Learning from Little Tree

On the first day of my Methods of Teaching English class, there were instructions on the board.  "Take a book from the table.  Take a magazine from the other table.  Take another book from the cart."  It was by far the best first day of school in recent memory.

My love for reading has always been passionate, and at times bordered on hazardous.  Once when I was six, I started running bathwater and then sat down on my bed to read just one more chapter (at the time it was Andersen's Fairy Tales; I was entranced by the decidedly non-Disney bent that many of the stories took.)  I'm sure you can see where this story is going.  I suddenly realized I couldn't hear the water anymore, about the same time my mother saw water pouring out of the light fixture downstairs.  It was only a few years ago that they finally stripped and re-painted the peeling ceiling in that hallway.

In elementary school, we were allowed to keep books at the corner of our desks, in case we finished our work before the rest of the class.  I know I rushed through many assignments so that I could choose from my pile (it got as high as seven) and get lost in my own world, far from the ponderously slow world of reading groups and dittos.

Of the books I chose on the first day of class, both of whom had adolescent heroes, I was supposed to choose one to focus on for the class.  We would be developing lesson plans to teach the book, so we had to finish it pretty early on, instructions I didn't need to hear twice.

The first one I chose was a recent novel set in modern London.  The protagonist is terminally ill, and the title of the book (Before I Die) seems like a bit of a downer, so I thought I'd read it first.  In fact, I was so entranced by the poetic language and real, raw emotion that I stayed up into the early morning hours to finish it, weeping for most of the second half.  It's a gorgeous story, and though graphic at times (number one on her bucket list is "Have Sex") it's a stunning coming-of-age portrait and dignified swan song all rolled into one.

I wish I could teach a book like that at a Catholic school -- I think especially the girl's absence of a strong faith would be an excellent avenue for discussion.  But there's no way I would even suggest it, because not only would it be unilaterally rejected, they'd also be suspicious about anything I suggested in the future.  There's just no way.

So, on to my second book.  I had originally chosen Ender's Game, which was recommended about fifteen years ago by a long-lost friend (Cheers, Will, wherever you are!)  But after hearing the teacher speak about it, I wasn't sure I felt like studying a sci-fi book all semester.  I'm already teaching 2001 in my Media Studies class, and I have a pretty low threshold for that genre.

When the teacher saw that The Education of Little Tree hadn't been chosen yet, she took a moment to talk about the book, and she intrigued me enough to take it home.  It was slow going at first -- the story of a Cherokee boy whose parents have died, who goes to live with his grandparents in the backwoods of Appalachia during the Depression.  The dialect took me some time to get used to -- as an English teacher, I don't like even looking at phrases like "I seen."  But I'll leave you with the character Granpa's view on grammar, as well as a bit of a window into the starkly beautiful innocence of this narrative, which I finished during this morning's snowfall:

Granpa pushed his plate back. "I reckined that we wasn't borned down there on the side of the road, which made us foreigners to them parts. Anyhow it's another one of them dadblamed words [he always used "dadblamed" instead of "damn" in front of Granma] that we can do without. There is, I have always said, too dadblamed many words."

Granma agreed that there was. Granma didn't want to get into the word business.  She had never, for example, got the words "knowed" and "throwed" disentangled with Granpa. He said that "knew" was something you got which nobody had ever used, and that the word, therefore, was "knowed." And he said "threw" was how you got from one side of a door to the other side, and therefore it was "throwed." He wouldn't budge on it, as what he said made sense.

Granpa said if there was less words, there wouldn't be as much trouble in the world. He said privately to me that there was always some damn fool making up a word that served no purpose except to cause trouble. Which is reasonable. Granpa favored the sound, or how you said a word, as to its meaning. He said folks that spoke different words could feel the same thing by listening to the sound of music. Granma agreed with him, because that's the way they talked to each other.

Granma's name was Bonne Bee.  I knew that when I heard him late at night say "I kin ye, Bonnie Bee," he was saying, "I love ye," for the feeling was in the words.

And when they would be talking and Granma would say, "Do ye kin me, Wales?" and he would answer, "I kin ye," it meant, "I understand ye." To them, love and understanding was the same thing. Granma said you couldn't love something you didn't understand; nor could you love people, nor God, if you didn't understand the people and God.

Granpa and Granma had an understanding, and so they had a love. Granma said the understanding run deeper as the years went by, and she reckined it would get beyond anything mortal folks could think upon or explain. And so they called it "kin."

Granpa said back before his time "kinfolks" meant any folks that you understood and had an understanding with, so it meant "loved folks." But people got selfish, and brought it down to mean just blood relatives; but that actually it was never meant to mean that . . . Granpa said that such was "kin," and most of people's mortal trouble come about by not practicing it; from that and politicians.