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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About the Dog

But I must have been reasonably awake, or I would not have received the impression that was creeping into me. It was not unlike one I had last winter, and I shivered, though the night was hot. The feeling grew until the atmosphere in the courtroom was exactly the same as a cold February morning, when mockingbirds were still, and the carpenters had stopped hammering on Miss Maudie’s new house, and every wood door in the neighborhood was shut as tight as the doors of the Radley place. A deserted, waiting, empty street, and the courtroom was packed with people.

I thought I was done writing about To Kill a Mockingbird, but a colleague recently asked me a question about the dog.

Tim Johnson, I mean: the rabid dog that Atticus shoots in Chapter 10.

Sometimes Chapter 10—the mad dog chapter—is anthologized as a stand-alone short story. In that case, it’s a lovely piece about a boy coming to see his father as a hero. Chapter 11 isn’t accorded the same status—I don’t see it ever as a stand-alone—but these two chapters, which seem to most students at first read to be unrelated to either the Boo Radley story or the Tom Robinson story are, I contend, the two most important chapters in the book. In them, Harper Lee lays the groundwork for the major themes of the novel, and the story of Atticus shooting the dog does more than round out his character by giving us some background information on his “talent.” It establishes him for certain as the hero of the story: an epic hero, to be precise. The Mrs. Dubose chapter gives us the hero’s own definition of courage.

But back to the dog.

Tim Johnson is very much a character in this story. His name is the first clue. He’s not Spot or Old Blue or Rover or any other identifiable dog name. He’s Tim Johnson. A human’s name.

That Atticus kills him is the second clue that he’s important.

Tim Johnson is lurching down the street on a cold February morning. Calpurnia summons the sheriff in a frantic phone call, herds the children inside, and defies common sense and convention by running up on the Radley’s front porch to warn the occupants not to open their door. A mad dog is coming.

photo of rabies notesThe day before we discuss Chapter 10 in class, my homework assignment is for students to look up “rabies” online and write down its causes, its symptoms, and its treatment. The next day, we brainstorm all of that on the board.

The key thing is this: Rabies is a disease of the central nervous system, a disease of the mind. It makes the dog (or person) who has it irrational, unpredictable, and erratic. The victim will attack anything in its path. Rabies spreads by a bite—by mouth—and the treatment is painful. Treated too late, the disease is fatal.

For a dog as far gone as Tim Johnson, the only thing to do is to shootphoto 2 of rabies notes him. And that is what Atticus does. He stands in the middle of a deserted street, takes aim, fires, and the dog falls over, dead.

Like all epic heroes, though, Atticus is reluctant to undertake this task; he steps in only because no one else can or will. Heck Tate relies on Atticus to do the job because, as we (along with Jem and Scout) find out, Atticus was called “Ol’ One Shot” when he was a boy.

At this point, I just let that information sink in and we go on to Chapter 11. Here we learn that Atticus thinks the vitriolic Mrs. Dubose is the “bravest lady he ever knew.” She fights a morphine addiction so she can die free and clear. No need for that. She’s going to die, so who cares if she’s addicted? Atticus says she’s brave because “It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

This is all groundwork for the trial. Established beyond a doubt as the hero of the book, we now want to know, will our hero live up to his own definition of courage in the second half of the book? And what about that dog? What does Tim Johnson represent?

Occasionally, an alert student will remember that Atticus referred to “Maycomb’s usual disease” when he was talking to his brother, Jack—and that we all read “prejudice” into that remark. Once in a great while, a student will remember (or the teacher–that would be me–will recall) the description in Chapter 5 of Miss Maudie vehemently attacking the nut- grass in her yard, telling the children that “one sprig of nut-grass can ruin a whole yard.” The wind, she said, would spread the seed all over Maycomb County—an occurrence that would resemble an “Old Testament pestilence.”

If they do remember this early groundwork, that reinforces the unmistakable connection students make when Bob Ewell takes the stand in Part II of the novel. Irrational, unpredictable, and erratic, Bob spews his verbal venom on Tom Robinson, Mayella Ewell’s target and the only witness to Bob Ewell’s vicious response when he sees her through the window, accosting Robinson. Rabies, of course, is meant to represent prejudice…

“And Bob’s the mad dog!” I usually don’t need to draw the analogy myself. The students get it.

Atticus knows how the trial will end before it even begins—but he goes forward with his defense of Tom anyway. Why?

Because he must.

He’s already explained that to his brother Jack. It’s the right thing to do, but he runs the risk of his children being morally injured—the trial and the vitriol may be so hard on them that they’ll be resentful and catch the disease. But if he doesn’t do the right thing, he tells Jack, he couldn’t look his children in the eye. So it’s at great personal risk—typical of the epic hero—that he steps forward to do what heroes do.

