We are at the point in The Land where Paul meets Caroline, the woman who will become his wife at the end of the book. Their love story begins outside of Luke Sawyer’s general store, when Paul comes across a group of white boys teasing a harelipped black child. Caroline and her sister read the boys the riot act, refusing to back down even when the boys play the race card; justice-loving Paul is smitten almost at once. Yosef is impressed by the photograph of a sweet potato pie I have used to illustrate the slide about how Caroline shares her snack to help the boy feel better; Juan Carlos falls in love with her right along with Paul. We read the words that Caroline says to Henry:
“Don’t you be crying about them ignorant boys. Don’t you know their words can’t hurt you none, unless you let them! They tryin’ to make you feel little, but they can’t make you feel little if you feel big inside.”
After every few narrative slides, I try to throw in a Personal Connection–a question to make the boys reflect on the story with regards to themselves. Good readers do this kind of thing automatically. They place themselves in a story and imagine how they’d feel, take the story out with them and imagine how it would play out in their own lives. In the general education classroom, the questions are big, and the connections immediate: when have you encountered discrimination, have you ever felt the kind of envy Mitchell feels for Paul. I have to scaffold it downwards for Yosef and Juan Carlos, by, as much as possible, isolating one event and suggesting the simplest point of connection. Mitchell is jealous because Paul has nice clothes: have you ever wanted something that a friend has? Later in the story, Caroline’s father will invite Paul to dinner, and he will hesitate at first before agreeing to come over: I have the boys talk about when they get invitations, because I want Yosef to accept a few more of them himself.
We send Henry the harelipped boy along with his pie before I show the boys the question we’ll reflect on today.
There’s a lot of unpacking to do with this slide. First off, the question of what Caroline is talking about. Juan Carlos suggests that maybe, Caroline is saying that Henry needs to get older, quick, so that he can be big. Yosef initially professes, as he often does, “I have no idea”, but then wonders if she’s telling him he needs to have ‘big feelings’. We talk a little bit about how love is a big feeling, and I tell them that love for yourself is one of the biggest, strongest feelings of all. “Do you believe you are a good person?” I ask each boy in turn. They say, “yes”. I ask, “Do you believe you’re an important person? Because I do. I believe you’re both important.” They agree. “Do you believe that you’re the kind of person who deserves to be treated kindly, and that even if people don’t do that, you’re still good and important?” Yes. “Those are big feelings, big love-for-yourself feelings. And when you hold on to those, it helps keep you strong. No one can make you feel that little, when you have that kind of big love inside you. And Caroline is saying that Henry can have that. She’s saying to Henry what I’m saying to you.”
The boys nod their agreement, and we move on to the next question. I’ve kind of been dreading this, even as I’ve thought of it as absolutely necessary: I want the boys, in reading a story about a young man who faces obstacles, to think a little bit about obstacles they’ve faced. The day before we read this chapter, I attended a transition meeting with both boys’ parents: the thing everyone brought up about middle school was how very afraid they were about bullying and teasing. With that in mind, I wanted to start building skills now.
Has anyone ever called you something that you know isn’t true?
I watch the boys’ faces as they scan through their memories. Juan Carlos speaks first. “Like a name?” I nod. “Like a name, or like teasing about something about you–noticing something and then making fun of it. Anything a kid–or even a grown-up–has done to try to make you feel little. Teasing, mostly, or calling you a name.”
His answer astonishes me, this beautiful ten-year old boy who flaps his hands and still counts on his fingers and tells everyone around him about his love for Frog and Toad. He turns to Yosef, who speaks between hair-twirls and intermittent nose-picking, who runs at times down the recess yard, slapping his chest and yelling, “eeeeeee!” Yosef, when Juan Carlos offers his answer, agrees. “I don’t think anyone has ever called me a name like that. I can’t think of a time when someone made me feel little.”
I don’t, at first, know what to do with that. I don’t want to ask them to think a little harder. I don’t want to tell them that I’m pretty sure they’re wrong. I give a brief thankful moment to the kindness of most children and the innocence of these two, and I decide there’s still something I can do to get them ready. Just in case. I don’t want it, if it happens, to be an absolute surprise.
“I’m very happy to hear that you both haven’t experienced what Henry experienced. Here’s something to know, though. Sometimes, that does happen. Sometimes, people will say things that you know aren’t the truth.”
I take a little breath. “When I was your age, people did that to me.”
Yosef stops his hand mid-twirl, and Juan Carlos’ eyes widen. “They did?”
“Yes. You both remember what I told you about my elbow, right?” I show them again, roll the sleeve up, hold my arm out–they stare unabashedly at the distortion at the joints. We have, briefly, the conversation I have every time with Juan Carlos, when he notices. How we’re all born a little different, and this is how I am.
“I know it’s just that my bones grew differently. I know it’s not a bad thing. I know the truth, but that’s not what people said all the time. Sometimes, other kids told me I was disgusting. They told me there was something very wrong with me.” My face flushes a little bit as I say it, as I remember the taunts that I understood exactly and, especially, the ones that I didn’t understand. I remember being a fifth grader whose classmates had been looking at pornographic magazines, how they saw in the jut of my elbow something I’d later encounter in biology textbooks. “You’ve got a boner!” a kid yelled at me once. “There’s a boner on your arm!” I had no idea what they were talking about. I knew better than to ask, and I got away before I started crying. Is this what it’ll be like, if someone calls my boys retarded? I know I can’t stop it. But I wish that I could. For now, it’s enough to be utterly grateful: as I let these two kids see a little bit of the pain I felt when I was exactly their age, they can’t make the connection I expected them to make.
Yosef has a different connection to make, though. “Did you tell the teacher?”
I have to think awhile before I give him the answer. I make the decision that honesty counts. “No. No, I didn’t.”
“Because…I made a mistake. It was a mistake, Yosef, that I didn’t tell the teacher. There isn’t a good reason. It was a mistake, and I don’t want you making the same mistake I made. Both of you, promise me now that you won’t make that mistake.” They both nod solemnly.
Juan Carlos has another question. “Did you punch them in the face?”
“No. No I didn’t, and that wasn’t a mistake. Hurting people doesn’t solve anything.”
“What did you do?”
“I walked away. I told myself I didn’t have to listen when people said mean things to me, and I walked away from those people. I found other friends.” What I don’t say, out loud, in that moment–those friends weren’t waiting for me then on the other side of that playground. Those friends were months and years down the road, at another school, after I slogged my way through 5th grade, feeling lonely and wrong. I don’t want for my students what I went through myself: I work, every day, to make sure it doesn’t happen. But at the end of it all, I know stuff happened, and I dealt with it. Ultimately, that’s what my students need most to understand.
“There were people like the mean boys at my school, because there are people like them all over the world. But there were also people like Caroline. And she’s right. We can all keep those big feelings, inside of ourselves, to remember we’re good people even if others don’t act kind to us. No matter what, that’s the main idea we have to keep in mind.”