by Cate Waidyatilleka

Fire and Ice (Robert Frost)

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

When we talk about this poem in my tenth grade English class, the students easily understand what the poem is literally saying, and that makes them feel great! Yay!

What takes deeper thought, however, is the TONE of this Frost poem, which contemplates the end of the world.

How is it that Frost so casually ponders which would be better, for the world to end by fire (desire) or ice (hatred)?

Fire would work: we are a greedy bunch, we humans, taking and using with undue regard for the consequences of our actions. That could definitely work to destroy the world.

But ice would also work: look at our penchant for “other-izing” people and animals we do not know, and thereby easily sliding into cruelty and violence against them. Just recently we had a mass terrorist attack in a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 mostly elderly Jews. Yes, hatred could also work to destroy the world.

When we stop to absorb what Frost is actually talking about, the end of the world, the students take pause and give some thought to the casual tone of the poem. Why is he so nonchalantly discussing this? Does he truly not care … or is he trying to jar us out of our own complacency?

Even fifteen-year-olds recognize that the casual tone is ironic; it must be, or Frost would never have bothered to raise the question.

Almost any poem or book can lead us to think about issues that transcend time and still matter to us today.

Frost wrote “Fire and Ice” in 1920, almost 100 years ago, and yet his question is even more poignant today.

As a humane educator, I look for ways to take the stuff of literature and use it as a springboard to action. This eight-line poem can lead to any number of activities that seek to tackle either humankind’s greed or our hatred.

We can take action to tackle fire (desire) and get people to walk more gently upon the earth; we can target ice (hatred) and promote understanding between “others.” Huge opportunities for student action can unfold from a little poem.

The voices of our youth can be more powerful than anyone else’s: ideally, they will be the ones living after we pass, and they will be the ones striving to solve problems we have exacerbated in our lifetimes.

The exciting truth is, they CAN solve these problems, if they are given the skills, tools, knowledge, and confidence to do so.

We can’t even imagine the solutions they will create, but be certain, they can and will solve problems we, right now, see as dire and even unsolvable.

Who could have predicted how dramatically things have changed, even in my lifetime? A full computer on our wrists? I grew up with snail mail and a typewriter, and I’m not even that old — now we have so many exciting tools for communicating.

This generation can reach each other through social media so quickly and effectively that they really can make the differences the world so desperately needs.

Look at what the Parkland school shooting survivors have done! Their resilience, determination, confidence, passion, and creativity are hallmarks of solutionaries.

They have risen above their own heartbreak for classmates and teachers: they have become spokespeople for saner gun laws and the importance of voting. We have been blessed to see what the younger generation can do.

Let’s build the skills and confidence of all our youth to take on whatever the world needs of them, not just for its survival, but for the good of all stakeholders.

As a teacher, I am using literature as a springboard to action as much as I can, given the constraints of a full curriculum.

I want to encourage each of us, teacher, parent, or concerned human being, to do what we can to build up the power of our youth.

If you have time to read a poem with a kid, you can join me in bringing the hearts of this powerful generation to bear on the problems that so keenly deserve solutions.


Cate Waidyatilleka teaches English at ‘Iolani School in Honolulu, Hawaii, and is a student in IHE’s M.Ed. program.