As You Look Forward, Keep Your Eye on the Past
Updated: Jun 1
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.”
--James Baldwin, “Telling Talk from a Negro Writer” (Life Magazine)
Engaged reading triggers memory. Its fundamental to the experience of what we call “getting into” a work. Unless and until this happens for a student, text is little more than black and white images reflected in a confusing array of disorder. But, when that disorder organizes itself in a familiar pattern, a pattern that we recollect and recover from our past experience, the possibility for magic can happen.
Sitting in my ninth grade English classroom, I remember picking up a worn copy of Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, the copy came from my older sister, Mary, perhaps the only one among my siblings who would have held onto her books and been kind enough to pass them to me. It was our assigned text for the marking period, a text I only vaguely had heard of. I opened the first page and read the following opening:
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.
-- Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Suddenly, I was back to the age of six in Port Arthur, Texas, running full speed at my older brother. Tom, my competitive rival and seven year-old best friend, had the football, and it was my duty to tackle him. I did of course, but the whole mess of it was that in my athletic ecstasy, in my euphoric power surge, I managed to get his arm in an awkward position behind his back and cause it to break as we both fell on the hardened turf of the vacant lot. I knew it in an instant by its sound, a sound that still returns even as I write this. Tom recovered, but I’m not sure that I did. Harper Lee had brought me back to that event, an event I tried hard to wipe from my past and my personal shame. As a highly empathic person, the thought of causing someone I loved pain cut me deeply. It is the experience of traumatic injury which opens us up to begin to understand ourselves a bit better if we allow it.
Once I read that opening, I had to know more. I devoured her text in a few focused days.
I often spend class time, particularly when we are working through a piece of literature, with personal anecdotes. Each story I tell is carefully chosen to inform students of my personal connection to the text. It’s not a hard practice to enact, and if nothing else it is about as authentic a lesson planning component as you can ever undertake. Returning to the text and to my past self, allows me once again to re-enter the story. An invitation I continually offer my students, a model I am unwilling to part with because of its success. It invites close and invested reading and allows us to share our experience of the text with one another. It is the old art of storytelling, learned on my mother’s lap as a child. She would take me to lands unknown even as she grounded me in personal recollections, bringing unknown and unseen relatives and acquaintances from the past to my imaginative vision. Some methods are just effective and should not be abandoned without measured thought.
Without the memory of our own past experience, our thirteen-year-old selves cease to exist. And it is through literature that we can reclaim that thirteen-year-old and have our students reclaim their past selves, and maybe, just maybe, learn a little bit more about ourselves and our connection to others.