Great Reading Must Be Felt, Not Standardized

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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.”

He nodded.

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.

Why You Should Thank Harper Lee for Tearing Down Your Childhood Hero

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It’s been more than 50 years since Harper Lee published her Pulitzer Prize winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

In that time, a lot has changed and nothing has changed.

Our schools are still highly segregated and unequal – but we justify that with standardized test scores. Our prisons are still disproportionately filled with black and brown people – but we justify that with the War on Drugs. Racial minorities are still gunned down in the street while their killers get off scot-free – but we justify that with a dysfunctional justice system.

Yes, we have our first black president but most people of color still live under the shadow of white privilege and a government sanctioned caste system.

Now comes “Go Set a Watchman” a book Lee wrote before “Mockingbird” but that works best as a sequel.

Does it matter? Is it still relevant?

I’d say yes.  After all, the original was written as people across the nation were struggling to overthrow the old racist system. And today many of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are still engaged in that same struggle.

In a world where the majority cling desperately to colorblindness, it’s refreshing to read a book that proclaims black lives matter – even if it was written in the 1950s.

The most striking thing about the new novel is its portrayal of Atticus Finch. In “Mockingbird” he’s described as the quintessential hero – a white lawyer putting himself at great personal risk in a doomed attempt to defend an innocent black man. In “Watchman” Atticus is… well… a bit of a racist.

He’s 20 years older, has joined a neighborhood committee dedicated to keeping the races separate and we learn that at one time he had even been a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

How can we reconcile THIS Atticus with the one we remember from our childhoods? Is it even worth trying? Is the book worth reading?

Let’s start with the book’s literary value. Questions abound about its publication. Lee, 88, lives in a nursing home and is reportedly in ill health. After all this time, did she really want this book out there now or is that the result of overzealous publishers who know any book with her name on it will be a best seller? Moreover, her sister, Alice, served as a protector of Harper’s legacy but almost as soon as she died, the book was slated for publication.

And when you actually crack it open, it’s clear that certain passages are almost identical to others in “Mockingbird.” You can see how the one book lead to the other. Moreover, there are places that could use expansion and others that could use a bit of editing.

However, despite its shortcomings, from the first page to the last “Watchman” is like returning home to Maycomb County.

In the first chapter, we share a 20-something Jean Louise’s excitement on the train from New York south to visit her family, because we want to see these people again, too. Unlike a simple rereading of the classic “Mockingbird,” this time the characters have grown, changed and act in unexpected ways. Like our protagonist, though, we’re in for many a rude awakening.

Scout’s brother, Jem, is dead, and his absence is felt throughout most of the book. At first, I was angry about this. I thought it was simply bad writing, trying to artificially limit the characters. But then I realized Lee had already set up Jem’s demise back in “Mockingbird.” After all, their mother died around the same age from a heart attack – a congenital defect on her side of the family.

Jem’s absence is irksome because it’s real. Too many times in life people who mean so much to us just disappear leaving a hole never to be filled again.

Likewise, Dill is hardly to be seen. However, this shouldn’t be surprising. Both books are semi-autobiographical and his character is modeled after Harper’s childhood friend – Truman Capote. In the novel just as in life, our heroine, Scout/Harper, and Dill/Truman grew apart.

In his place we get Hank – a character never mentioned in “Mockingbird” but who apparently was around – somewhere. He serves as Scout’s boyfriend. Though he’s drawn a bit vaguely, through him we get to see the kind of woman Jean Louise has grown into.

The Scout of “Watchman” is different than her 6-8-year-old self, too. But it’s easy to see how the little girl of the previous book could become the intelligent but restless woman in this text.

Calpurnia is much changed. She no longer works for the family. In fact, she seems to have enclosed herself in the Quarter – the part of town where only the black people live.

With the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education,  Maycomb’s black folks seem much less inclined to smile and nod and serve every passing whim of white people. They have an inkling that maybe things could be different, that maybe they’re entitled to equal rights, after all. And these new possibilities come between Jean Louise and the woman who raised her more than any other.

