Killing mockingbirds in secret gardens: Or, how books kick our fannies. (And Sammy Sosa, too.)
This is every teachers’ dream (or it should be): a student comes up to me this morning, and hands me back my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, telling me it “won.” He couldn’t finish it. He said he had to keep flipping back to the beginning to remember what was going on. He wasn’t assigned this book per se; it was intended for a novel project we’re working on over many weeks. He just had to find a ‘classic.’ He tried TKAM. This particular student has enjoyed some notoriety of being the ‘smart one’ in his group. And for him to a. Remember to bring me back my book after a shortened spring break and b. Having attempted to read it, waved the white flag is remarkable. You’re thinking right now: Why is Mrs. Love happy about that? A kid gave up! He didn’t demonstrate stamina, or perseverance! But, he did do something I’ve been all about all…year…long:
The ability to think about our thinking.
I shared with our young reader a shorter version of this tale: When I was around 8 or 9, my beloved great-grandmother Rushie, a fellow bibliophile, gave me a copy of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I had a very high reading level, so the text itself wasn’t problematic. But when I began the novel, it tasted like bitter collard greens. What? She’s in India? Her parents died? She has NANNIES? And who is the little sick kid, and why does he whine so much? I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why Rushie would give me something so boring and weird, but was conflicted because I loved her, and normally her gifts of books were big hits. (She also smelled of menthol cigarettes, book pages, and Avon lotion. I’m getting a little weepy just thinking about it. I miss you, Rushie!) Flash forward a few years, and I mean a few – I’m about 10. I have nothing else to read, and with a mixture of trust and boredom, pick up The Secret Garden again. Oh! I get it! I GET IT! This little bitter, sour girl warms and grows like a garden! They all learn to trust! They have friendship and warmth! And even death cannot conquer hope, and life! What a difference a few years make. Developmentally I may have been able to define words and read them with robotic fluency,
but I didn’t have the slight edge of life experience yet to appreciate or relate to the nuances of character, setting, mood, and conflict. I loved The Phantom Tollbooth when I was 10, too, but probably wouldn’t have understood the jokes at 8 either. I will never forget how intrinsically proud I was of myself for trying again, and being so greatly rewarded with a book such as The Secret Garden. I made this young man promise me at some point in the future, he would put up Mockingbird again, and he gave me his word.
The bigger “meta” in all this is WHAT IN THE NAME OF FRANCES HODGES BURNETT ARE WE DOING TO STUDENTS? There are two things I want to put out there for consideration:
1. Please don’t raise the bar so high, so developmentally inappropriate that a child has no hope in succeeding.
2. Please don’t give children a sense of false self-esteem that they believe all they have to do is show up and receive a reward. This goes for students of poverty and privilege: guilt feeds inauthentic self-esteems of poverty, and entitlement feeds the hubris of privilege.
It’s a balancing act, folks. Getting rid of all drill and direct instruction is no more appropriate than just having children talk about how they “feel”about the number seven. You are all expert teachers and educators, right? So, do you know when a text is kicking your students’ fannies? Better yet, have you taught them how to recognize when THEY are in trouble, so they can readjust? And for the love of Twain don’t tell them just to re-read it. Case in point: today in reading group we’re reading a story about Sammy Sosa. I know the rudimentary basics of baseball. My small group of students knew less than I did. There was one pun in the story, “Sammy left the ring for the dimond.” Hardy-har-har- that was in reference to when Sammy went from a boxing RING to the baseball DIAMOND. Okay. Check. My background knowledge is secure in those. But then there was another question: How would you list some of the mistakes he made? And one of the answers had to do with “cutoff man.” What? Does he wear jean shorts? Does he sweep-kick players when the ref, um, I mean umpire, isn’t looking? So, it’s almost the end of class, and I’m tired. I was flipping through the glossary, and there, is a definition for cutoff man. Hey kids, you know what, I got in trouble here with my understanding of how to answer this question – work with me here. So we had a mock baseball game in the class. I was Sammy Sosa, of course, working the in-field, and having to make a judgement about who to throw the ball to. It all made perfect sense. I told everyone then to remember next time they read something they don’t understand – act it out, say it out, think it out. It takes practice, and time. But if we really want to give our students access, we need to check in with them from time to time. Don’t let it slide by. Be their cutoff man. Because not everyone can have a Rushie.