And why does Ewell bring charges against Tom? Tom isn’t going to report him. No way. So why does Ewell do it?

Because he can.

Prejudice has completely consumed him.

Prejudice has so poisoned the town (except for a few souls like Atticus, Miss Maudie, and we later discover, Judge Taylor and Heck Tate) that Ewell seizes his opportunity to attack Tom. He knows full well that Tom will be convicted. For once in his life, Ewell thinks, he will be the recipient of the town’s gratitude and be “one up” on his moral superior, the black man who lives down the road.

Except that, when the trial is over, the town despises Ewell all the more. The people know the truth, even though the men on the jury convict Tom. Except for a Cunningham who makes the jury deliberate for a few hours—a record for a case like this in the 1930s—the men on the jury are, after all, only men. They’ve been infected, too, and can’t see beyond society’s unwritten black and white rules.

Just as Atticus is only a man. He lifts the gun in the courtroom, fires—and misses. But everyone knows the truth. He has made them know it.

Mayella is shamed, Ewell is despised even more, Atticus is sickened, and Jem learns a bitter truth: The justice system he idealizes is flawed. An innocent man has been convicted. Even his father, whom he idolizes by now, can’t make things right. With this loss of innocence, Jem comes of age.

A lot is being said about close reading these days, and that’s exactly the way all this about mad dogs—and later about mockingbirds—is revealed. With that and some carefully placed questions. I don’t lecture—that’s not my style and not my forte. But we read and reread, the students and I, and through that process, from all corners of the room, comes the understanding that the dog and Bob Ewell are inextricably linked, that the two episodes are meant to be compared.

A single, strangely-constructed sentence seals it: A deserted, waiting, empty street, and the courtroom was packed with people.

So about the dog…

Call and Response

Once in a while, someone is gracious enough to invite me into their room, not to observe or to lend a hand, but to teach the class. To orchestrate the lesson. To set the purpose, plan the activity, lead the students, and make the close.  Last week, a colleague asked me to do just that. I’ve been singing ever since.

It isn’t easy for a high school teacher to surrender his or her classroom to the instructional coach. In elementary school, people come into and leave from classrooms all day long. The principal drifts in and out and is not just there for formal evaluations. Volunteer parents, reading tutors, paras, aides, and specialists of all kinds are constants in the elementary classroom background, and when someone else leads a lesson, it’s not a big deal. Kids don’t wonder why.

But in a secondary classroom, there are no reading tutors and parent volunteers. Aides are largely silent, and when the principal is present, it is almost always to conduct an evaluation. So if someone else leads the class, unless it’s a guest speaker with credentials to warrant a special presentation on the topic at hand, inquiring students are likely to wonder, “Why isn’t my teacher doing this?” Or the teacher may fear that the kids are wondering that.

It takes an unusually confident person–or a person who’s comfortable saying he or she isn’t an expert at everything–to let the coach model a strategy or demonstrate a technique.

It’s not without danger for me, either, teaching that class.  My reputation is on the line and so is my own self-esteem. The students aren’t mine. I have no relationship with them. Nothing to draw on if the lesson goes awry. No prior knowledge about their dispositions, proclivities, interests, or backgrounds. I don’t know their hot buttons or what might make them laugh or cry. I’ve got to establish credibility in the first fifteen seconds and maintain momentum for the whole fifty minutes. If it goes right, it feels at the end like a song.

Recently, I had a conversation with a singer-songwriter new to my town and at the beginning of her career. On a nippy Saturday morning, I watched her perform at our local Farmers Market. She was pounding the keyboard with gusto and singing her heart out. The people gathered around her were swaying back and forth, keeping time with their feet, nodding and bending in sync with her rhythm. It was as much fun to watch them as it was to watch her.

Afterwards, I remarked on the energy she expended, the connection she’d created, and the fun she seemed to be having. “Call and response” she said, using the term to describe the electricity between the performer and the audience–and I thought to myself then, that’s just what teaching, when it goes well, is: call and response. Like an old-time preacher and the congregation.

The lesson I taught last week was Robert Burns’ poem, “To a Mouse.” The class had just finished Of Mice and Men, and the teacher had asked me to model for the students the close reading technique I love so well, the one I call the “slow reveal,” where line-by-line the teacher guides the student from the beginning to the end of the poem, helping the students discover for themselves the gradual accumulation of meaning.

I had created a two-columned handout for the students, the poem as Burns originally wrote it and, beside it, the standard modern translation. I asked the students to skim the original first to find the line that Steinbeck was alluding to when he wrote Of Mice and Men, and then my colleague played an online recording of that original poem. They could find the line–The best laid schemes o’ mice and men/Gang aft agley–but the poem mystified almost everyone.

