A Breath of Fresh Eyre: Jane Eyre and Hope as a Sacred Practice
This past Monday as part of my school’s in-service, we virtually hosted Dr. Lisa Damour, a psychologist and New York Times best-selling author whose books Untangled and Under Pressure clarified so much about the academic and emotional minds of the young women I teach. She was on our campus about four years ago to discuss her work with adolescent girls, but on Monday she was there to talk about us: teachers and administrators who are, well, exhausted. Dr. Damour nailed many of the reasons why (we started the school year tired, our curriculum has been through the wringer, etc.), but more importantly, she—with grace, humility, and just the right touch of humor—offered observations on how we might steady ourselves in the face of such exhaustion. What most resonated with me was the term “soft fascination,” a word that defines those moments when we focus our attention on less active or stimulating activities: walking, driving, folding laundry—but without the added distraction of a phone, podcast, or TV show running in the background. It is in these moments, Dr. Damour noted, that we have opportunities for reflection and sense-making, a time to declutter our minds and make room for those thoughts that typically don’t have the room to emerge.
As I listened to Dr. Damour detail her own moments of soft fascination, I couldn’t help but think of where I was supposed to be on that Monday, had Omicron and the looming threat of potential lockdowns not stood in the way. At noon in front of the Emmeline Pankhurst statue in Manchester, England, I would have been meeting my fellow Jane Eyre pilgrims to embark on the mother of all soft fascinations: five days of walking the Yorkshire moors. Admittedly, it is a long and fairly expensive way to go for some soft fascination, especially when matching my family’s perpetually unmatchable socks would have probably done the trick. And, at a time when subs are hard to come by and the stress of international travel is akin to a colonoscopy-infused mammogram performed naked in front of a live audience, the trip—on paper—might not seem like an ideal remedy for exhaustion. But I foresaw the benefits of this trip—in terms of both professional and personal development—far outweighing any of those negatives.
The trip was organized by author and podcast host Vanessa Zoltan whose BA in literature and Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School coalesced in the most magical of ways: the book Praying with Jane Eyre: Reflections on Reading as a Sacred Practice. The essay collection articulates ways of approaching literature informed by the reading practices of medieval monks and rabbinic scholars; each essay is like a homily on a different topic (fear, kindness, betrayal, anger, etc,) but with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre as the sacred text. Harvard Divinity School professor Stephanie Paulsell would have co-led the pilgrimage with Zoltan, and together, the two had designed a week of daily intentions, reflections, sacred reading practices, and miles upon miles of walking. Our focus would have centered on hope: what does Jane Eyre have to offer us in terms of cultivating hope? Although the trip has been postponed for now, I still want to employ these sacred reading practices as my students and I crack open the pages of Jane Eyre together this spring because who is in better need of an ounce of hope than young people coming of age in a pandemic?
Hope might be the word that is simultaneously my favorite and one I can never properly define, although as an optimist I lean towards it being more real than an illusion, more helpful than harmful. Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers” offered me my earliest and still most real definition (thanks, lady!), and when I have my students literally perch on the edge of their desks to gain a visceral feeling of hope “perch[ing] in [their] soul[s],” the goal is for them to maybe gain a better understanding too. Hope is in your soul, transcending the markers that tie us to this world. It exists in “the chillest land” and “on the strangest Sea”; to live with hope is to also live with fear, sadness, and loneliness—but when faced with fear, sadness, and loneliness, hope is of course still there. The story of Pandora offers additional layers: the first human woman created by the Greek gods, she is given a jar with all the evils of the world and forbidden to open it. She of course opens that jar, releasing pain and suffering into the world but closing it in time to capture hope. It probably isn’t a surprise that my preferred reading of the tale is that Pandora kept hope safe for us—not that it is another evil, best kept from humans because it would only torment us. More recently, Amanda Gorman’s new poem “New Day’s Lyric” includes a line—“This hope is our door, our portal”—that I spent almost 10 minutes unpacking during my students’ journaling time, thinking about how the metaphor sets up hope as a threshold, a liminal space that we are paradoxically always and never in.
So, what does Jane Eyre have to offer us in terms of hope? I’ll save a more complete answer for later, but tentative thoughts immediately come to mind. The novel famously opens with the line “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day,” an incredible sentence that functions as a paradigm for the coming-of-age journey on which she is about to embark. At first glance, the novel seems to begin with a denial of hope. But then the wonderful little phrase “that day” peeks out, suggesting that hope, just sitting there perching on Jane’s soul, is about to be unleashed. And so it does, to an extent: she begins “resist[ing] all the way,” refusing to endure John’s physical brutality and ultimately heading off to school, beginning her path away from her early tormentors and into, eventually, a world where she will experience love and belonging (13). In Zoltan’s Reading with Jane Eyre, she has a brief section on Harry Potter and hope: “For Harry, the chosen boy wizard, hope in the face of hopelessness is nearly pathological” (218). I get similar vibes from Jane. Jane is hopeful and at times Hope herself, a young woman who believes that she deserves better—that the world deserves to be better—even in the face of cruelty, trauma, and a whole lot of public shaming.
