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.

Beyond the Pages

A few days ago, a young teacher (once upon a time,  a student at my high school) approached me after a workshop I’d conducted. “Tell me,” he said, “that I really did meet Gwendolyn Brooks when I was in high school. Her poetry has made such an impact on me.  She’s the opposite of me: black/white; female/male. She was old; I was young. But, I really connected with her. ‘We real cool’…She gets it. She really gets it.”

He was about to introduce her poetry to his 7th graders, so I dug through my personal “archives”—fat 3-ring binders with memos, schedules, programs evaluations, contracts, and photographs that I’ve kept all these years—and found a poster, a program, and a newspaper article from 1994 to help him recall the events of that day. The search took me back, too—refreshed my own memory of what was, for seven years, an extraordinary interdisciplinary, literary arts program in my high school. We called it Beyond the Pages.

 Some snapshots from those days:

  • Gwendolyn Brooks carried books in her deep, omnipresent satchel. In the middle of an intense conversation with a teenage writer, this Pulitzer Prize-winning poet reached into her bag, withdrew a volume of her poetry, and gave it to the student.
  • W. P. Kinsella, author of Shoeless Joe, carried a photograph of the real Moonlight Graham in his wallet. While he was talking with students in my class, he casually removed the wallet from his pocket and passed the picture around the room.
  • Retired Chicago Tribune editor, John T. McCutcheon, Jr., carried words and images from history-making news events in his memory. He described the atmosphere in the pressroom during the Watergate era to a hushed audience of high school journalists and their teachers.

Beyond the Pages brought students face-to-face with authors whose work they had studied. In the library, in classrooms, in the halls, and even in the cafeteria, writers with international reputations talked casually with McCutcheon students, carrying them beyond the pages of their textbooks to interactions with the authors themselves.

The goal was simple: to spark students’ interest in reading.  National statistics showed then—20 years ago—that the percentage of students who read for pleasure every day dropped by half between elementary school and high school–from 45% in Grade 4 to 24% in Grade 12.  Beyond the Pages was a commitment to reversing this trend.

IMG_1755The program began with a dream.  The English curriculum already included W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe when I met the author at a writing workshop in (of course) Iowa.  After listening to Kinsella discuss his book, I approached him: “If we asked you, would you come?” He told me to contact his agent.

I did.

Dream became reality when the principal endorsed the idea and the English Department signed on to plan the visit.  The success of that first event spurred the decision to continue the program on an annual basis. Eventually, Beyond the Pages branched out beyond the English Department, becoming interdisciplinary and theme-related.  Not only did teachers in other departments incorporate the writer’s work into their lessons, but faculty from many different departments served on the steering committee.  Students were represented on the committee, too, and they helped with promotional activities, art work, and myriad details.

The authors were guests at the school for one to three days.  While they were with us, they participated in a variety of small group interactions and addressed the students in all-school convocations.  The format changed from year to year; activities were tailored to the writer and to the connection between his or her work and the curriculum. Delightful spontaneous events also transpired.

  • Before Kinsella visited, my students studied his work and developed a list of interview questions. When he arrived, the television production class filmed an hour long interview in the school’s TV studio. I still have the tape.
  • In 1996, seven local writers—in a warm-up to Esmeralda Santiago’s visit—discussed their careers in small seminars.
  • In 1997, actress Annie Corley (a graduate of the high school) conducted mock-auditions in the school’s sound studio using real television scripts from episodes of Friends.
  • Scott Russell Sanders’ visit occurred when one English class was writing term papers on Indiana authors. He graciously made time for the young woman writing about him to conduct an impromptu interview.
  • P. Kinsella took a break from filming his interview to meet the special needs students whose classroom was next to the TV studio. The students were studying careers at the time, so Kinsella talked to them about the writing life.
  • And Gwendolyn Brooks gave her home address to several earnest young writers and encouraged them to send her their poems.

Jerry ScottThe program served 1100 high school students and 70 staff members, and each year the literary celebration expanded to include students and teachers from elementary schools within the district.  In 1993, for example, cartoonist Jerry Scott taught an auditorium full of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders how to draw the cartoon character NANCY.

Fundamental to the program’s success:

Teachers and students were given the opportunity to lead and the responsibility for the success of the program.

Teachers contracted with the artists, conducted the fund-raising efforts, organized the events, handled the publicity, planned the dinners, wrote the grants for funding, arranged transportation and accommodations for the authors, and conducted evaluations.  The Advanced Home Economics students prepared a luncheon for the guest author.  Students served on the steering committee, designed and printed the posters and programs, produced artistic displays, ushered, ran errands, and more.  The preparation for Gwendolyn Brooks’ visit took seven months of planning, 350 combined teacher hours of preparation, and the active involvement of scores of students—but it was done in a spirit of community. It felt like love, not labor.Brooks signing autographs

Beyond the Pages was grounded in the curriculum.

  • Every English class studied Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry in preparation for her appearance, and students clamored for more. When she read aloud at an all-school convocation, students listened spellbound.  For the first time ever, some students told us, they felt the power of poetry.
  • When Jerry Scott brought his cartoon characters to life on an overhead projector and told students he was the “shortest short story writer in the world,” creative writing students had already written their own short stories and tried their hand at cartooning.
  • Before Scott Sanders visited McCutcheon in 1995, students in geography classes had created murals to illustrate his book Wilderness Plots. The murals were hung in the auditorium and became a focal point during Sanders’ special session with these students. In their biology and agriculture classes, students had begun creating a prairie on school property and identifying botanical species on an adjacent woodlot.  When the author arrived, the students took him on a tour of their “outdoor lab” and discussed the projects planned for the future.Sanders
  • In 1995, two other authors whose writing focuses on the geography and history of early Indiana appeared at the school in the spring to climax a year-long interdisciplinary study of “The Wilderness Experience.” Author James Alexander Thom, who had written about the Shawnee chief Tecumseh in Panther in the Sky, shared Native American stories with American history students.  Dark Rain Thom, a Shawnee clan mother, assembled her collection of Native American artifacts in the school library and provided a narrated tour of her exhibit.

The program caught the imagination of the community.

The boldness of the project–inviting best-selling authors to a public school–captured the attention of the local media.  Newspaper, television, and radio coverage helped to spread the word beyond the school.  The program was even in the sports pages.  In 1992, Kinsella opened the baseball season at McCutcheon by pitching the first ball on the school’s own “field of dreams.”

Most years, members of the public were invited to attend an evening reading or a performance at the high school.  Attendance grew from 200 in 1992 to over 750 in 1994, the year that Gwendolyn Brooks spoke.  Beyond the Pages became a community event.  

We believed that these encounters with professional writers would be motivational for Santiagostudents. Indeed, English teachers saw an uptick in students’ understanding of how a writer works and an increase in their appreciation for books.  We provided students with rare opportunities to see professional writers at work and to ask questions about craft as well as biography.  One student wrote afterwards about Kinsella, “He taught me that writing takes a lot of preparation and time.”  Another student remarked that “it helps students write better if they understand how a professional does it.”

And individual students—like the young teacher who started me on this journey through my archives—were inspired and even changed by their interactions with the authors.

I’d be interested to learn about programs today in other schools in other places. Are author visitations still happening?  Who has come to your school? How was your program organized? What was the impact? Please respond in the comment box if you have memories from Beyond the Pages or stories to share about your own school’s program. I’m hoping events like this still go on.

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.