The power of the pen is often talked about and celebrated. But years ago, as a rookie high school teacher in an urban public classroom, I witnessed the power of literature. Just recalling the miracle of that long ago afternoon supplies enough motivation and energy to keep teaching--even on those days when my students are yawning or daydreaming, signaling to me that they would rather be somewhere else, anywhere else, but in a classroom analyzing a poem or a short story.
My ninth grade classes were reading Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. So far the students were enjoying the book. They admired Scout’s boyishness, brashness and hot temper. They were outraged by the injustice meted out to Tom Robinson. As for Atticus Finch, to these fourteen and fifteen year old African Americans, he was an anomaly: in their very small, southern world, white men didn’t take risks for black people.
I carefully scheduled a full four-week unit around this timeless text. I was a bit anxious about how well they could keep up with the storyline. Even though the heroine was young, the novel’s vocabulary level was moderately difficult. Harper Lee’s amazing use of imagery was challenging for some of my students. I didn’t teach at an academically rigorous high school in an affluent school district; each year our school’s annual report card disclosed low standardized test scores in reading, writing, and mathematics. Our student body was 99% African American and many were eligible for free or reduced lunch. I knew that many students in other schools read this book in the eighth grade, or even the seventh grade. But for the majority of my students, these enjoyable, were nonetheless hard to decipher. Still I remained convinced that Lee had written a novel that every American adolescent should encounter.
So we tackled Lee’s thorny sentences. Sometimes I read aloud to the students (they preferred this method). Sometimes we listened to a chapter recorded on a cassette tape. And sometimes, I asked students to volunteer to read. This was always risky; many of the students read either poorly or slowly, a trait sure to invite ridicule from other classmates.
Inviting students to read was particularly risky during fourth period. Three of my male students—Brandon, Darius, and Jamal--were determined to disrupt my last class of the day by doing what ninth graders often do: making silly jokes, flirting with the female students, getting up without permission, and complaining about the workload. All three had been regularly referred to the administration by many of their teachers (including me) for a number of violations. Often each was suspended for several days at a time. It was rumored that they were selling drugs. Oddly enough, the parents of two of the boys stayed in constant touch with me and supported me and my goals in the classroom. But I had no such support from Jamal’s parents. He arrived each afternoon sullen, obstinate, and unruly; his parents never bothered to return my phone calls.
As the weeks went by we ambled through the chapters of To Kill a Mockingbird; the events were often dramatic and humorous. Jem’s pants got caught in a fence. Scout found some items in a tree--who placed them there? Gentle Atticus shot a mad dog. Scout and Jem sat in the segregated balcony of the courtroom with African American onlookers at Tom’s trial. For these ninth graders, trapped in a poor performing inner city school, the novel offered a myriad of topics to talk about and think about.
Then one afternoon, it happened. We were three quarters of the way through the novel and I was reading, allowing students to interrupt when they needed clarity. Then I asked for a volunteer. One of the more proficient readers in the class raised her hand and read several paragraphs with little difficulty. When she finished she leaned backward, smiling smugly. I asked for another reader. Brandon hesitantly raised his hand. Audible gasps resounded throughout the room. I looked him in the eye and nodded for him to begin. Brandon ignored his classmates’ guffaws and read a paragraph for me. He struggled but when he finished, he sat back in his chair with a look of pure satisfaction on his young face. The rest of the class simply looked stunned.
“Would anyone else like to read?” I asked. Surly Jamal raised his hand. Another hush fell over the room and students looked at me with expressions of disbelief. Why would Jamal volunteer to read? Was it a trick? Would he perform some offensive antic midway through his reading? Jamal read two paragraphs, slowly, looking at me for assistance when he faltered. When he finished, I thanked him. The class sat in their desks, motionless and speechless.
“Would anyone else like to read?” I asked again. This time Darius raised his hand. I took a deep breath. Of the three boys, his reading skills were by far the weakest. I smiled and motioned for him to begin. His weaknesses showed as he painfully labored through one paragraph, calling the words out, often mispronouncing or not recognizing simple words. Sometimes a classmate would try to correct him or another classmate would laugh, but he ignored them. The entire class seemed exhausted when he finished the paragraph, but it was nonetheless obvious to everyone that something very magical had happened that afternoon. We had witnessed the power of literature.
That afternoon I learned that there are reasons why a good book is classified as a good book. I had studied “good books,” of course, all my life, particularly as an undergraduate, and later as a graduate student. The College Board annually publishes a list of “100 best books” college bound students should read. Yet now after listening to three young men volunteer to read, young men who administrators and counselors had already predicted would drop out of high school, I now understood what a good book was and what a good book can do. A good book can captivate anyone, regardless of his or her skill level, race, or culture. The themes that To Kill a Mockingbird offered were rich, relevant, and inspirational. Even the most reluctant reader could not resist Harper Lee’s story.
When we finished the book, I brought in the movie for the class to view. The role of Atticus was performed by Gregory Peck, a legendary actor whom they knew absolutely nothing about. I allowed students to handle the video’s cardboard case and the students studied with awe its grainy black and white photographs.
“Are we going to watch a black and white movie, Mrs. Young?” they asked incredulously. Yes, we are, I told them. As they watched the movie over the next three class periods, they forgot the age of the film and lost themselves in the plot and action. Many students placed their novels on their desks and followed along with the screenplay.
A few weeks later, the boys disappeared. Teaching staff were notified that the school district had recommended all three for expulsion for selling drugs. When the final ruling was announced, both Darius and Jamal were expelled but the district granted Brandon another chance. Without his buddies, Brandon’s behavior improved dramatically. His academic performance improved as well. I stopped dreading fourth period. He eventually passed my class and was promoted to the 10th grade.
Did he make it out of high school? I wish I knew. But I do know that he and his friends for one afternoon put aside the jokes and the childish behavior and shed the label of juvenile delinquent. For one afternoon they allowed themselves to be conquered, no, seduced, by the beauty and power of literature.