Research has shown that hope is a teachable, measurable skill, which is some of the best news I read in 2021. In Nora Fleming’s Edutopia article “In Schools, Finding Hope at a Hopeless Time,” she provides resources and classroom strategies to build and teach hope. She writes, “According to many research studies, people who are hopeful aren’t simply optimists or Pollyannas but are able to think proactively about the future and plan to get there.” Her article even references Hope Studies Central, a research center at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada that is now on my bucket list. Denise Larson, director of Hope Studies Central, emphasizes the importance of shifting student mindsets, suggesting that a good place for teachers to start teaching hope “is regularly integrating specific question prompts into classroom activities that many already conduct—like morning meetings or entry or exit tickets” (qtd. in Fleming). Because perhaps very few, if any, of my readers will be teaching Jane Eyre, I want to briefly offer a few of the ways my English colleagues and I use prompts to build and teach hope.
(1) Offer time for private freewriting at the beginning of class, but also offer a couple of times during the year for students to re-read and reflect on those free writes. The academic and emotional benefits of private journaling are well documented, and Jessica Bailey writes eloquently about some of those in “Shifting Into Our Spirits with Journaling.” What I have most appreciated about private freewriting are those moments when students re-read them—a semester or even a year later. What many students recognize is that day when they wrote about frustration, anger, or anxiety was a day they were able to survive. On the flip side, the day when they wrote about joy, love, or peace is a day to treasure—a warm memory to hold onto when inevitably faced with days that don’t seem to have much of those.
(2) Provide frequent journal prompts that reinforce hope. I don’t think you can overdo these; I mean, what’s the worst that could happen—students saying, “Ugh, we have to write about hope again?”
Who would you like to dedicate this class to? I cannot recall from whom I stole this prompt, but it is one that immediately shifts the mood of the class because it asks students to think beyond themselves and the monotonous moment of the day and consider that there is someone—often many someones—out there who believe in them, who are rooting for their successes. Sometimes, a student will select a historical figure who didn’t have the same educational opportunities or young women from a country or community that does not value women’s education.
How are you bringing your best self to class? This one leads to a variety of answers, many of them just some practical tips: “I listened to a great soundtrack on the way into school”; “I made sure my uniform was lying out on the floor last night so I wasn’t rushed this morning”; “I said hello and smiled to everyone I knew in the hall”; “I said goodbye to my stress about that chemistry test at the door”). Whatever their answers, the energy in the room again tends to shift for the better.
(3) Collect florilegia. Sarette Albin’s “Truth and Beauty: Finding Delight in the Written Word” does a great job of outlining the various ways teachers could use this approach with a text: from a simple opening journal prompt to a semester-long assignment. Zoltan offers additional versions of it as well in Praying with Jane Eyre. Essentially, the term refers to “a gathering of flowers”; as a sacred reading practice, it becomes a gathering of quotes that speak to the reader for one reason or another. On an individual level, you record and reflect what those favorite quotes (Zoltan calls them “sparklets”) might inform you about yourself or your world, and when shared as a community, these quotes become opportunities to treat others’ thoughts as sacred.
Perhaps my favorite moment when reading Jane Eyre with my students is the scene when Jane has to choose between divine and human love, between loving herself or becoming Rochester’s mistress. To stay with Rochester means a life of comfort at the cost of her morals, to leave means certain destitution, if not death, but with her integrity firmly in place. Rochester makes a fairly compelling (but cruel) case for choosing human love (lust?), reminding Jane that no one would actually care if she was his mistress since she has no family or friends. Jane nearly caves, but then in the four loudest words of the book, she declares, “I care for myself.” After reading this passage, I hand out index cards to students and ask them to write down those four words. Then, I tell them to stick that card somewhere, anywhere: their book, the bottom of their backpack, a random spiral notebook, a lunchbox, etc. It actually doesn’t matter if they remember where they place it. Because that’s the purpose: at the moment when they least expect it, they will (fingers crossed) find these words again, a small reminder of hope, of love, and of self-worth ready to steady them in the face of whatever they currently face.
Life is always so funny. I have been giving these cards to my students for years with the belief that maybe a handful of them will remember or even find the cards again. The number who have reached back out years later, though, is surprising. About a month ago, at a moment when hope certainly wasn’t winning at my house (most of it Covid-related: canceled birthdays, canceled trips, etc.), a former student emailed me about her Jane Eyre’s “I care for myself” card. She wrote, “Just as Jane reaffirmed her self-worth and competence in the face of a doubting Rochester, I have slowly been getting better at rejecting those self-doubts that pop into my head at times.” Her words, besides sending me over the moon with joy, reminded me that hope is indeed a skill we have to practice, over and over and over again. So I dedicate this day to Jane and to all those students who help remind me to hope.
Megan Griffin is a found poet who finds herself poetically searching.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Norton, 2016.
Fleming, Nora. “In Schools, Finding Hope at a Hopeless Time.” Edutopia, 26 March 2021.
Zoltan, Vanessa. Praying with Jane Eyre: Reflections on Reading as a Sacred Practice. Penguin, 2021.