The other day I came upon a remarkable passage in a book, and I just had to pause to share it with Teresa. As I began reading to her, I quickly fell into a rhythm, paying homage to the author’s words as well as his ideas. It felt good to be reading out loud again, one of my favorite parts of teaching English, and at that moment I realized how much I miss doing that on a regular basis.
Feeling just a bit sentimental (a shock, I know), I leafed through I Was Not the Blossom until I found a couple of sections that dealt with reading to my students. With your indulgence, I’ll excerpt them below. The first comes from a commentary about our class starting its reading of Of Mice and Men. As was my custom, I read the first chapter of the novel aloud so that we could establish a mood, could experience the opening together, much as an audience does in a theater. What follows are my thoughts regarding that practice in my last year in the classroom.
It’s hard to describe the feeling a teacher has when channeling the genius of a great artist. I sat in the circle with my students and read aloud, “A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green,” imagining that this was how as a conductor feels signaling the downbeat for a symphony, how a minister feels standing before a couple about to exchange wedding vows. This was sacred territory, and I was privileged to step into that space time and time again over the course of my career. As I continued reading the remainder of the novel’s first page up to its first break, I held one fervent wish, to read that initial portion without error, with just the right inflections and tempo. I didn’t always meet that expectation, but when I did, I felt that I had not only served the work, but I had also done my students a service by not distracting them from the solemnity of the story’s dawning.
Why was that important? Would a slip or a rushed phrase ruin the experience for my kids? Would they even notice that I stuttered on a word or truncated a suffix? I never asked them, and while I was sometimes anguished to disturb the flow with a narrative mistake, there were times when I exulted as my performance approached art. When that happened, it was a quiet joy, something between the author and me, but in that final year, on that last run through Of Mice and Men, I sensed that my seniors knew that something special might be happening. They would know for sure in a few short weeks.
Over the years, I was privileged to portray the lives of so many immortal characters. There is a profound understanding that we acquire when perform their words, an intimacy that we create with our audience. Perhaps it is the primacy of the human voice, our love of hearing a tale well-told. There’s nothing quite like curling up in a comfortable chair with a cup of tea and a favorite book, but there is little that is more inspiring than to be mesmerized by a dramatic reading. It was honor to take that stage, and I savored every opportunity that I granted myself to add voice to an author’s great words. I held that responsibility in the highest regard, and that meant that I had to prepare myself before each reading. I had to do more than just know the words. I had to appreciate their context. When I read description, I wanted it to flow, to paint pictures in my students’ minds. When I read dialogue, I wanted to assume the essence of the characters, to know not only their motivations but also characteristics of their speech. In the end, as much as my kids may have enjoyed listening as they read along with me, I was the one who truly benefited. I was the one who felt transformed as an instrument of a writer I had never met.
Here’s a secret about teaching, my friends. Sometimes it comes down to being a performance. Of course, there are a lot of other factors that go into a student’s learning, but to make that learning truly memorable, there has to be more than content and practice. Kids need to be enthralled. I tried to choose literature, whether in print or cinematic form, that would fascinate my students, but it was also important for me to play some sort of role in captivating their attention.
In one of my final blog posts in the book, a few days left in my career, I reflected on the bond that was formed when I read to my students. It was written on the evening of the last day on which I would read to a class. Here is a portion:
Tonight, far away from my students, alone with Teresa and the cats, I reflected upon my years of reading aloud to my kids. Upon the voices I have sought to animate through my interpretation of their pitch and rhythm. Charlie Gordon. Tom Joad. Montresor and Fortunato. Jean Louise and Jem and Atticus. Lennie Small and George Milton. Romeo and Mercutio and Tybalt. Prospero and Caliban. Odysseus. Marc Antony. Tessie Hutchinson and Mrs. Delacroix. Pip and Estella and Magwitch. John and Lorraine and the Pigman. The Stage Manager and Emily Webb. Snowball and Boxer and Napoleon. Norman Maclean.
I closed my eyes and heard those voices singing softly in the classrooms that inhabit the school that is the memory of my career. They sang of journeys and adventures, of rivers and seas, of small towns and majestic empires, of conflicts and sorrows and triumphs. More than anything, they told the story of the magic that happens when one teacher opens a book and reads its words aloud to a circle of minds enchanted.
It has been my honor to be that teacher to so many of you over the years. Thank you for listening, for opening your hearts as well as your ears. Thank you for your laughter, your tears, and your imaginations. Together, we paid homage to some incredible authors, didn’t we?
For the record, the final words I read today belong to Sydney Carton: “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.”
Could I find any finer line to end upon?
I think I’ll just leave it at that.