Calpurnia is the one who explained to her what it means to be a woman. She explained everything from menstruation to sexual intercourse. Yet these new possibilities in social justice make it impossible for the two women to have a proper homecoming.

I wonder: would Jean Louise really not begrudge Calpurnia all the rights and privileges she so easily expects as her own right? It’s hard to say but still very sad.

On the other hand, Aunt Alexandra hasn’t changed much. She’s still disapproving, tyrannical yet emotional. Likewise, Uncle Jack is much the same. He’s grown more eccentric but it’s easy to recognize the friendly doctor who bandaged Scout’s hand after she punched her cousin for calling her father a racial epithet in “Mockingbird.” And neither does Atticus seem drastically different at first. He’s older and suffers from terrible arthritis. But at first glance he’s the same caring, wise paternal figure of our remembrances.

For about 100 pages the book is a mostly meandering return to a world we never thought we’d see again. Then everything changes with the bombshell of Atticus’ recent pro-segregation activities.

How can it be possible? Can this really be Atticus Finch? Or is this just bad writing?

We know the character is based on Harper’s own father, Amasa Lee. Is this really more of a portrait of the real man than the fictional one?

It’s hard to say. But as we read on it becomes clear that, yes, this is still the Atticus we remember. But we didn’t know him as well as we thought.

(WARNING: Limited spoilers ahead.)

The heart of the novel is when Jean Louise confronts her father about his seemingly new attitude. In typical Atticus style, he argues with her almost like he was defending himself in court. Some of his defense makes a weird kind of sense. He says he briefly joined the Klan just to see who was behind those hoods. He wanted to know whom he was dealing with. Moreover, his participation in this segregation society was to serve as a moderating influence. He wanted to make sure they didn’t get up to too much trouble.

But this is only half an answer. As he continues, it becomes clear that Atticus actually does believe some of the racist rhetoric of his times. He really doesn’t want black people and white people to be put on an equal footing. He justifies this by saying black people aren’t ready yet. They haven’t been prepared for the rights and privileges of white folks. Maybe some day they will be, but not today.

It’s a disgusting and patronizing argument – infantilizing an entire people. And hearing this out of Atticus mouth – it’s like seeing a spider crawl across a gorgeous face.

Similarly creepy is his appeal to state’s rights – an argument we still hear today from our Tea Party friends. Perhaps it WAS Southern white people’s responsibility to raise up the people of color in their midst – but if they weren’t going to do it, it was past time that someone did!

Scout doesn’t let her father get away with any of this. She does her best to verbally destroy him and run away forever.

But before she can escape, she runs into her Uncle Jack. What he does is equal parts rationality and sexism. I can’t imagine any modern author resolving the story this way. Perhaps that’s for the best. In some ways, Uncle Jack’s actions are more disturbing than Atticus’ opinions.

In the end, Scout learns to accept her father for who he is. Yes, he is dead wrong about black people, but most of the time he’s still the same loving Atticus. It’s a good point. How many people do you love who believe reprehensible things? Probably a lot. That doesn’t mean you stop loving them.

I’d say that’s the central point of the novel. Each of us is responsible for creating our own conscience. We can’t rely on any value system that comes to us prepackaged. We have to examine every facet of our worlds and decide what it is we truly believe. And in doing so we’ll probably reach divergent opinions.

The only way Lee could do that was by showing us the heroic Atticus as nothing but a flesh and blood human being, full of the same frailties and mistaken thinking.

In the end, Scout’s thoughts seem more modern than anyone else’s in the book, more in line with our own views about social justice. But her conclusion only goes so far. We’re still left with questions. How do we reach loved ones who disagree with us? How can we tell if our own ethical intuitions are correct? How can white folks best help people of color secure their rightful place in society?

None of these have answers, but Lee is still asking the right questions. More than 50 years later, we’re still searching for solutions.