Published in McSweeney's Issue #33, The San Francisco Panorama, Tuesday, December 8, 2009.
I can't publish the PDF, so here's the whole article about the impact reading with my students had on me when I was a teacher, and the travel those experiences inspired.
It seems like you can hear the train almost anywhere you stand in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s the soundtrack at the BBQ joint and the downtown high-rise hotel, at the drive-in theater, closed for the winter. And if you, like me, have read The Outsiders more than a few times, the train whistle in Tulsa makes you think of just one thing: the characters Johnny and Ponyboy hopping a boxcar to escape the trouble chasing them in this city. I’ve wanted to visit Tulsa for years, just because The Outsiders is set here. I was a teacher once, and it was the first book I taught successfully, and I had to make a pilgrimage.
I’ve made other journeys for books I taught. I’ve negotiated the subway system of Mexico City, taken road trips to tiny south Texas towns, visited island barracks with Chinese poetry carved into the walls, and flown to New Zealand all because of the powerful effect the books I taught – some of which I’d read twenty-plus times -- had on me. Educators think a lot about literature’s impact on kids; we pick stories hoping to engage students and build their skills, and search for the magic books that will turn students into lifelong readers. But how often do we consider how the books we teach are important to us?
I am maybe unduly influenced by sense of place. Once I’d lived and taught in rural Georgia, REM’s songs, Flannery O’Conner’s stories and Alice Walker’s essays all made much more sense. And I’ll travel almost anywhere, often because I met someone from there, or read a book or article that piqued my interest. When I read for pleasure, I can’t help but sense the setting’s smell and climate, picture the architecture. As a teacher, I encouraged my students to do the same. Maps covered the classroom so that my students and I could obsessively locate the tiny towns mentioned in stories. We’d track Malcolm X’s travels and Polynesian migration, marvel at the sheer size of Texas and imagine all-black towns on the shores of Lake Erie.
So it was really no surprise that I found myself crawling under the gate at Tulsa’s Admiral Drive-In this fall, scenes from The Outsiders playing in my head. I drove to Will Rodgers High School, where class tensions prompted a teen-age S.E. Hinton to write The Outsiders in 1967. I snapped pictures of the school’s art deco grandeur and “gun-free zone” signs. I watched a film at the revamped Circle Cinema, used as the neighborhood theater in the 1983 movie. It’s not that I expected some version of Ponyboy to walk by; this isn’t 1960s Tulsa. Today’s Circle Cinema is, after all, a stone’s throw away from a supermercado, and hopeful developers are saving historic buildings from the wrecking ball, converting them to lofts. But neighborhoods of modest homes surrounded by chain-link fences, contrasted with south-side mansions from Tulsa’s oil-rich history, point to the pervasiveness of the disparity Hinton described 40 years ago. I had to pay my respects.
Why? The Outsiders saved me my first year of teaching. I’d moved across the country to teach in rural Georgia, and experienced the first real failure of my life. I was a terrible novice teacher, with no instincts for classroom management, easily crushed when my earnestness wasn’t enough to transfer my passion for written stories to my disenfranchised students. After the tragic-comedy of my first months as a teacher, my students’ captivation with The Outsiders caught me off guard. They energetically debated causes and solutions to the book’s class conflict, and so identified with characters that many thought the Greasers were African-American (several got pretty mad at me when I told them otherwise). For many students, The Outsiders was the first book they read cover to cover. Maybe because I felt I’d finally done something right, as I read the last page of the book aloud to my first period class, I choked up. , Patrice, in the second row, finished reading while her classmates stared at their teacher, tears streaming down her face because of some words on a page. Hinton’s story just rings true, to all kinds of outsiders.
Years later, at a San Francisco high school, my teaching team worried over our school’s struggling Polynesian population. When I found the book The Whale Rider (the basis for the sleeper hit movie) I bought forty copies, charging my credit card so I could start the school year with this story. My Samoan students (who share pieces of history and culture with the Maori, like a warrior dance called the haka and sea god Tangaroa) connected to the book’s cultural references and sensibilities. But The Whale Rider’s conflicts -- rejecting or maintaining tradition, sticking with or separating from family, believing in destiny or personal choice – gave all of my 10th graders an entry point for making sense of their own communities in crisis. After a bullet intended for another youth killed one of their 3rd period classmates, Deshawn, my students’ first healing conversations started with The Whale Rider; they asked me to read the paper in which Deshawn had written about his destiny.
And so when I left teaching, I travelled the South Pacific with a visit to The Whale Rider village of Whangara (pronounced fa-nga-RA), New Zealand at the trip’s core. I drove the north island’s East Coast -- the least-habited, least-visited, most Maori region -- listening to Maori-language radio and counting the number of Maori meeting spaces (maraes) visible from the road, their unmistakable carving and red paint dotting the landscape. I made plans to meet a village elder, Hone Taumaunu, in Whangara and once I wound down to the coast past a handful of houses, I saw that Taumaunu, except for his warm smile, could have been the model for The Whale Rider’s gruff patriarch, Koro Apirana. Over the next five hours, I talked about my students’ responses to the book, and Taumaunu told me about author Witi Ihimaera’s family history in Whangara (“He felt he was imbued with the presence of the ancestors and that place”), explaining meanings of carvings, paintings and weavings on the marae, telling me the tribe’s story of the whale rider Paikea. Our discussion of The Whale Rider, and the Maori beliefs on which it was based, led to talk about Maori culture, and its maintenance through language, about the history of Maori education through colonialism and bilingual resurgence. The day could only have been better if my rental car was full of teenagers, if Drew, Mape and Peter were the ones peppering Taumaunu with questions.
