My Quote From the Play:
From The Laramie Project, pgs. 65-66, by Moises Kaufman and The Members of the Tectonic Theater Project. Father Roger Schmit speaking:
“Matthew Shepard has served us well. You realize that? And I do not mean to condemn Matthew to perfection, but I cannot mention anyone who has done more for this community than Matthew Shepard.
And I’m not gonna sit here and say, ‘I was just this bold guy — no fear.’ I was scared. I was very vocal in this community when this happened — and I thought, ‘You know, should we, uh, should we call the bishop and ask him permission to do the vigil?’ And I was like, ‘Hell, no, I’m not going to do that.’ His permission doesn’t make it correct, you realize that? And I’m not knocking bishops, but what is correct is correct.
You people are just out here on a search, though. I will do this. I will trust you people that if you write a play of this, that you (pause) say it right, say it correct. I think you have a responsibility to do that.
Don’t — don’t — don’t, um (pause) don’t make matters worse…You think violence is what they did to Matthew — they did do violence to Matthew — but you know, every time that you are called a fag, or you are called a you know, a lez or whatever…
…Do you realize that is violence? That is the seed of violence. And I would resent it immensely if you are using anything I said, uh, you know, to — to somehow cultivate that kind of violence, even in its smallest form. I would resent it immensely. You need to know that.”
This quote comes from a Catholic priest and a resident of Laramie, WY. I chose this quote for several reasons. One, I feel that it does an excellent job of conveying, on a literary level, the great work the TTP did in interviewing people, getting them to bare their souls, transcribing those interviews, and organizing the most affecting ones into a coherent and powerful whole. What Father Schmit says here, and the way he says it, feels organic and authentic. He digresses and stammers. He speaks plainly, but honestly. It also is incredibly powerful, to me, to know that these sentiments are coming from a Catholic priest. Historically, Catholics have been quite conservative in their attitudes regarding sex and reproduction. Father Schmit, though, appears to care a great deal about social justice and is actually wounded that something like the murder of Matthew Shepard could occur in his community. However, he is not surprised. On the contrary, he draws a direct correlation between the casual use of epithets like “fag” and “lez” and the murder of Shepard. He says that these are ALL acts of violence, “seeds,” that he hopes he never helped “cultivate.” However, in Father Schmit’s statements is an implicit awareness that acts of violence don’t arise from nowhere. Instead, to borrow his metaphor, they are grown over time…not necessarily through outright physical violence, but through small acts of intolerance. Or, even, through a willingness to remain mute to the acts of intolerance committed against another (the reason Father Schmit chooses not wait for the bishop’s approval before holding a vigil for Shepard).
I really appreciate the inclusion of Father Schmit. I feel like his presence in the play, among others, complicates the idea that Laramie is enitrely comprised of Puritanical Christians who hate gay people. Schmit challenges that stereotype. I think his inclusion speaks well to the fairness and balance the TTP take in representing Laramie as a diverse, complex town with many different people who hold different, and sometimes conflicting, points of view… a town that nevertheless gave birth to a horrible crime against one of its own. A crime that maybe, just maybe, a greater awareness of the “seeds” of violence could have prevented.
My Reflection On the Seminar:
I was worried about teaching this play. Really. The way it has gone, I’m not entirely sure I’d teach it again. I might do it anyway (because I’m stubborn). And I think there’s things in the play that are valuable for anyone, but especially teenagers, to hear. I’d do it differently next time. Live and learn, right?
Let me back up. I knew the play could be controversial. I knew it might challenge the attitudes some of my students held. My thinking, though, was that good scholarship would help to skirt around the controversy. Really, the conversation that I hoped to have all along was, “From whence does violence arise?” Or something like that. I assumed we would talk about the attitudes of the residents of Laramie and which attitudes might have contributed to Matthew’s murder, however indirectly. I thought we would compare it to Crime and Punishment and discuss the ways in which Dostoyevsky attributes the murder of the pawnbroker to ideology and mental illness, whereas Laramie attributes it to the intolerance, or lack of awareness, around minorities in that town. I thought we’d talk about how people respond to tragedy and attempt to deal with it. I thought we’d talk about the difference between fiction and nonfiction. I thought we’d have any number of conversations.
I thought we’d start from a place of sadness, outrage, or disgust that such an act was committed against another living, breathing human being.