We dispensed with the Gaelic for the time, and worked our way through the modern version, focusing our attention on words they didn’t know– timorous, dominion, social union, ensuing–and the capitalized words–Man and Nature. I drew their attention to the two colons–a punctuation mark with authority, used twice in this poem, in both cases to announce a key idea. In the first instance:

But Mousie, you are not alone

In proving that foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes of mice and men

Go oft astray

And  leave us nothing but grief and pain

Instead of promised joy!

More words to be sure we know: Foresight. Vain. Prospects. I hear a few gasps as students make the connection to Lennie and George and the collapse of their dream of a little plot of land where they could live and raise rabbits and live off the “fatta the lan’.”  I slip in the word allusion again and move to the turn, a word in a poem that signifies the poet is going to stand an idea on its head.

And Burns does. Nice as the connection of the penultimate stanza is to George and Lennie’s schemes gone awry, it is not all that Burns has to say. The last stanza features  another colon announcing another idea, the one that has propelled this poem about a mouse whose home has been plowed up by a farmer from the realm of simple and sweet to profound and memorable.

In this last stanza, the poet makes the distinction between Man and Nature, between the farmer and the mouse, (as Steinbeck implies centuries later, between George and Lennie): Still, you are blessed, compared with me!

What? The mouse is luckier than the man? How can that be?

I say: “See that word Still? What does it mean here?”

They say: “But.”

“Yet.”

“However.”

“Even though everything I have said is true, there’s more.”

I say: “Yes!”

Still, you are blessed, compared with me!

Only this moment touches you:

But oh! I backward cast my eye

On prospects turned to sadness!

And though forward I cannot see,

I guess and fear!

They say:

“The farmer is cursed by his memory of the past!”

“By its disappointments.”

“He fears the future!”

“He can’t see what will happen and he’s afraid.”

“The mouse lives only in the present!”

“So what do you think?” I ask. “Who is luckier? Lennie or George?  Don’t shout it out. Think before you answer. Relate your answer to the story and explain yourself.”

Hands everywhere.

“Lennie: He dies happy, looking across the water and imagining the farm.”

“Lennie: Because George has to live with what he’s done for the rest of his life.”

“George: Because at least he’s alive!”

“Lennie: Because he doesn’t experience regret. Or fear. He just thinks about those rabbits.”

Then my colleague played the recording again–the original.

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!

Still thou art blest, compared wi’ me!

The present only toucheth thee:

But och! I backward cast my e’e,

On prospects drear! An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,

I guess an’ fear!

Ah…it makes sense now. Some of the students even prefer the Gaelic. Especially Gang aft agley. Much more expressive, much more memorable than Go oft astray.

At the end of the hour, as the class was filing out, a boy approached me. He’d been too shy to speak up in class, but he was brave enough to say to me privately, “I was going to say George because Lenny has only one emotion, really. One idea. He’s limited. George can experience things. He can do new things and feel things and see color and well…learn.”

Call and response. Like a song.

The Text, The Students, and Me

“Mrs. Powley! How do you know all this stuff?”

I sometimes heard that question when I was the teacher at the front of the room, leading my students through Great Expectations, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby…and a library of other literary staples in the English Language Arts canon.

Such a remark was gratifying to hear because what it really meant was that the students had been awed by the text.

“I’ll never be able to read a book like that,” they would say.

“Yes, you will,” I’d answer. “It takes practice.”

And I had to be honest: “Do you think all this comes to me the very first time I read a book?”

I reread the text, I told them, every single time I taught it.  And every single time, I picked up on more subtleties, developed more insight, made more connections within the story and to the world outside my classroom.

“That’s what I’m trying to teach you,” I’d say. “How to read.”

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about an instructional strategy called “close reading.”  It’s the opposite of reading to get the gist of a piece; that is, reading to summarize.  The Common Core Standards document sets out as its aim that students should be able to “deeply” analyze a piece of “rich text”—it doesn’t matter whether fiction or non-fiction—in order to understand how an author has constructed meaning.

A close reading of text is a rereading of a small slice of a story (or something that is short to begin with, like a poem or an essay)—perhaps rereading it many times. Then, through careful inspection of words, sentences, paragraphs, and the way they work as parts and together as a whole, the teacher leads the students to discern the author’s meaning.  Students are guided to provide “textual evidence” that the author’s meaning is what it is. They can’t  guess, based only their prior knowledge and a cursory look at the words on the page, what the author intends.  This means, practically, that a Cliff Note’s acquaintanceship with the text won’t cut it.

The more I have read, these past few months, about “close reading,” the more familiar it has seemed to me. That’s because, in the very best of my literature lessons, that is what I had been working at for years.

Reading about this “new” instructional strategy has set me to thinking about my long journey through pedagogy and practice, about all the strategies and instructional supports I’ve used throughout the years as I’ve tried to help students make meaning of words on a page.

