One of the most exciting moments that a teacher can witness is watching a student fall in love with literature. Not the puppy love of a student reading popular novels like Twilight or even The Hunger Games, which are easily consumed and digested. The teenage obsession over vampires, werewolves and attractive young actors is a short-lived phase. A teacher is rarely essential in helping students discover those books; while I wouldn’t venture so far to say that student’s shouldn’t be reading them, there is still a distinction between the shallowness of today’s selection and the classic works that are truly literature.
I remember when I fell in love. It was the summer before high school, and I had been reading from the teen section of our public library, particularly mystery thrillers. My older brother Caleb, who wisely realized that I was capable of reading more than shallow fiction, handed me The Power and the Glory and The Grapes of Wrath and bet me that I couldn’t read them. I did, only to spite him. I read the first without really understanding it; but when I opened The Grapes of Wrath the vivid descriptions, the steady plot development and rich themes drew me in. After that book, I never looked back. I found new friends in authors like Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard and C.S. Lewis who provoked my imagination to new heights and helped me gain perspective on philosophies I had never known existed.
And so, when I walked into my new classroom this year and discovered that my eighth graders were six chapters into To Kill a Mockingbird, I was delighted. They, on the other hand, held a very different opinion of the book and begged me to stop reading it. I promised them that I would help them keep the characters straight and understand what was going on. Before my eyes, their cold distaste for the story melted into appreciation, and then warmed into anticipation. As I read the story aloud to them, they began to laugh at Scout’s humorous narration of her childhood events. They saw the racial lines drawn through Maycomb county. They heard the emotion in Atticus’ famous courtroom speech. They became angry at Tom’s conviction, and felt the disappointment that Jem and Scout felt.
Even more, they learned to enjoy wallowing in the complex themes and to go back and re-read quotes to evaluate their meaning and significance. Without even a worksheet or handout, these students were able to draw on examples from the story and ask important questions of why without easy answers handed to them. Students who had written in their journals that this was the “worst book ever” just a month ago now cheered when I told them to get a copy off the shelf. Despite their resistance, they have fallen in love.
A book like To Kill a Mockingbird sometimes faces opposition. Books like these are dangerous in the classroom. Parents don’t want their students exposed to the language or mature themes. The students would rather read modern texts. The dialect can be hard to understand, and the extended description in the narration can sometimes lose a reader. But students need books that challenge them more than intellectually (any book can be supplemented with worksheets and comprehension questions); they need literature that challenges them emotionally and morally, too.
Our students live in a world with Google (any question that exists can be easily answered in the time it takes to type into the search engine) and technology that keeps them up-to-date and current. Our students live in an age where they believe that they are entitled to certain freedoms and rights. To confront them on their perspectives is futile unless, as Atticus famously said, you help them stand in someone else’s shoes for a while.
The secret is in literature. Literature is the key that opens their eyes: once they see the world through this lens, they can let down their guard and consider another point of view. They need literature that will evoke the difficult questions, that will offer scenarios that can’t be easily solved. Students need literature that carries them through past eras and cultures that are not familiar to them. Literature forces them to struggle and come to terms with truths (like, despite what they believed, people are not always equal and not everything is fair).
At my small charter school, I have a number of my colleagues’ students in my classes. In a meeting the other day, one of these fellow teachers described the way her daughter just loved the book. She went on to say that her daughter had started off hating TKAM, until the very day I walked into the classroom. Then it was a complete turnaround. The other mother/teacher agreed, saying the same had happened with her daughter. What made the difference?
With passion and enthusiasm, teachers are the cheerleaders to this important discovery. Through expressive reading aloud and engaging discussions, we can coax students through chapter by chapter and woo them into the depths of the story. Not every student discovers their love for literature with To Kill a Mockingbird. But a few of mine did. Hearing the fondness in their voices for Scout and the appreciation of Atticus’ consistent integrity make the initial opposition all worth it. (I can hear one student exclaiming “I just LOVE this book so much!” even as I write this.)
And so, as we wrap up the story next week, take the test and watch the film, I can only hope that the lessons learned from this book will remain lodged in some deep part of themselves, and that they will crave for more of the richness found only in literature. (Teaching a love for literature, after all, is a greater part of my job description than preparing them for a standardized test.) Thank you, Harper Lee, and to Atticus, to Scout and Jem, and even Boo Radley for helping a few of my students find their new love.