After I left teaching, it hit me that the greatest reading joy I've ever had was reading, and re-reading, with and for my students. I’d felt victorious when I found texts that both hooked reluctant readers and were well suited for teaching the standards. And I was gleeful when I found books whose depth continued to engage me class after class. Reading books I loved with kids, many of whom were just identifying as readers, was like being in the best book club I could imagine.
On a trip to Texas, I brought a copy of Woman Hollering Creek, a book I’d taught for many years. In her stories, the author Sandra Cisneros, humanizes people who often go unseen -- a street vendor, a girl of the brink of adolescence, an undocumented woman in a souring marriage – and she treats these characters with a tenderness and frustration and complexity that mirrored the feelings I had for my students. The book’s based widely around and across Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, and I helped root the stories by telling my students about my road trips across Texas (stopping to see Cisneros’s famed purple house in San Antonio) and visit to Mexico City (and the basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe one of the book’s recurring images). But it was my students with Southern-based families and ties to Mexico who were the experts on language and setting. They taught each other – and me – new ways to read this book.
Now, driving small roads down to the Mexican border, I stopped in towns like Beeville and Falfurrias to take pictures of water towers and little houses, thinking of the characters, and the students who read about them. What did Cisneros imagine happened to the closeted gay soldier, whose boyfriend pinned a milagro up in a church? Could I dare to hope that Tee Tee and Jaleace and my other students applied to their own lives the lessons learned by Cisneros’s characters? Do teenagers ever? Did I do the book, and my students, justice? Do teachers ever?
It was crucial that I visit Sequin, the setting of the title story “Woman Hollering Creek.” In it, Cisneros re-imagines the South-western/Mexican myth of La Llorona (the crying woman), who committed infanticide in an attempt to lure back a straying lover and who, according to legend, haunts riverbeds in search of her children. Cisneros’s creek-side version details the life of an undocumented bride from Mexico, whose new husband quickly changes from prince to abuser. Over the years, my students and I tracked the changing meanings of the “hollering” in the story – shock, pain and rage, the confidence of a confidant, a “ribbon of laughter” as the main character escapes.
In Seguin, I listened for the shh-shh-shh of the trees and drove by houses picturing the protagonist, her abusive husband, the women she went to for help, and the untold stories lurking just behind the curtains here and anywhere. I snapped photos of “landmarks” infused with meaning only because of my teaching – a cross-street, the bronze pecan statue in the town square – and almost wanted to shout at oblivious passers-by “Do you know what this is? What this place inspired?” But if teaching is an isolating craft, remembering the act of teaching is even more so. And so as I drove out of town (over the trickle of water called, in fact, Woman Hollering Creek) I let out a huge holler myself. It was a cry of relief and loss, yearning and joy, because I got to share these great stories with students, and because I know I’ll never read that purposefully and intimately again.
Sidebar: Recommended for Teen Readers
Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros
Sandra Cisneros takes iconic stories from Catholicism, Mexican myths and American pop culture and bends them. Little girls obsess over storytelling with Barbie dolls, and buy theirs for reduced cost at a market, melted and smoky from a warehouse fire. A college graduate rejects the traditional female role her family expects her to take up and finds power, not sublimation, in her devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe. An adolescent girl’s assumed death makes her the subject of attention (and jealousy); her discovery three days is hailed as a near resurrection. Each story is packed with such compelling stuff that students didn’t balk when I slipped in some feminist theory.
Sula by Toni Morrison
Morrison’s language, cadence and symbolism seduce even the most reluctant reader into going to this place, and looking closely at words. Sula is about an African American neighborhood in Ohio, but it’s really about what my colleague described as “the pain and deliciousness of relationships.” Its story asks questions teens grapple with: How far will people go to be good parents (as when a mother kills her drug-addicted son)? What lines can’t be crossed in a friendship or a marriage (as when a friend sleeps with her best friend’s husband)? How does war affect a town (as when the whole neighborhood mimics a veteran’s shell shock)? What constitutes a full life (living for yourself, or for others)? Students bring their own questions: How did an all-black town exist in Ohio? What are the long-term consequences of slavery? What’s up with the name Shadrack (or Ajax, or Eva Peace, or Dewey, Dewey and Dewey)?
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
It’s almost cliché to claim that reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X can be transformative. But for my urban teen readers – especially the boys – it often was. It often felt to me that a few students just carried themselves differently during and after reading this book. Students shaped by institutional racism were often shocked, and buoyed, by the anger and the elegance of the book, and the model of a man constantly learning, reflecting, transforming. From his childhood framed by both racial pride and race-based violence to his hustling young adulthood and jail-house conversion, to his ascension through the Nation of Islam as a counterpoint to more mainstream civil-rights figures, to his leadership on the world stage, Malcolm X’s life riveted teens.