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October 23, 2009

Erik Raschke: Clothe The Naked

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Erik Raschke is the author of numerous short stories, as well as the debut novel, THE BOOK OF SAMUEL --- a coming-of-age tale about a boy's struggles with family, love, faith, and changing surroundings. Aside from penning fiction, he also teaches it to high school students, who serve as the inspiration behind today's guest blog. Below, he discusses the personal significance of a Dorothy Parker short story to both himself as well as two very disparate groups of his students, and reflects on just how powerful the art of telling a story can be.


On the two separate occasions that I read “Clothe the Naked” by Dorothy Parker to my high school classes, it rained. For me, rain has always whispered, “read,” gently encouraging me to engage with a slower, more thoughtful world, a world that is rarely brought fully and satisfyingly to life in a sterile classroom. But sometimes, a good story or just perhaps the right story, at the right time, can flutter around a classroom, connecting each and every student’s brain via an electric current, as if the entire class has suddenly and simultaneously clambered onto Tesla plasma lamp.

The first time I read "Clothe the Naked" was to my students who were from one of the poorest parts of New York City, and the second time was to my students at a private school in one of the wealthiest parts of Holland. But on both days, I could sense almost every student transcend my nasal, almost whiney voice and grab hold to Dorothy Parker’s magnificently constructed sentences, not because they admired the foreshadowing, metaphor, point of view, blah, blah, blah, but because they were lost in the sounds, the character’s emotions, the ignorant bliss of a mute child. With every paragraph, they were drawn deeper and deeper into the narrative until I, the reader, was the farthest from their minds.

As I paced the room, reading the story with as much passion as a teacher and a non-actor can, I remember looking out over my class and discovering that many students had simply pushed the copied pages to the edge of their desk and lowered their heads. Others stared at me as if I were telling them something deeply personal. And the rest, who followed along with me, word-for-word, while I read, didn’t look up until long after I had finished the last sentence.

When I think of “Clothe the Naked” and how a story composed by a white female writer, about a blind African-American boy, brought two very distinct groups of students, Dutch and Dominican, into a awkwardly real world of ignorance and cruelty, but yet, in the end, gently delivered us all into meditative contemplation, I think, “this is why I teach fiction.” To do what Dorothy Parker does: telling a story that reaches across all groups and speaks to us intimately, pulling something grand and magnanimous from each of our souls, something we always suspected was there, but had struggled to articulate. To create the kind of story that needles us all, individually, to make certain changes in our own lives and warns us of the consequences if we don’t. To write the kind of story that has the ability to pacify thirty boys and girls, all preoccupied with love and conflicts with friends, family, and teachers (or in the case of my Dominican students, drive-by shootings, drugs, gangs, eviction) and quietly bring us face-to-face with issues connected to the core of our collective humanity.

After ten years of teaching, I have held on to one conviction, and that is there are certain stories that should be enjoyed, relished, savored, and left unmolested by us teachers. At least once a month, I read a single short story (or a chapter), one that is no longer than half-hour to forty-five minutes. I promise my students I will not ask any “discussion questions” afterward as long as they promise to listen quietly. Some of the stories work. Many of my favorite, unfortunately, don’t. But in the case of Dorothy Parker’s “Clothe the Naked,” we were all on the same page.

Click here to read Dorothy Parker's "Clothe the Naked."


-- Erik Raschke