The Best Laid Schemes

I experienced the most delicious moment as an English teacher this week: it’s that moment when you realize that an entire class has engaged and emotionally invested in a piece of literature.

Introducing students to a text is always risky because they’re in danger of checking out before they even give the story a chance. Such was my fear when I asked my students to tackle John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men. However, the reward I received on Wednesday was beyond what I dared to imagine.

Before asking my kids to walk down the road to Soledad with me, I must admit that the characters of Lennie Small and George Milton held no special place in my heart. I picked the book because I thought it would be short enough to zip through in case my kids fell to whining and my class structure fell to shambles. Much to my surprise, the kiddos took to Lennie almost instantly. They loved every repetitive phrase that he uttered, especially his insistence of liking ketchup on his beans.

The initial shock I experienced when I saw my students smile and laugh at the interactions between Lennie and George evolved into a passion to make their enchantment last and to make this reading experience meaningful for them. In following this hope, our class discussions were driven by their reactions to the story (with some facilitating on my part), and those classroom discussions then influenced the assignments that I issued. Everything flowed so beautifully, and the joy of hearing my students anxiously ask if we were reading each day that they walked into my class is one that I cannot fully describe.

All of this excitement and happiness reached a climax on Wednesday. My students and I were following along to the audio version of the book. We had spent the prior day studying the limitations of four of the characters and developing real-world truths about our text’s theme of loneliness. One of our loneliest characters, known only as “Curley’s wife,” was an early enemy of my kids. They recognized her vain, shallow demeanor as soon as they met her and would groan and look at me every time she appeared as if to say, “Aw, miss, not this lady again.”

So, we were reading chapter four that day and came to a point where Steinbeck began humanizing Curley’s wife by having her open up to Lennie about her crushed dreams and unhappy marriage. As this somewhat sweet scene concludes, she offers to let Lennie (who is obsessed with touching soft things) touch her silky hair. The exchange tragically ends with Lennie accidentally breaking Curley’s wife’s neck.

Such an awful literary homicide is nothing I would normally get excited over; what made my little teacher heart burst were the 30 pairs of big eyes that looked up at me and the 30 gasps that issued forth in unison. As this collective utterance of total bewilderment broke forth, I couldn’t help but smile back at my precious students.

Wednesday held for me just one of the many spectacular teaching moments I’ve already experienced this year. For some reason, I’ve been given the greatest group of students, and I can’t wait to see their reactions to all the other surprising literary moments that await them.

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