Crime and Punishment as Gift
“A book enters the life of an individual, a deep relation is formed, and the person changes in some significant way as a result of this engagement.”
For Christmas, knowing I am a huge Harry Potter nerd, my daughter gave me a Slytherin-themed journal that encourages me to cultivate my Slytherin qualities of ambition, cunning, and leadership on a daily basis.
In addition, every week, there is a little writing (and sometimes drawing) exercise. Recently, the writing prompt was to compose a letter of thanks to a teacher or mentor who had cultivated my Slytherin qualities.
I surprised myself with my choice. I’ve had many amazing teachers and mentors thanks to my great good fortune in pursuing higher education. But I found myself writing to Mrs. Schmidt, my high school English teacher. Without consciously thinking through it, part of me realized that the journey to becoming an English professor who loves to write was owing to Mrs. Schmidt.
I’ve lost touch with her, and my assumption is that she is no longer here on earth with us as she was nearing retirement age all those years ago. She was not everyone’s favorite teacher. She was not warm and fuzzy, and she was demanding, but, even as I found her a little intimidating, I loved her.
Mrs. Schmidt was my teacher for more than one year, but what I wrote about was my senior year of AP English. I wish I still had the reading list because I don’t remember a lot of the titles anymore. I know that the reading list was challenging and included Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a Russian novel first published in 1866.
The novel is difficult with its unfamiliar Russian names, its themes, and its writing style. It’s the story of Rodion Raskolnikov, who plots to murder a greedy pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, demonstrating an arrogance about his right to choose who lives or dies. He ends up killing her sister, Lizaveta, also when she returns unexpectedly and catches him in the act.
There is much, much more—a lot more death, misery, suffering, and Russian names.
I’m pretty sure that as a seventeen-year-old high school student I didn’t understand most of the novel. That may be true of most of what we read my senior year.
What I do remember is that I grappled with it, as I did with all of the literature we studied.
We didn’t have the Internet. Yep, I’m that old. If we wanted to avoid the assigned reading and instead rely upon plot summaries, that required work in and of itself. Unlike students today who can quickly find all the information on the book and even papers written by others, my generation had the option of purchasing Cliff Notes. That meant getting in a car, going to the bookstore, and ponying up the cash. My family was on a tight budget, so that wasn’t an option, even if I wanted it.
Instead, I read, did my best to understand, and worked closely with the not warm and fuzzy but demanding Mrs. Schmidt to get as good a handle on that nineteenth-century novel as I could.
Thank goodness she was demanding. What she was demanding was that I tap into my own potential and do my best.
I do not remember all of those Russian names, and, yes, I used Google to refresh my memory to write this. And that’s okay.
I got what I needed from Crime and Punishment and Mrs. Schmidt. I learned about arrogance, poverty, desperation, guilt, suffering, and love. I felt a connection to nineteenth-century literary characters who seemed like real people. I increased my empathy. I recognized the value of trying and of perseverance. I became more comfortable with confusion and frustration.
I became a better person.
Literature can do that. Mrs. Schmidt helped.
Photo by Kathryn Duncan