Harper Lee’s Enormous Gift

For thirty-one years, my school year began with the opening sentence from Harper Lee’s matchless story of courage, compassion, and coming-of-age, To Kill a Mockingbird. It was nothing short of privilege to introduce 9th graders to Jem and Scout, their father Atticus, and their playmate Dill; to rural Alabama in the 1930s; to racism and injustice in the days of Jim Crow; and to the idea that in coming face-to-face with an unvarnished and painful reality, one comes of age.

Sometimes that moment of truth is called a “confrontation experience.”

When the trial is over and Tom Robinson is found guilty, Jem is confused and upset. He cries first, then broods, questioning Atticus intently as he puzzles through the injustice of the verdict. Miss Maudie, the children’s insightful neighbor from across the street, bakes a cake the next morning, but alters her custom of preparing three small cakes—one each for Jem and Scout and Dill—and makes only two. Jem’s portion is to come from the big cake. In this way, she signals her understanding that Jem has grown up: He has emerged from the experience of the trial, changed. Many students—as Jem himself does—miss the significance of that culinary symbolism.

So just after my students have read Chapter 22, the chapter with the cake paragraph that begins “It was Jem’s turn to cry,” I introduce this poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. I project it on the ENO board and read it aloud once, all the way through.

One Wants A Teller In A Time Like This

One wants a teller in a time like this

One’s not a man, one’s not a woman grown
To bear enormous business all alone.

One cannot walk this winding street with pride
Straight-shouldered, tranquil-eyed,
Knowing one knows for sure the way back home.
One wonders if one has a home.

One is not certain if or why or how.
One wants a Teller now:

Put on your rubbers and you won’t catch a cold
Here’s hell, there’s heaven. Go to Sunday School
Be patient, time brings all good things–(and cool
Strong balm to calm the burning at the brain?)

Behold,
Love’s true, and triumphs; and God’s actual.

Occasionally, a student will “get” the poem immediately, but the majority of my 9th graders are mystified. Why am I introducing this poem? What does it have to do with the story? Focused on the verdict itself—which they are eager to talk about even though they had predicted it—they don’t think of the impact of the decision on the children.

“Who in the story do you think this poem could be about?” I ask.

“Atticus,” someone always guesses. “He lost the trial.”

So. They got the gist of the poem. It’s about someone who is depressed.

“But Atticus knew he would lose—and he thinks they’ve taken a step forward because the jury deliberated for two hours,” someone else corrects.

“Tom? He lost and now he’s going to prison.”

“Boo.” Another guess.

“Miss Maudie.” A wilder guess.

Funny—if they’d examine their own reactions—shock, outrage, grief—when the verdict is announced, they’d see immediately that the poem points to Jem.

But Jem is not the “hero” of the story—or even an important protagonist like Tom Robinson or Boo. We’ve talked as a class about the symbolism of the mad dog and related rabies to the mental disease of prejudice. We’ve focused on character development and identified Atticus as the hero. We’ve examined Atticus’ definition of courage in the Mrs. Dubose chapter. But, besides noting that the children are catalysts for action and establishing that Jean Louise (the adult Scout) is a reflective narrator, we haven’t talked much yet about Jem and Scout. So far, they haven’t been a thematic focus.

I suggest that we take the poem apart, line by line. From this moment on, I am largely silent. I simply cover the poem and proceed to expose one line at a time. With its lovely “reveal” function, the ENO board helps me with this technique, but I used to do the same thing with an overhead projector. Baring even that, I could write the poem on the board, one line at a time. The strategy captures my students. They are good detectives, and they eagerly put their skills of observation to work.

First, the title: enigmatic, evocative, puzzling. Why the capitalized ‘One’? And then, it turns out, the title is the first line. The first line stands alone, the students notice. Why?

Then the phrase, “One’s not a man, not a woman grown.”

“So it’s not about Atticus.”

“But what is ‘this enormous business’?”

“It doesn’t say.”

“Whoever he is, he’s walking a crooked path.”

“He’s lost.”

“Unsure.”

“Confused.”

“He—or she—can’t find his home, maybe doesn’t have one.”

“Is this about a homeless person?”

“No, I think it’s about safety. Home is safety.”

“It’s about certainty. This person is uncertain.”

“Something terrible has happened.”

“Look at those words–‘if or when or how.’ Those are question words. This person’s questions are unanswered.”

“But why is ‘Teller’ capitalized in the next line?”

“He wants someone to answer his questions. To tell him the answers. A Teller.”

By this time, several students realize it is Jem’s reaction to the verdict that I am focusing on. I can barely contain them from blurting out their epiphany, and epiphany it is: They squirm in their seats; their arms pump up and down; their faces convey urgency. Others catch on. The class knows.

But what is this last stanza? Look: The font changes. And how are all those things connected?

“‘Rubbers’ are boots,” someone says. “What do they have to do with Sunday School?”

“’Heaven and hell’.” That’s Sunday School.”

“They’re opposites. Like black and white, or right and wrong.”

“Oh I get it! The new font is the Teller talking!”

“Yes! The Teller is telling the person what to do.”

“What to think.”

“How to behave.”

“That’s what he wants. A Teller.”

“Yes. A Teller makes things simple.”

But then the font changes back.

“What’s ‘balm’?”

“Like lip balm. A salve.”

“Oh! It’s ‘One’ again—questioning the Teller. It’s ‘One’ not finding an answer.”

“Not accepting an answer.”

“And the Teller speaks again, telling him everything is okay.”

“Except he doesn’t believe it. Whatever has happened is so bad, he even questions God.”

“Wow.”

And then, silence.

When we resume talking, students are quick to say—and confident now in saying—that “One” is anyone, so the poem can apply universally. “This enormous business” is unspecified for the same reason—and that means the poem can apply to many situations.

Too many of my students have already experienced tragedy, grief, and despair in their own lives. They make the jump to divorce, separation, untimely death, to betrayal by a friend, to abandonment by an adult—to myriad experiences that could force a person to confront an unpleasant truth—and come of age.

And then they know how Jem felt.

Silence again.

Quite often, someone in the class offers a final idea.

“You know, this may be about growing up, but even adults feel this way sometimes. My mom did when my dad left.”

How right that observation is. There is no time limit on innocence, no age limit on hope.

“So it could be about Atticus. He could have felt that way and then resolved his feeling by thinking the two-hour delay in the verdict was a step forward.”

It could be, indeed. Enormous business can level us all, even a hero.

I love teaching this lesson and the technique of “unveiling” a poem. As students pick out the clues, they build meaning and expand their understanding beyond the text. They see the relevance to the story we are reading, but they can apply the meaning of the poem to their own lives as well. They think deeply about an idea—in this case, the transformative effect of a confrontation experience.

What else is wonderful is that they figure the poem out for themselves.

I don’t tell them anything.

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4 thoughts on “Harper Lee’s Enormous Gift

  1. This is powerful stuff, not only for figuring out the answer but more importantly, that they figured it out themselves and can see how it relates to themselves. Thanks for sharing. You do great stuff for our children.

    Like

  2. This is great! There has been so much emphasis on the character of Atticus in the media after Watchman was published that people miss the coming-of-age aspect of the novel. Thanks for sharing your expertise and the poem.

    Like

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