A Matter of Style

The blog post I wrote about “A Christmas Memory” got so many “hits” this season that I thought people might be interested in the follow-up; that is, what we did after the kids realized that Harper Lee had modeled Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird on her real life friend, Truman Capote. I wrote to a friend of mine about that day in class—the first time I taught this lesson—and printed out my email because I never wanted to forget it. So here is the rest of the story, all about a lesson in style, taken from a dispatch fifteen years ago.

“Dill?”

There was a kind of silence and others began to say things like, “Yeah, that’s true.” Very quietly at first, as there wasn’t yet a lot of confidence for this idea.

I waited a minute for them all to make the connection and then said, “You’re right. Harper Lee and the author of this story grew up together. Dill is Buddy.” The girl who had ventured her idea was stunned—and very quiet herself. The idea had to sink in with all of them—and my girl had to believe she could have been so intuitive. And then we began to talk about the real lives of authors.

When I told them about Capote’s In Cold Blood, several wanted to read it. I happened to have a copy in the classroom, so the boy who was at the top of the class jumped up and took it from me. He said he would read it over Christmas Break and then exchange it with another boy in the class. I told them that Harper Lee had accompanied Capote on his trip to Oklahoma and had served as his secretary during the research phase of the book. The boy turned to the beginning of the book—sure enough, there was an inscription: “To Harper Lee.” I could feel the chills running through the class.

So, my assignment that night was to come to class the next day having identified two specific passages in “A Christmas Memory” that they particularly liked. My plan then was to launch a discussion of style—without telling them that that was what we were talking about.

They were excited when they came into the room, eager to talk about “their” passages. We identified the cataloguing, or listing technique; appeals to the senses; metaphors and similes; artful creation of symbols; parenthetical remarks; “special effects,” like typography and non-words; abundant use of detail. One boy said, “My favorite sentence in the whole story is the one where he talks about (and he directed us to the page and column) “the buggy wheels wobbling like a drunkard’s legs.”

Now I don’t know about you, but when a 9th grade boy, a big, hulking athlete, says something about “his favorite sentence,” chills run through me.

Then another boy mentioned the parentheses. He said, “These parenthetical remarks seem like they are made to protect Miss Sook.” He went through them. Sure enough, in the list of things she’d done, for example, was “Take snuff,” but the parenthetical remark was “Secretly.” She had done a number of other things that would have made her seem strange—except that in parentheses, Capote would say “You just try it,” or “I did, too,” or “Just once”—something that mitigated the extreme and made her seem quaint, not weird.

The boy who had taken In Cold Blood piped up: “That’s the same thing he does here! He uses the parentheses the same way. And he lists things. Here, let me read.”  And the boy read us quite a long passage which, since the others didn’t have the text, didn’t impress them quite as much as it did the boy who was reading—except that they all were impressed by the dawning realization, the discovery they made for themselves, that writers have identifiable styles.

An education professor had been in my classroom observing me a few months before this. He had told me then that mine was a “constructivist classroom.”  He had seen me doing something similar to this discussion about style in a class called Novels that I was teaching with seniors and also in a discussion about the Odyssey with these same 9th graders. I like to lead kids to make discoveries on their own, but until then, I hadn’t had a name for this approach.

Having a name is so legitimizing—I had thought, up until then, that I was doing something unidentifiable and vaguely unorthodox as no one had ever taught me any of this. My method of instruction, this line of inquiry, hadn’t come packaged with operating instructions.  I just like kids to discuss what we are reading and have them do the thinking—it always means more that way.

So, I found there’s a name for it. Well, well. That’s kind of like discovering authors have identifiable styles, isn’t it?

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