Ode to Gatsby

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”

That’s Nick Carraway in the first sentence of The Great Gatsby. Last spring break I lounged on the beach with a beverage in one hand and Gatsby in the other. “All the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had,” I read. People judge, I thought. Nick refrains because his father said so, or he tries. I remember my mother trying, too. She would stop herself mid-criticism and say, “I’m not going to say that. It wasn’t very nice.” And Philippians 4:8 comes to mind about thinking on excellent, praiseworthy things.

Sands to Remember

Speaking of excellence and praise, what about this one for its sheer lyricism? “It was dawn now on Long Island and we went about opening the rest of the windows downstairs, filling the house with grey turning, gold turning light. The shadow of a tree fell abruptly across the dew and ghostly birds began to sing among the blue leaves. There was a slow pleasant movement in the air, scarcely a wind, promising a cool lovely day.” I want to write like that—grey turning, gold turning light. How poetic! Fitzgerald makes writing seem effortless. Writers know better.

That March day, I soaked up the Florida sun, snapped a few photos, and tapped a few phrases into my phone. In three sentences, I attempted to be Fitzgerald. It was spring break now on the Emerald Coast and we went about lounging on Crystal Beach, filling the day with a wave of sparkling sunlight, turning glittering foam. Tides of translucent sea rolled rhythmically on the sand and the gulls floated on wings and Sunday prayers. There was a peaceful simple luxury in the pause, scarcely a word, promising more of the same.

Destin, FL, USA

Back in the classroom, I picked another passage for my students to try, one I’ve used before. “That’s my middle-west—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”

Thomas Miller was one of my juniors in AP Language and Composition last year. His mother is Vietnamese, and his given name is Thien. He was a funny kid, tardy almost every day, but he knew I had a soft spot for him. Kids like Thomas inspire me, and he graduated last week. In response to the Gatsby passage, he wrote, “That’s my Vietnam—not the jungles or the fields or the cramped southern cities but the soothingly tranquil rains of my youth and the cold dawns and quiet afternoons in the murky light and the gathering of family members drawn by enticing banquets on clean floors. I am part of that, a little energetic with the feel of those wet summers, a little slovenly from the year I spent in a towering townhome in Saigon where townhomes rule the cityscape. I see now that Aunt Suzy, Mimi, Bambi, Vivi, Titi—they all represent a period of equilibrium and peace in my life. That’s my Vietnam.”

The Great Gatsby

37 thoughts on “Ode to Gatsby

  1. Excellent lesson, Crystal! Well-chosen, as it set your students’ minds loose, their creativity producing achingly evocative memoirs. The teacher herself gets an A+ for this one…

    Oh, the subject matter recalls a supposed exchange at a party between Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Almost certainly apocryphal, though entertaining nonetheless.

    “(The rich) are very different from you and me,” offered Fitzgerald, semi-quoting from his work, hoping to inspire conversation.

    “Yeah,” responded Hemingway, “they have more money.”

    Fit both men to a T, doesn’t it?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. And thanks to you, I realize that I haven’t read this novel in English – for me it’s: Gatsby the Magnificent (that’s the agreed translation in French). So I’m wondering if it might not be worth reading it ‘for real’. I think it would be.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I love Fitzgerald and that passage! Your student is amazing. Now I want to read The Great Gadsby again. Thank you for the post! 💕

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Are you still with this high level AP group? It is great to work with the achievers and yet there is also something to be said for working with those struggling because they are not in the same place.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m taking some time off currently to finish my masters. Over twenty years, I taught students from 7th-12th with a full spectrum of abilities. I’m hoping to teach at the college level in my next chapter.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Right. I understand and many adjuncts carry several courses at more than one school. You are lucky if you can work full time at a public school and then an additional course or two with the University.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. This is ironic. I wrote a post on people judging and then I read this. 😊 I have told myself over and over and stopped myself with oh I won’t say it it’s not nice. And this is towards people that have judged my. But I’m learning the two can play at that game is not a good idea. So I will keep quiet . It’s a good thing to speak your mind but only if it’s facts and not judging others . My opinion only😊

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I enjoyed your reflections at Crystal Beach, and Thomas’s thoughts on Vietnam. It must be an amazing experience to see the creative spirit alive in your students and to be a part of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Claudia! Thank you! I must credit F. Scott Fitzgerald along with two of my mentors, Marsha and Lisa, who literally handed me the That’s My Middle West assignment years ago before I ever taught Gatsby. (Just saying.)


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