mama bear said, “Somebody ate my soup!” They looked for a stranger in the house and they found Goldilocks in the bedroom. “What are you doing?” they shouted. Goldilocks woke up and said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” She was very scared. She ran out of the house to her home. She ran for 30 minutes. The smallest bear followed her. When she got home, the bear was running behind her. Goldilocks’s siblings all screamed.”
The ending’s quite the cliffhanger, eh?. In fact, in reading it over right now, I can’t help but think to myself, “oh, there’s so gonna be a part 2!” I designed the story more or less around the types of questions I could ask about it, namely questions beginning with “how much” or “how many” and questions inquiring about superlatives (the most comfortable bed, the best soup). But I stumbled upon something interesting in class tonight as I was reading it aloud to my students for the third time. I had one of those weird metacognitive experiences – not quite out-of-body so I could see myself and all, but just out-of-brain. Like I could hear myself talking and actually think about what I was saying while simultaneously producing the fodder for thought.
Anyhow, I started thinking about my father. At first, I noted my own accent, or more specifically, my own speech patterns – the pitch of my voice, the rising and falling cadence, the “j” sound embedded within the word “bedroom.” I sound a lot like my dad. All of his sons do. But I’ve never before been reminded of him just by the sound of my own voice. As I read on, I vaguely missed him, and then I almost involuntarily focused my thoughts on the last day I saw him: the ICU room with its curtain pulled across its entrance, the beeping machinery monitoring his failing heart and keeping him alive, the nurse who eventually came into the room to shut off the multiple alarms being emitted from said machinery. I saw all sorts of details in my head.
I read on, in my dad’s voice, and I had to slow down cuz I was seriously on the verge of choking up. The social situation, of course, demanded a certain composure, which I promptly regained, disguising the fact that I had felt any pangs of grief. But in the ensuing minutes, as I wandered around the room, quizzing my students on various insignificant details of the story, I couldn’t help but notice the odd characterization of the papa bear in my version of the tale. The mama bear did the shouting; the baby bear did the chasing. In fact, for all we know, the papa bear may not have even minded Goldilocks’ being in his house. Did I create the papa bear’s personality with some sort of subconscious purposefulness? Was my choice of tale due to my own submersion in a foreign culture and my efforts to encapsulate the whole experience within my own understanding? After all, Goldilocks is certainly quick to adjust to a home that is not her own. How many other fairy tales have as strong a parallel to the experience of living abroad?
Certainly, one can delve too far in a search for meaning. I’m not gonna start analyzing the soup as a womb symbol which Goldilocks, a.k.a. me, turns to in an effort to find some connection to home in the foreign culture of the bear house, but listen to this. When I’m explaining symbolism to my high school English classes, I often cite a personal story:
I had a dream once that I was having open-heart surgery, but that when the doctors opened up my chest, they found a rectangular space the size and depth of a box of light bulbs. In fact, within that space, they found two light bulbs, positioned in that sort of spooning-each-other way typical of the normal light bulb packaging. These light bulbs were understood to be my heart. But one of them was black, and that was the problem, the reason for the surgery. I told this dream to a lunch table full of English teachers, who were talking about how infrequently they dream, or at least remember their dreams. “I dream all the time,” I said. In fact, I had a weird one last night.”
“Ooh, tell me,” one of the teachers exclaimed, “I love analyzing dreams.” I promptly shared the dream and paused for a moment for her take on it. She seemed kind of downtrodden. “Well, I know what it means, but it’s sad.” And then it hit me. In fact, it was so obvious: seeing as how my dad had died a month or so ago, the dream was clearly about my missing him. He was the black light bulb alongside the white light bulb of my mother, their contours fitting together within the space of my heart.
“So is symbolism fake? or unreal?” I ask my class of freshmen students. “No. You dream in symbols! You communicate in symbols! Words themselves are symbols!” I scribble the word “pencil” on the board and underline it with a squiggly line. “This word,” I say, pointing to the six letters, “is a symbol for this,” I tell them, holding up a pencil.
I am fascinated by words and stories. By the contours of their meanings, the layers of their intentions. How once you’ve scrutinized them to get to the heart of the matter, the heart itself can be something else entirely.