Sitting at the back table of a computer lab with Mesha, three other students with headphones take on-line literacy tests to see how prepared they will be for the state tests.
I have volunteered to do “afterschool,” which is aptly titled. I wanted to do seventh or eighth grade literacy so I could spend time with my old students, but the only opening was ninth. I took it.
Three students are signed up for my “9th grade literacy homework help”. This is day two, and just one student, Mesha, has showed up to both days. Today her homework was to read the first two chapters of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
I remember reading this book for AP Language; I remember loving it. I remember being captivated with the emotional but matter-of-fact narrative… feeling crushing guilt and a yearning type of ambition and pride and awe for the human capacity to grow and persevere. I did not remember much of the content, but was quickly reminded.
We started with Mesha proclaiming, “Man, this look boring!”
In the first two sentences, we talked about what it would be like to not know your own age. By the second paragraph, her eyes were wide and quiet. She decided she could not read the word “whip” out loud, and instead lowered her eyes and voice and skipped the word. She closed the book, looked up at me.
“Do I have to read this?” she asked. “I can’t read this! It’s too sad!”
She was okay with “bloody,” with “hell,” but “whip” she could not say. My heart rate increased. By the middle of chapter two, in which she made the inference that slaves were easily killed, that white plantation-owners’ sons could be whipping their own half-brothers, she was aghast. Saying, “How could they go do that?! How do people kill and get mixed up in that? That’s why I moved here; my old neighborhood, it was no good. If those people would read this book I bet that wouldn’t happen as much. This should be the only book in the world. Then maybe people would stop doing the stuff they do.”
Awe. All I had was awe.
I explained to her what it meant for a master to “preference” mixed slaves, the definition of “frequently,” and Douglass’ description of children being taken from their mothers. Multiple times we both stopped to try not to cry.
I don’t know if I have ever had such an emotional response to a piece of writing as I did today with Mesha and this book. When we finished the second chapter, she kept her thumb on the start of chapter three (which she was not assigned to read) for the full remaining 30 minutes, repeating that she wanted to keep going, that she couldn’t believe her classmates wouldn’t want to read this book. “Guess that’s why you can’t judge a book by its cover,” she reminded me.
At Douglass’ photo on the cover she now said, “He looks like he been through something. You can see it. He looks like a slave.” We debated how it was possible for people to own slaves, emotionally. She asked how slaves even got here, and why.
She explained to me the book collection she created while living in Chicago, before she moved to Arkansas this summer. Her voice and eyes flared when she talked about how her mom made her throw them all out in the move. How she had built her own library (“Two full rows all stacked up; I could fill this whole backpack!”) but didn’t have room to move it. How devastated she is that she can’t rebuild her library (her old school had a program that gave them out for free). I asked couldn’t she just check them out and she was adamant in her response: she likes owning them; she wants to read them again and again; the library doesn’t even have the books she wants to read…
About writing which she loves: “Well all my thoughts I just write them down because no one seems to want to hear them.”
I have been wondering what it would be like to teach secondary, and talking with this girl has simply taken my breath away. I wonder what kind of teacher I would be like if I was teaching texts like this.