Teenagers often harbor resentment as well as love for their parents. Theirs is an age of rebellion and separation. During the last 40 years, I've listened as my students stormed in anger at their parents, but I've also witnessed their love and loyalty. As a daughter who has forgiven her mother, and as the mother of two daughters who I hope will forgive me all of my mistakes, I find the topic of forgiveness essentialand a recurring theme in literature and history.
As students grow into adulthood, they need to see their parents as people as well as family members. Sometimes understanding the cultural and social pressures that shaped their parents helps them begin to resolve some of the issues that divide them from the significant adults in their lives. For some students the pain is still too close and too fresh to forgive. Both responses are legitimate.
The forgiveness poem is a yearly staple in my classes. I use it when I teach Sherman Alexie's Smoke Signals in junior English, but it pairs well with many novels or historical periods. In Smoke Signals, Victor, the main character, struggles because his alcoholic father left the reservation, abandoning Victor and his mother. After his father's death, Victor discovers the reason his father left, as well as his father's guilt and pain.
At the end of the play, Alexie uses part of a Dick Lourie poem, Forgiving Our Fathers, as Victor's friend Thomas mourns the death of Victor's father, Arnold, as well as his own:
Do we forgive our fathers for leaving us too often or
forever when we were little?
Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage
or making us nervous because there seemed
never to be any rage there at all
Do we forgive our fathers for marrying
or not marrying our mothers
For divorcing or not divorcing our mothers?
And shall we forgive them for their excesses
of warmth or coldness?