Hell is — high school English

We’re getting ready to read the play No Exit which means establishing a basic understanding of existentialism.

Hell is— trying to explain existentialism to high school seniors. I’ve never done well with philosophy myself. Life has meaning, but is completely pointless. Well, fuck.

I told them that my clearest memory from Philosophy 101 was a T-shirt my professor wore at least once a week. It had a Groucho Marx quote on it: “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” Good stuff.

They survived a visual demonstration of the Allegory of the Cave so we could totally tackle Sartre and Camus, right?

One Hank Green Crash Course video on existentialism later, and half the class made the finger gun gesture to their heads. Solid start.

Honestly, I was a little concerned that some of them might immediately latch on to ideas within existentialism. I mean, Hank Green is telling them that only they can create meaning in their lives regardless of what authority figures like teachers and parents want them to do. We just want them to graduate, but that idea sounds like a built in excuse to get high and do nothing. Suddenly they’ve discovered their essence; they’re all existentialists!

I had them holster their finger guns and we tried some guided notes to simplify.

1. Existence before essence. You’re born and then you figure it out. Only YOU can determine your essence/passion/purpose/importance in life and prevent forest fires. This basically sounds like 3/4 of today’s high school curriculum. We spend so much time trying to reflect on you-iest version of you. Find your path. Group hug.

2. We are condemned to be free. Sounds good, right?! Unfortunately, it means that we are free to make millions of minute choices-turn left vs right, set your alarm for 6 am instead of 6:01am, have the chicken instead of the fish- and suffer the consequences of all those choices. No matter what it’s your fault, kids. I am their daily dose of sadness. The finger guns were back.

I accidentally demonstrated the third point through a classroom supply mishap. I gave everyone a half sheet of paper and told them they had 5 minutes to draw me a picture of Hell, knowing that their drawings would lead to a discussion of archetypal imagery: flames, devils and pitchforks, oh my.img_4504

They started digging into the perpetually dried up marker box for just the right shades of Hades. It doesn’t matter that our department orders a few boxes of new markers every year, I think they send us dry, uncapped markers with the colors picked over from the start.

Within a few seconds, a cry went up.


And here concludes our intro to existentialism.

3. Life is absurd. The final downer for the day is that “absurd” means pointless and meaningless. All those choices? Whatevs. Draw Hell with red markers or don’t. Same same.

There are no red markers. Enjoy drawing Hell, Sisyphus. Insert maniacal laugh here.

(I can’t even plan shit like this.)

I’ll leave this here just as my high school French teacher would after reading The Stranger.

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