Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Good Witch

I dedicate this poem during "Teacher Appreciate Week" to my third grade teacher, Mrs. Takis.  I entered third grade not being able to read.  Mrs. Takis's classroom was quiet, focused, and she guided us to excellence.  Every day of my teaching life and every book I enjoy is due to her.


Black frizzie hair,
thick, bulbous nose,
 5’2,’’ 230 pounds,
eyes from a Hitchcock film,
Mrs. Takis meant business
and her business was the 3rd grade.

The room was gray and brown,
designed by the colorblind and the indifferent.
There were no birthday charts,
smiley faced figures
or cats hanging merrily on a tree
telling us to “hang in there.”
Just rows of desks standing at attention,
miniature closets for our tiny coats and lunchboxes,
and the smell of lead pencils,
thick pink erasers, and our own fear.

I was scared,
scared of being asked to read aloud
when words were still a mystery to me,
scared of feeling dumb in the face
of a woman who could smell ignorance
as it hid itself inside my big Red Sox hat.

On the first day of class
I leaned to my right
and joked with my friend Aaron
(who, amazingly, wasn’t picking his nose).
With her bat-like hearing
Mrs. Takis sensed the subtle sound waves
of the whisper from 20 feet away,
put her Broom-Hilda face inches from mine

This was all on the first day of school,
long before she made sure I took home
my multiplication flash cards,
long before she would cup my hand in hers
as I practiced my cursive letters,
long before she praised me
after I read three words in a row
and moved me away from my friends
when real work needed to get done.
School was to be my business too –
a new idea.

By springtime, I was less scared of her
and even 30 years later
I can hear the feverish syncopation
of her heeled shoes echo in the hallway,
and her nicotine-stained voice
commanding me again –

Monday, May 2, 2016

Why Read Dickens? (in 3 sentences!)

“It was a very dirty place. The rooms upstairs had great high wooden chimney-pieces and large doors, with panelled walls and cornices to the ceiling; which, although they were black with neglect and dust, were ornamented in various ways. From all of these tokens Oliver concluded that a long time ago, before the old Jew was born, it had belonged to better people, and had perhaps been quite gay and handsome: dismal and dreary as it looked now" (chapter 18, Oliver Twist).

Dodger punished, Oliver neglected.    Link.

About a fourth of the way through his adventures in Dickens’ novel, Oliver has already left the baby farm, heroically asked for “more” and was subsequently foretold of his inevitable hanging, barely escaped the clutches of the chimney sweep Mr. Gamfield, apprenticed for the undertaker Mr. Sowerberry, escaped the funeral home and walked 65 miles (in the winter!) to London, took up residence into Fagin’s gang of child-thieves, was arrested for robbery and later adopted by the man whom he allegedly robbed, and lastly, was kidnapped and returned to Fagin’s lair where he is imprisoned as a threat to confess Fagin’s whereabouts and crimes.  It is Oliver’s imprisonment that provides the context for the quotation that begins these reflections.

It’s so easy to teach Dickens thematically.  Any teacher who even is merely conversant in Dickens can spout off on Dickens and social justice, Dickens and women, Dickens and the New Poor Law, Dickens and the theater, Dickens and abused children.  I find that whenever my mind gets lazy in the classroom, it generalizes.  I take a transformative text like Dickens’ Oliver Twist and stage conversations that, while true, are not what make Oliver Twist special OR Dickens Dickensian.  Yes, it’s interesting that Dickens himself grew up for a time near a workhouse and must have heard what transpired inside its walls.[1]  Yes Oliver Twist is the first novel that features a child protagonist.  But the most important question remains: what is peculiarly interesting about how this book is written?  The answer to that question determines whether anyone who is NOT an English teacher should open the book in the first place.

I ask my seniors every year to compose a Dickensian deleted scene.  They are to imagine a scene that Dickens had edited out of the novel and then they are to write it.  LIKE DICKENS.  This choice of assignment by necessity changes how I must read and teach the novel.  If I remain lazy and mired in quasi-sociological generalizations (see above), my students will politely take notes, have a few more anecdotes for cocktail parties later in life, but will not be able to discuss Dickens’ writing in all its uniqueness.  More importantly, there will never be inspired on their own to read Dickens.  So my students’ assignment to imitate Dickens’s writing makes me teach the novel as a creative writing manual of sorts.  Here is an example of how this assignment forces me to teach differently.

