…the edge of the great forest

This all happened a long time ago, in your grandmother’s time, or in her grandfather’s. A long time ago. Back then, we all lived on the edge of the great forest.

Hansel and Gretel, Neil Gaiman

For the first time in two years, I feel like I am finally back to my authentic self as a teacher, and am cautiously celebrating how wonderful this feels. Over two years ago, we (the PLC I was in at the time) used the text of Hansel & Gretel to do mood/tone, along with Stopping by Woods on A Snowy Evening by Robert Frost (saving for December this year). I love using fables and fairy tales to explore simple stories with much deeper themes.

But I thought to bring out Hansel and Gretel again, and do a seed idea/theory of theme work, along with levels of questions, etc. about this gruesome little fable. And as we worked through it, I steadied my nervousness about doing a read aloud of a picture book with high school students, and quieted myself and read the story. And they were fine, and listened, and were calm. (Contrasting to last year’s 8th grade students who had been through years of color-coded book levels and told me a picture book was a “baby book.”) Ah, children…oh no. These stories go into our core.

Why do parents continue to tell children of the story of Hansel & Gretel? Is it to show that they’re not such horrible parents after all? And though I know the story inside and out, something else emerged while we talked about it–yes, Hansel is very clever to pick up tiny white pebbles, and Gretel is brave and smart to ‘play dumb’ in order to trick the witch, and the children are intelligent, sweet, strong and kind, to be sure: but a witch is burned alive and a boy is about to be cannibalized. Gruesome stuff. So why do parents tell this story? Because they’re giving permission to their children that they may have to sin in order to survive. They must do whatever it takes to save themselves, including murder, trickery, cunning and deception. And this includes one’s own parents.

The rules are different for many of our students, the rules of survival. It’s being told you’re $9 short for your ‘free’ lunches and must remedy the debt before the next day. It’s some buildings where if they take your phone they charge you $5 to get it back. It’s knowing that there are street rules and school rules. For my students this year, just making it to school is an ordeal. They must go to their home comprehensive school, wait about 30-45 minutes for a bus, and that bus brings them to ours. No accommodations for waiting in a warm foyer are made. And about once a week a bus will be late. They bring tales of fighting in other schools, and since I’ve worked in “those other schools” I know what they’re saying is not only true, but sanctioned by their parents.

Survive. And if you can get through school, find a way to thrive.

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