We have come to the middle part of Mildred D. Taylor’s post-Civil War novel, The Land. It’s the central work of fiction read by Yosef and Juan Carlos’ fifth grade class, the foundation of their exploration of such meaty topics as civil rights and race relations, both now and in the past. The Land is based in part on the real experiences of Taylor’s great grandfather. It is narrated by a young man–the child of a slave and a slave-owner–who comes of age in the years of the Reconstruction. Paul Edward Logan moves between the black and white worlds, belonging to both but fundamentally accepted by neither, encountering passing kindness and near-consistent cruelty as he struggles to create a life for himself. As with Nightjohn (which reveals the horrors of slavery as seen by a child who is herself a plantation slave) this novel is something I can’t give to my kids in its initial packaging. It’s too dense, too difficult….fundamentally, too disturbing. I read the book, found some good summary websites and other didactic materials on the internet, and adapted The Land into a series of powerpoints, covering the key points and plot developments, illustrated when possible with archival photography to help my students better understand the years as Paul lived through them.
This week, as I said, we’re in the middle of the book. I have told my boys, through the slides, most of what’s happened, glossing over the details. They understand that Paul Edward was angry because he could not eat at the family table when company visited the Logans–what I didn’t really mention was that neither could their mother, and one of the hot spots of the chapter entitled “Family” involved Paul confronting his mother about sleeping with a man who won’t be seen with her in public. Juan Carlos and Yosef know that Paul Edward and his friend Mitchell don’t live at home any more–what they don’t know is that if either returned, they’d be hanged, because Mitchell, then a teenaged boy of color, took money that was rightfully his from a white man. There is a word that occurs, again and again, in this novel, it’s pronounced when the classroom teacher reads aloud as just “N”: in my slides, if I have to, I tell the boys that someone said a very rude thing.
It was possible, at first, to create from The Land a story that both boys could find at least somewhat enjoyable. The story of Paul and Mitchell as children who didn’t get along very well caught their interest, and I could use the familiar idea of a playground conflict to gloss over the reality that Mitchell was a slave who resented the privileges his master’s dark child had. The first major estrangement between Paul and his white family centered around a horse his father bought–my synopsis of that chapter was heavy on horse photographs, and a bit lighter on the part where his father whipped Paul publicly for speaking up for the horse against a white man.
By the middle of the book, though, the cracks become apparent. Even my most optimistic interpretation cannot mask the reality that Paul’s mother dies and Paul can’t come home again. I word it as delicately as I can:
His father is not a bad man, really, but he and Paul can’t live the same lives. His father is a white man; Paul is not. In the late 1800s, this matters. Now that he is almost a grown man, Paul will live his own life, away from the family he knew as a child.
Next slide: Paul and Mitchell at a turpentine camp. There’s a postcard from 1912 I downloaded from the internet, showing the process of stripping bark from trees. I settled for the most sugarcoated statement I can possibly get away with for a place where the manager kills a black man and leaves his body laying in the dirt for the other workers to see: “It is hard, tiring, dirty work, and the bosses, who are white men, treat the workers, who are men of color, horribly.” Before we can get to the next slide, in which our heroes move slightly up in the world to a terribly oppressive lumber camp, I notice that Juan Carlos has a pensive look on his face.
“What’s up, Juan Carlos?”
“I’m sad for Paul and Mitchell. I don’t want all the bad things to happen to them. I used to like the book, The Land, but now I don’t know how much I like it. Because Paul’s mother died. And they can’t go home. And the bosses; I do not like the bosses. This isn’t a very good book any more.” His brow furrows in the way that it does, sometimes, when Yosef rebuffs a social overture from a classmate, leaving him torn between wanting his best friend for himself and wanting his friend to let Bridget play too.
“Juan Carlos, it sounds like you are thinking that good books need to be happy books–that things always need to go well for people in the books.”
“I like it when happy things happen in the books.” There is, in his words, all the sweetness and naivete that I love about Juan Carlos. So many people misunderstand autism spectrum disorders as a fundamental lack of ability to care–they think that a child like Juan Carlos simply cannot imagine himself in another person’s shoes, and thus sees the world in the most selfish way possible. This is patently untrue, and yet… For Juan Carlos, the social world of fleeting facial expressions, significant pauses, and people who say one thing while thinking another is entirely too complicated for him to make sense of. So he sticks with the basics: be good, make people happy. And the people around him, with very few exceptions, see his fundamental decency and try to make his world play out in pleasant, cheerful ways. They know that he is good; they want to make him happy. They want him to be protected from the things which would damage his innocent understanding of a safe and loving world.