The other day I stood in front of a class and flipped through the novel’s pages, like a card-dealer with an absurdly large (Dickensian) deck.  I then told one my students to tell me when to stop.  If you’re wondering about this strange tactic, YES, teaching can sometimes feel like a really nerdy version of a magic show, Chriss Angel with elbow-pads!  The student told me to stop at a specific page.  He chose a random paragraph (the one that begins this reflection) and we spent about 30 minutes thinking about it.  I was very clear that we were reading the paragraph less for ‘what it means’ (the LEAST interesting topic in any literary conversation) but rather how it moves.  I told them that I wanted them to write a descriptive paragraph in the style of Dickens modeled on the paragraph we landed on here.    Here are some discoveries from reading Dickens as movement rather than just meaning.

SENTENCE ONE:         “It was a very dirty place.”

Yes, this sentence doesn’t sound like Dickens, does it?  Well, actually, it does.  He often begins his rich, descriptive paragraphs with a simple sentence, imposing a single adjective onto a setting, person, or mood.   Later in class while looking for their own super-Dickensian moments, many of my students noticed the importance of the simple sentence in the novel, particularly beginning highly descriptive paragraphs.


“The rooms upstairs had great high wooden chimney-pieces and large doors, with panelled walls and cornices to the ceiling; which, although they were black with neglect and dust, were ornamented in various ways.   

Next, my students and I talked about the Dickensian narrative movement, what some scholars believe to be the precursor to cinematography.  Dickens begins with general categorization (“dirty room”) and then moves his eye to the top of the room.  We first get a basic description of what is literally there “chimney pieces and large doors.”  Next, Dickens offers a little more detail, as if he is in the room with Oliver and is moving throughout (with the help of a ladder!).  He tells us that the walls are paneled and that the cornices go all the way to the ceiling.  Now, Dickens does a third thing in this one sentence by moving even closer to these cornices and noticing they were “black with neglect and dust.”  Instead of simply telling us that the “cornices were black” (and thereby syntactically echoing his first sentence, “the room was dirty”), Dickens tells us WHY the cornices were black.  He tells us the condition of the cornices was due to “neglect and dust.”  Almost any other imagination would move this sentence in chronological order of observation, noticing the dust first and then reflecting on its cause - - neglect.  But Dickens’s imagination moves by order of importance, not time.  He wants the reader to prioritize the neglect of Oliver’s environment here, making us land on that word first.  And since Dickens’ entire imagination is a symphonic echo chamber, it struck one of my classes that “black with neglect” could almost be a subtitle for the novel or an epithet for many of its villains’ hearts.  I told them at that point that they sounded too much like English teachers!!


“From all of these tokens Oliver concluded that a long time ago, before the old Jew was born, it had belonged to better people, and had perhaps been quite gay and handsome: dismal and dreary as it looked now.”

Students felt that this sentence was the real Dickensian moment in the paragraph.  First, it is important to notice that the narrator recedes into the background and Oliver takes over the imaginative direction of the scene.  I reminded my students that in their Dickensian imitations, they will notice many of the normal “rules” of writing no longer apply.  Shifts in perspective like the one in this sentence are usually discouraged but not so in Dickens’ hands.  Oliver has a say in characterizing his prison and, despite his history of neglect has the imaginative openness to see his environment as something other than what it is, something belonging to “better people” and “looking quite gay and handsome.”   But even at this early stage, he (along with the reader) senses that Fagin carries with him death and decay.

So who cares?  Why do this?  The idea of taking 30 minutes to look at three sentences is not something normal people do.  Well, I agree.  But I don’t have a normal job.  I hope my students learn that great artists see and feel deeply, more deeply than most of us as we live our busy lives.  In Dickens’ hands, he moves our eyes and opens our ears in a way that is new and exciting.  This alone is reason enough to read him.

1 Discussed brilliantly in Ruth Richardson’s Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor.