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See, there’s this white whale. . .

PBradley 4th grade teacher who has been teaching for 33 years marches during rally Chicago public school teachers downtown Chicago

Pat Bradley, a 4th grade teacher who has been teaching for 33 years, marches during a rally of Chicago public school teachers in downtown Chicago, Ill., on Tuesday, September 11, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 14, 2012 1:16PM



In July 1945, newspaper deliverymen in New York City went on strike. Deprived readers by the thousands lined up at their favorites’ offices to pick up that day’s paper.

Despite this, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, a colorful, squeaky-voiced fellow, worried that the city’s children would be denied their daily dose of comic strips like Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie, who was on trial for murder at the time. So he took to the radio during the strike, reading comics to the kiddies with great verve and emotion.

Which gave me an idea.

With Chicago’s union teachers on strike, 350,000 public school students — all those not in charter schools — have little to do. No learning is going on. And while, good union man that I am, I would never dream of crossing a picket line, I don’t think it will undermine their strike if I try to teach these bored children something in the interim.

But what? That’s the trick, isn’t it? A subject relevant to kindergartners through high school seniors. Something fun . . .

The first idea that comes to mind — honestly, and embarrassing to admit — is Moby Dick. Why not? It’s interesting, important, always topical, plus most kids haven’t read it, nor most adults for that matter.

So here goes.

Moby Dick — you older kids in the back, stop talking, set an example — published in 1851, is a story about a sailor named Ishmael. The book’s opening sentence, “Call me Ishmael,” is one of the most famous in literature. Ishmael ships out on the Pequod, under the command of Captain Ahab, a tormented one-legged seaman who lost his limb in the jaws of Moby Dick, a legendary white whale.

The story, in brief, involves hunting whales (think very large fish, only whales are mammals, so they give birth to live young and breathe air). At the time, there were no electric lights — not invented until 28 years later — so homes were lit by whale oil lamps.

You kindergartners! No squirming! Color a picture of a whale, or something.

Beyond endless details about catching and cutting up whales, Moby Dick is a story about obsession — umm, about constantly thinking about a thing that may not be good for you to constantly think about. In Ahab’s case, Moby Dick, chased through the book.

Ishmael doesn’t ship out just for fun, but as a job. He needs money — a practical detail that relates to why you’re not in school.

“I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble . . .” he explains. “And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid . . . But being paid — what will compare with it?” See? Relevant today.

Though 150 years old, the book reminds us that what we consider news is frequently just the same thing happening over again. When Ishmael imagines his trip making headlines — “WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL” — he tucks it between “GRAND CONTESTED ELECTION FOR THE PRESIDENCY OF THE UNITED STATES” and “BLOODY BATTLE IN AFGHANISTAN,” two headlines which you could read in papers today if, of course, you read newspapers.

Great literature always echoes in our time. Starbucks coffee shops are named for Starbuck, the chief mate on the Pequod. Cool right? No? Really? Jeez, this is a tough job . . .

You should also note Ishmael’s friendship with Queequeg, the tattooed Pacific islander, who seems scary to Ishmael, at first:

“Savage though he was, and hideously marred about the face — at least to my taste — his countenance yet had a something in it which was by no means disagreeable. You cannot hide the soul. Through all his unearthly tattooings, I thought I saw the traces of a simple honest heart.”

This was radical thinking a dozen years before the end of slavery in America.

Moby Dick is a very long book, and if you try to read it, don’t lose heart, because the white whale doesn’t show up until the very end. The copy I read has 822 pages, and Moby Dick doesn’t appear — “There she blows! — there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!” — until page 781. By then, I was gazing nervously at the dwindling pages left, thinking, “Is this the best-kept literary hoax of all time? Will I get to the end and Ahab will just shrug, palms up, and say, ‘Well, I guess we couldn’t find him . . .’ ”

So the book requires patience, but good things do. If you start reading now, the strike will be over long before you finish. I hope.

The last lesson of Moby Dick is one the teachers might bear in mind: Hard work is not always rewarded, at least not with money. In the 40 years after Moby Dick was published, it sold just 3,715 copies. “Dollars damn me,” Melville wrote to his idol, Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.”

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fight to get what you deserve. It means the world is not always a fair judge of what you’re worth.



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