I remember talking with two classmates and Juan Carlos about movies, a few months ago. One child brought up Fruitvale Station, saying that she lived near where Oscar Grant was shot and killed. Juan Carlos was distressed, and the other child tried to comfort him. “Don’t worry, Juan Carlos, it’s only a movie.” The children exchanged glances over Juan Carlos, both recognizing in that instant that this wasn’t quite enough–realizing that they knew something they didn’t want to tell him, realizing they couldn’t really say, “It isn’t real.” The topic changed quickly. We don’t want Juan Carlos to watch Fruitvale Station. At the same time, though…he is himself a young man of color. How much do we shield him? How much truth is enough? I wrestled with that, mightily, as I compiled the slides for my version of The Land, and I wrestle again as he says he doesn’t like it. “I like it better when happy things happen in the books.”
“I know you do–I do, too. And I predict that happy things will still happen for Paul and for Mitchell.” (Note to self: shit, good luck with the slide where Paul marries Mitchell’s pregnant wife because Mitchell gets killed by a falling tree.) “But sometimes, a book can be good even if sad things happen in it. The same way that your life can be good, even if sometimes, you feel a bit unhappy. As Paul grows up, he has challenges, like everyone does. But part of growing up is learning to face challenges, and Paul is strong enough to face the things that happen to him. Paul can make a good life, even when it’s sometimes hard.”
Juan Carlos sits with that for a moment before he agrees. Yosef, in the meantime, has a very urgent question.
“Is it still your seventh-favorite book, Juan Carlos?”
Juan Carlos furrows his brow and thinks. “Maybe it is.” In the pause that follows, I realize that he is re-reading my slides, not the book itself, as he makes his decision. As he puts my Powerpoint, at last, in its place in the pantheon, below Frog and Toad but above SpongeBob SquarePants. “Yes, I think so. I think it’s still my seventh-favorite book.”
“Good.” Yosef relaxes a bit, spared from the angst of making a new list.
There are so many lessons I am teaching all at once here–so many things I am adapting and addressing. That is in its essence the nature of full inclusion: we take children who are definitionally outside the mainstream, and we help them engage in the mainstream environment. There are excellent special day classes where Juan Carlos and Yosef would work alongside classmates with similar challenges, reading together, direct from a text. It would most likely not be grade-level text: if it addressed the issues and concerns of fifth grade and above students, it would probably be a Hi-Lo book, specially designed for students who need simplified text to address complex issues. It would probably shelter them much more than I can.
In time, though, like Paul does, we all must grow up. We must all confront the times when the unhappy things happen–must all learn to tell stories that aren’t all-the-way-good. Even as a part of me wishes I could keep Yosef and Juan Carlos in Frog and Toad, forever, I realize that they’re ready for more realistic fiction. Not yet, without guidance, a novel like The Land. But in order to prepare my students for a world in which difficult things happen, I need to help them love a book in which difficult things happen. I need them to stay, briefly, with the difficult things.
We’ll move on, tomorrow, to the part where Paul meets Caroline, the woman who becomes the love of his life. I’m honestly not sure how I’ll handle her engagement, at first, to Mitchell. I will tell Juan Carlos and Yosef that Caroline’s mother is unfriendly at first, suspicious of Paul. But I don’t know if I’ll tell them exactly why–that Rachel resents Paul’s light skin because he reminds her of growing up a slave in a household where her own name was taken from her because the white woman decided she wanted her own daughter to be Rachel. Paul’s love for Rachel is a real, joyous thing, and I will play that up while I dial the rest down. We’ll get through The Land, as honestly as I can get them through. And I hope that because of this, they will be a little more ready for the next “real” book they read.
Two chapters ago, when Paul and Mitchell left Georgia, I had my students predict what might happen next. Yosef predicted that the two friends would go back to Paul’s father, and that he would take care of them again. Juan Carlos solemnly reminded him that the slides said they couldn’t, and then predicted instead that they’d buy a house together in East Texas, so they could live in the same house. They would work, he decided, for the nice lady from the train ride, and be friends forever, with the same house and the same job.
If I could make a PowerPoint of life for my two students, it would be just as simple as their dreams for Paul Logan. They would go, of course, to the same middle school next year–they’d be in the same class and have all the same friends. They would stay in touch through high school, and be best friends afterwards, and life would go well for each of them, always. The details, when I think about it, are too fuzzy for me to find the matching pictures–I honestly don’t know if either boy will get a traditional diploma, I have no idea what it might look like in the working world. They face a future that is unwritten, undefined, and as much joy as I expect for them, I know there will also be difficult, sad things.
Sometimes, a book can be good even if sad things happen in it. The same way that your life can be good, even if sometimes, you feel a bit unhappy.
I hold on to my own words, for my students, for myself.