Instead, we have argued about why we can’t just say whatever we want without supporting it with SOMETHING and whether or not Shepard’s murder should have been considered a hate crime. And we have generalized…a LOT. I think the former has been productive, to a degree. The latter, definitely less so. After today’s seminar, though, I’m left feeling as though one of several things has been happening: ideas that the play is offering are being blocked, resisted, OR SOMETHING. Or, the ideas that the play is offering are not being understood. Or, people just haven’t read the book. If you guys still don’t “get” the play after reading it, and you’ve truly approached it with an open mind, then that one’s on me. I’ll try harder. If you didn’t read the play and you’ve just tried to gloss your way through it, then that’s on you. It would explain the generalizing and the preoccupation with arguing the very premise of the book, at least.
Some facts: Matthew Shepard was alive and then was killed. His murderers confessed and they acknowledged that what occurred had something to do with his sexuality. Part of their defense was that they “panicked” because he was gay. This is in the book. It’s taken directly from court records. This is not hack journalism or the specious assertions of somebody trying to make a quick buck. It’s public record and history. At the time many Americans became very upset that this occurred, probably in part because gay people had endured a number of things like bullying, prejudice, and violence for many, many years. Shepard ended up joining a tragic club of people who were murdered for their beliefs, their skin color, their gender, or something else about who they were on a basic level and whose death led to a public outcry. The Matthew Shepard murder became symbolic for gay people, gay rights advocates, human rights advocates, or even just people who care a great deal about how other people get treated.
I’ll go ahead and confess. I’m one of those people. I deliberately try to teach books that I think might encourage my students to have conversations about things I think are important or to consider some of their own beliefs and biases. I actually think literature and conversation are solutions to some of life’s problems. For real. It’s a large part of why I’m a teacher. I think that if, for example, we can consider why bad things happen, then we can maybe avoid having some of those bad things happen over and over again. There are other people who have thought of literature this way. So, I brought this book into my classroom thinking that we could have those conversations. Regardless of how we felt emotionally, we could at least intellectually engage with the text and consider some of the things it says to us. Then, we could talk about how we felt about those things and whether or not we agreed with them. Instead, I’ve been told by students that they skimmed the book, found only one page interesting, didn’t understand what the big deal was, or thought that his death shouldn’t be considered a hate crime (which it wasn’t, actually. It just became the basis for hate crime legislation).
As far as the actual seminar, I feel like I did a really poor job. During a true Socratic seminar, the teacher remains mostly silent, or only poses guiding questions. I really, really didn’t do that. This play affected me deeply (I teared up a couple times), though, and I think it’s a complex work that addresses real issues in the world today. I’m having a hard time being objective when my students are saying things that don’t engage the play or the ideas behind it. That, in fact, refute the value of the play. And, contrary to what some of you think, it’s not simply because I don’t like what you’re saying. It’s because, simply, some of you still refuse to talk about the ideas the play presents, how it presents them, and use the actual text to do it. I feel like we’re having a conversation over and over about what we think the play might be about and how we feel about that. Not the play itself. So, I can’t help but interject because I feel like it’s my responsibility to challenge assertions that aren’t well thought out, or offer differing perspectives. And that is a part of my job. But really, during a seminar, I should sit back and let someone else do it. I know you won’t find your voice if I do all the talking. It’s just that it really matters to me.
P.S.: Looking again at the blog posts today, I think I’m probably talking to a vocal minority with most of this. If most of what I’m saying doesn’t apply to you, then hey I’m sorry (I’m surprised you read this far. Go watch some TV. Download Breaking Bad. It’s really good). But we are a class. Therefore, we are responsible for collaborating together on each other’s continuing education (mine included). I think the best thing that could happen is for some of the thoughtful, quieter students in class to speak up and share their very well-thought-out ideas.
P.P.S.: Here are some articles WordPress suggested when it saw what I was writing about. If nothing else, by reading this play and discussing it you are entering into a larger conversation that other people are already having:
- 20 Ole Miss Football Players Heckle ‘Laramie Project’ Production, Call Students ‘Fags’ (towleroad.com)
- Today Marks 15 Years Since Matthew Shepard Was Attacked (queerty.com)
- Media Matters Tries to Torpedo Reporter’s Matthew Shepard Book (breitbart.com)
- Washington National Cathedral Dean – “Homophobia is a Sin” (kiwianglo.wordpress.com)
- New Book Claims Matthew Shepard Was A Meth Head, Murdered By His Bisexual Lover (queerty.com)