When I began teaching, the hardest thing for me was to get a good class discussion going.  I didn’t seem to ask the kinds of questions that led to scintillating discussions of life, death, and everything important in between, the kinds of discussions star teachers reported having, discussions where the classroom rhetoric soared and kids came away with life-changing notions about the universe and their place in it.

My questions were the standard ones—and don’t get me wrong, they weren’t unimportant—about the plot of a story, the characters in it, the symbols, point of view, setting, and how they all contributed to the themes of whatever book we were reading.  I’d plod along, chapter by chapter, and it seemed to me the conversation was stiff.  I wasn’t sure where discussions might go, what kids might say, so I pretty much stuck to the script.  Still, kids read the books and told me they enjoyed them.  (Some didn’t, I’m sure.)

I thought maybe the stiffness came from the way I was approaching the stories, so for a while I depended upon the textbook to set the pace. Sometimes, I found, those questions were fine, but sometimes I thought they required the kids to make fantastic leaps of insight.  Other times I thought they didn’t emphasize what was really important.

Like a lot of novice teachers, I used to think the textbook company was the authority on curriculum and instruction. I guess I imagined the editors sitting around having deep conversations about theories of writing instruction and seminal works of literature and the evolution of the novel as an art form.  Presumably, those fervent conversations ended with the editors scurrying to their office cubicles, like monks burning with the faith, to annotate a text and develop the accompanying questions.

Eventually, thank goodness, I realized that the editors were concerned with real things—like wooing customers and cutting production costs—and that the actual writing of the text and the materials to go with it were contracted to consultants.  Thus, the questions in the textbook were only as good as the consultant who wrote them.  And that consultant was a human being—just like me.  With that bit of enlightenment, I felt justified in choosing not to use the questions at the end or to use only some of them.

I tried various “frames” for asking questions. One that teachers use frequently to develop comprehension skills sorts questions into a three-tiered hierarchy. The first questions are “right there” in the text—a student has only to skim and scan for the answer; the second ones require making inferences—the student finds two (or more) bits of information and puts them together in her head. The third tier questions require the student to make a connection to something else she has learned in English class or in another class or even to something she knows from life experience.  Not bad, this frame, but it didn’t always serve my purpose.

There are 4-level frames and other 3-level frames, too, but none of them were fail safe structures. Besides, I’m an English teacher, and what I really wanted—increasingly so as the years went by—was for kids to see how the metaphorical language worked, how the word choice mattered, how images supported meaning, how rhetorical devices helped the writer accomplish his or her purpose.  I was interested in how the author made meaning, in the craft of writing.

I grew to dislike the 4-pound literary anthology that, for the most part, gave students snippets of text (the last one devoted exactly one page to Moby-Dick), the easiest or shortest story an author had written, and poems that were perhaps the most accessible to students but not necessarily the richest.  Today, a typical anthology is accompanied by an even heavier teacher’s edition, the pages so packed on the sides and along the bottom with suggestions for teaching that the literary text in question is condensed to 8-point type.  I could barely read it.

And that doesn’t include the ancillary materials supplied by the publisher—supplementary vocabulary instruction, grammar exercises, practice tests, overhead transparencies, writing prompts, and daily oral language items (DOL, as we say in the business)—that escalate the cost of these anthologies. So much help for the teacher is provided that I found it paralyzing.  Too many choices.

I yearned for it to be just the text, the students, and me.

And that is how I came to “close reading,” even though I had never heard the term.  I stopped plodding through the anthology, stopped trying to create artificial discussions, stopped trying to cover everything.  From a chunk of text that I believed was pivotal in terms of the story or central to developing the themes of a book or key to understanding the author’s style, I’d ask questions that demanded a close look at word choice, at sentence structure, at metaphorical language, at rhetorical devices. Slowly, sometimes dramatically, big ideas would emerge. Then kids would say, “I get it!” or “Wow!” or “Oh, my gosh.” They’d grasp the beauty of what the author had accomplished and appreciate—really appreciate—how she had accomplished it.  Sometimes we made connections from there—to their own worlds or to other things we’d talked about or they’d learned elsewhere—but these connections stemmed from real knowledge of the text, not from idle remarks, snatched from thin air.

Of course, “close reading” is not all that I did in the classroom.  And I wish I could say this kind of epiphany happened every day and every time I taught a poem, an essay, a story, or a passage from a book.  It didn’t.  But when it did, it came about from something deep inside the text, the students, and me. And it came often enough that I know this “close reading” strategy isn’t just another instructional fad.

Besides, the best teachers I know do the very same thing.  They bring their students face-to-face with the words in the text. We don’t all follow the same procedures or choose to emphasize the same thing, but we get the same results: Kids learn to read, really read.

This Enormous Business

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.