"How many people in here have ever had something happen to them that made them feel so stupid and different and out of place?" We all raised our hands--yes, me too. And I told them about the time in first grade that I claimed I had a bobcat living in my garage. I had meant "tomcat," except I kind of also meant "bobcat," just because I thought bobcats were cool and that everyone would think I was also cool for having one such creature so accessible.
The problem with being in elementary school is that, though elementary kids don't always see things clearly, they can be quite good at seeing straight through them. While I tried to backpedal and claim that it was only a tomcat in the garage, no one forgot. Ever. Ten years later, schoolmates were still asking how the bobcat in my garage was doing. The confidence that had compelled shy, stringy little me to profess such a blatant lie had pushed me into shame. I have no idea why that burns at me today. I haven't cared about the bobcat since at least 1999.
I shared the bobcat story with my 8th graders, then asked again, "Have you felt that way? Have you felt so very far on the outside of things?" They were nodding. "Everyone does. Especially if you're living here in Spain, in a place where you'll never quite belong."
We read "A Rice Sandwich," an excerpt from The House on Mango Street. Sandra Cisneros, the author, grew up always feeling a little out of place in Chicago, where she lived with her Mexican father. The story was short--a page and a half, about a little girl who wants to eat her lunch at school instead of walking the four blocks home every day. Her mother writes her a permission note, and after being scolded by the nuns who run the school, she eats in the canteen like the other kids. She eats her rice sandwich--the family has no lunch meat--in the corner, realizing that even though she's finally sitting where she dreamed she'd sit, she still doesn't belong. She isn't like them. She may never be.
I read it with the 7th graders and was fine, but something caught me the second time around. One of my boys (we'll call him "Leprechaun" for now, as that potluck quip was his) is starting to display a particular sensitivity toward the hurts of others, and a few times during the reading, he said with complete sincerity, "That's so sad." I don't know what did it, but there was just something about the way he said it. I'm discovering in him this undercurrent of compassion that I hadn't seen at first. We finished the story, and he said it again: "That's so sad." And I swear the tears coming to my eyes were, just briefly, the same ones pushing up behind his.
There's something that can happen here if we let it, something I don't really remember doing in my high school English classes, and this is it: caring. If we just read stories to pick them apart, to find antagonists and plots and irony, then we are missing the fact that kids need more than an academic vocabulary with which to describe the stuff they read. Underneath every analysis and evaluation and literary essay ever written, beneath all the layers of program and curriculum sitting on top of reading--if you scrape it all away, underneath you will find, simply, fundamentally, a heart. Books matter because they change us, they make us think, they seep into the pores of our being and don't allow us to walk away without somehow shedding like snakeskin some part of our former selves. Reading stretches us to fit the proportions of someone else's life and thoughts; even if they're imaginary, the shift in perspective isn't.
For one boy, there is a page and half that he'll probably forget about in due time--characters, location, all of that pushed behind other stuff. But for one minute, that story poked him right in the heart and reminded him--and me--that everyone fights a battle. In that, we're all the same, no matter how different we are: six-year-olds with garage bobcats and teenagers living outside passport countries and little girls eating cold, slimy sandwiches in Chicago.
Most of the time, I tangle my mind up in knots trying to figure out how to teach this kind of thing. It's daunting, and I end up stopping ideas before they start. In the meantime, we'll keep reading. Keeping stepping out of our own skin and into someone else's. Keep hoping that somewhere along the line, the story hits us just right, shatters us to pieces so we can be put back together a little less crookedly next time.