I made my classes cry today.
That sounds terrible, but if I’m honest, I knew it would happen and meant to do it.
I teach in an urban district and most of my 8th grade students are African American and/or impoverished. We’re reading Harper Lee’s classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” together, and the kids were loving it.
Until today when we got to the verdict in the Tom Robinson trial.
Jaquan closed his book with wide eyes.
“What the heck happened?” he asked.
Other students in the room murmured their agreement.
“They found him guilty!? What the F!?”
“I hate this book.”
“This is so freakin’ racist.”
I let them go on for a moment.
Frankly, it was the reaction I had been expecting.
It happens every year around this time.
Until this moment, my kids were really into the book. They were enjoying the case and excited by how well the defense attorney, Atticus Finch, had proven that Tom, a black man in the 1930s South, is innocent of raping a white woman.
But even last night I knew what was coming. The next day – today – I’d have to go and break their hearts when they read what the jury actually decides. Some of them were bound to be crushed. And today they were.
For those who haven’t cracked this book open in decades, let me recap.
There is no physical evidence that the crime actually took place. Moreover, because of a crippling injury as a child, Tom is physically incapable of perpetrating the crime in the first place.
In a world where black males could be tortured and killed just for whistling at a white woman – like Emmett Till – it’s clear that Tom is the victim, not the aggressor.
It seems like a slam dunk case. Yet the all-white jury finds Tom guilty, and ultimately he is shot 17 times in prison after losing all hope and trying to escape.
It’s no wonder that when we read that cascade of Guilty’s from the jury’s mouths today, my kids couldn’t believe it.
Some of my best students closed the book or threw it away from them.
So I let them express their frustrations. Some talked about how the story hit too close to home. They have family members in jail or who have been killed in the streets by police. One girl even told us that she’s never met her own mother. The woman has been locked away since the child was an infant, and because of a missing birth certificate, my student hasn’t even been allowed to visit.
“Mr. Singer, when was this book written?” one of the girls in the back asked.
“The late 1950s,” I said.
“I thought you were going to say it just came out.”
And so we talked about what the book has to do with things happening today. We talked about Eric Garner. We talked about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray.
At a certain point, conversation ceased.
My class of rowdy teenagers became quiet. We could hear people stomping in the hall, a movie being shown a few doors down.
There might have been a few tears.
I knew it would happen.
Last night I debated softening the blow, preparing them for what was about to take place. When we read “The Diary of Anne Frank” a month ago, I made sure they’d know from the very beginning that Anne dies. It should have been no surprise to them when Anne and her family are captured by the Nazis. It’s scary and upsetting but not entirely unexpected.
However, with “Mockingbird” I just let events unfold. And I stand by that decision.
It’s frustrating and painful, but my students need to feel that. It’s something I can’t shield them from.
It’s not that they have never felt this way before. Many of them have experienced racism and injustice in their everyday lives. But for this book to really have the desired impact, they need to FEEL what the author meant. And it needs to come from the book, itself.
A book isn’t just sheets of paper bound together with glue and cardboard. It’s a living entity that can bite. That’s the power of literature.
I can’t in good conscience shield them from that. They need to see it and experience it for themselves.
Writer Flannery O’Connor put it like this:
“I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.
“When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.”
This is what our policymakers either misunderstand or forget when they demand we assess understanding with standardized tests.
The meaning of a story is not expressable in discrete statements A, B, C, or D. We wouldn’t read them if it was.
Every person is unique. So is every reaction to literature.
You can’t identify the meaning of this story on a multiple choice test. You can’t express what it means to YOU. All you can do is anticipate the answer the test maker expects. And that’s not reading comprehension. It’s an exercise in sycophantry. It teaches good toadying skills – not good reading strategies.
Perhaps that’s why Common Core encourages us to shy away from complex texts like “Mockingbird.” We’re told to focus on short snippets of fiction and to increase our student’s diet of nonfiction. Moreover, we’re told to stay away from narratives like Anne Frank’s. Instead, we should have our children read from a greater variety of genres including instruction books, spreadsheets, recipes – just the facts – because as Common Core architect David Coleman famously said, “No one gives a shit what you think or feel.”
Frankly, we don’t do a whole lot of that in my class. We still read literature.
Today, even after the blowout, we kept reading “Mockingbird.”
My kids suffered along with Jem and Scout. They reveled in Atticus’s example. They feared where it was all going.
And when class was over, a few of them had come around.
“This is such a good book, Mr. Singer,” one girl told me on the way out.
“Is Atticus going to die?” another asked to which I smiled and shrugged.
Jaquan stayed after the bell to ask his own question.
“Do you think in a hundred years things will be any different?”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean do you think people will still do things like THIS?” he said holding up his book.
I looked at him and swallowed.
“I don’t know, Jaquan,” I said. “But things are better now than they were. We can hope.”
I clapped him on the back and wished him a good weekend.
You don’t get that kind of reaction from Common Core, and you can’t assess it on a standardized test.
Students can’t ask such questions to computer programs.
They need teachers with the freedom to teach and assess as they see fit.
Otherwise, it is not just Tom Robinson that suffers a miscarriage of justice.
We all do.