When my daughter was in the second grade a teacher approached me about leading a Great Books class for advanced readers. Upon agreeing, I was handed a thick syllabus that outlined, in fulsome detail, how the instructor should best approach the project. The line about having the students make culturally appropriate Paper Mache masks and costumes to accompany the diverse assignments sticks in my mind.
After wading through several selections I tossed the teaching aid aside and decided we’d read Call of the Wild by Jack London. That first session was an experiment in mini crowd control – Buck’s sled dog adventures pretty much got lost in my attempts to evolve a strategy to keep bright, exuberant seven-year-olds on task. I backed off the project until the kids were older.
I came back more organized for grade six. The kids were more mature. The group was larger. The principal agreed – if the parents signed off – to let me tackle the Unabridged Huck Finn. Let’s be clear, this was a group of white kids in small Stillwater, Minnesota. Over the last 120 years no pat answer has emerged to resolve the controversy about the N-word that occurs 215 times in the text. We weren’t reading aloud or bandying the term about. I’m mindful that changing demographics could establish new standards of taste regarding the past and Twain may wind up shunted into a quaint corner alongside apologists for the Confederate battle flag. That hasn’t happened yet so I proposed to take Huck Finn neat and skip the watered-down version and to approach the story in a larger literary and historical context.
History is pretty dull stuff to sixth graders. So I sought to sprinkle some pixie dust on the musty pages. There’s a statue in front of the old Stillwater court house that remembers local men who went into the First Minnesota Regiment during the Civil War. On the second day of Gettysburg, 262 Minnesotans crashed headlong into 1600 Alabamians and held them in check for ten crucial minutes. Only 47 came back. Some historians argue that they plugged a hole that saved the battle and the war. If they’d failed? Probably there would have been no Gettysburg Address. And maybe no Huck Finn? And it’s possible that one of the few survivors of that regiment came home to this town and, in 1885, read the same book we would be reading. The idea was to unlimber the imagination to connect the dots.
But the real reason I wanted to tangle with Huck was the earthy vernacular and characters Twain used to bust American writing away from the genteel straightjacket of the English Novel. (For years I’ve been arguing with grammatically-correct copy editors: But that ain’t the way people talk!) Huck tells his story in a voice not heard in lecture halls and drawing rooms. Twain expressed the moral and social contradictions of the antebellum south in the words of an uneducated river kid. His presumption shocked the literary establishment of the time. Sort of like a gunshot in the theatre. Imagine Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy being called to his regiment and leading an attack at the Battle of New Orleans. And picture Huck having a fictitious grandfather – an illiterate backwoods rifleman – who drilled the fine English gentleman through the brains with a well-aimed shot. Not the most pleasant thought to go with your Masterpiece Theatre but it does contain a whiff of real history.
Highfalutin gestures to history and literature aside, how do you impress on 11-year–olds the dilemma of conscience faced by roughneck, redneck Huck Finn? What’s the equivalent today of helping a runaway slave escape to freedom? How about you bump into an escaped convict on the way home from school and decide to help him make a dash for the Canadian border?
In the limited time available I sought to promote critical thinking which, I tried to demonstrate, was different than the thinking of critics. Thousands of critics have savaged Huck as being uncouth and vulgar going back to 1885, and more recently, as being racist. Their names are lost. Gotta be a reason Twain’s book keeps chugging on, despite its contextual baggage. Maybe because it’s a profoundly human American story.
Other class notes: I made the kids stand up on their desks when they read their mini-essays to overcome stage fright. They had to sit up straight during class. I told them every word they set down is like a bullet, it goes somewhere and has to be accounted for. Anybody who got out of line was out the door, period. No appeal, no coming back.
I was trying to get them to stretch their imaginations and trust their instincts about the way people really talk, think and act. I asked them: What strikes you as special about your world at eleven? You’ll only be here once. Write it down.
Seventh grade meant Junior High, a more structured world than the “open” elementary school where I’d started the group. I met with the English teachers, listened politely to their recommendations and informed them I’d like to try Catcher in the Rye. They were slightly rattled so I went to the principal who agreed to the Salinger, if the parents would.
Stringing Huck and Holden Caulfield together starts to suggest a theme of two dead-eyed kids puzzling their way into the adult world. Okay, let’s pretend Huck and Holden are sitting in the desk next to you as we consider the basic question: Where are we, what’s going on and why should anybody care? And sit up straight and pay attention because you can’t balance a razor on a limp noodle. Think!
I sent them home for the summer with a pound of fudge and a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing and Rules of Style by Shrunk and White.
In eighth grade the kids were organized enough to seize the initiative because they correctly sensed I was angling to read Moby Dick. In self defense they lobbied for The Book Thief. So we got into the story and I asked them what they had in common with the young heroine. At first they were puzzled; this German girl in a bombed World War II city whose family offered sanctuary to a Jewish refugee? Slowly it dawned that they, too, were living in a country that was at war. So we engaged that subject for a while until they caucused and decided to stop reading the book. They didn’t buy the somewhat whimsical voice of the narrator, DEATH. It didn’t work, for the group, as a device equal to the Holocaust subject matter. The young razors were starting to hone their edges.
In ninth grade, encouraged, I threw an ornery little volume at them; A Reader’s Manifesto. An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose by B.R. Myers. The long essay engages in what the Wall Street Journal called “useful mischief” as it cheerfully pole-axes literary sacred cows like DeLillo, Proulx and Cormac McCarthy. Myers suggests that if you think the writing seems over-cooked and the story drags – you may not be inadequate to fathom current literary standards – you may be right.
So in the spirit of Socrates “corrupting the young,” the group became a general bull session with subjects like: consider that the popular movie The Social Network co-exists in the same time frame as the independent film story Winter’s Bone.
At the end of junior high the little gang took the Principal’s Award, the Orchestra Director’s Award and the Excellence Awards in English, Math, Science, Spanish and AP Geography.