One Saturday afternoon, while languidly grading essays on my couch as the rain pelted my windows, I received an unexpected jolt of surprise when a student’s essay informed me that, apparently, Mark Twain was the author of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Oliver Twist. As a Victorianist, I found the latter particularly amusing; apparently I have been reading all the wrong books. Once I had indulged in a brief chuckle over what Dickens might have thought of this misappropriation of authorship, I kindly made a notation in the student’s essay, correcting the mistake—or misinformation.
When I shared the story with several friends and colleagues, they expressed incredulity at the error, exclaiming, “These students went to high school, right?”
“Yes, presumably,” I answered. “but we can’t know where they’re coming from and what their educational experiences or access might have been like.” It’s easy to arch a brow in astonishment or weap in despair over such student errors, and I’m the first to admit that many English teachers spend hours in such comiseration. Yet while this serves as our coping mechanism to maintain relative sanity during grading marathons, such moments should also provide a sobering reminder of our responsibility as educators not to chide students for what they don’t know, but to broaden their knowledge base as we share our own.
As I scribbled a comment in the margin of my student’s essay, a memory suddenly dislodged itself from the fog in my brain. I saw myself, 7 or 8 yrs old, sitting on my grandmother’s lap while she regaled me with the story of Huckleberry Finn, from her memory.
Growing up, I lost count of the number of times my grandmother told us how important it was to get an education, because she never had the opportunity to finish college.
“You’ve got to study,” she used to say. “You have to learn, because you have to go to college.”
So-called “lack” of formal education notwithstanding, Grandma was perhaps one of the most well-read peple I have ever known. She always had a book with her, and was always ready to share her stories.
“What are you reading, Grandma?” I’d ask, sneaking into the living-room on the nights she used to baby-sit, after I was supposed to be in bed, to find her sitting by the lamp, bent over a thick volume with close-printed pages. “Isn’t it boring?” I’d ask. “There are no pictures.”
“The pictures are in your mind,” she’d explain. “You have to use your imagination.”
And that was when it all started. That was when I began to understand that, tucked between sheets of paper were entire worlds—worlds where people fought battles, hunted for buried treasure, faught crime, made friendships, fell in love, lived, and died as many times as I wanted them to. They were there to talk to me, to tell me their stories over and over again; all I had to do was open the book. Before I even picked up my first Mark Twain book, Grandma had told me the story of Huck’s journey with Jim and his adventures (and misadventures) with Tom Sawyer. It was Grandma who introduced me to O. Henry, master of the American shortstory. “Tell the one about the Red Chief,” I’d beg, for the 10th or 20th time. It was Grandma who taught me the didactic value of stories; with Huck Finn, she taught me about the wrongs of slavery and the prejudice of the American South before I could pronounce the Emancipation Proclamation or even knew that there was such a thing. With “The Gift of the Magi,” she taught me about the enormous love behind the simplest acts and the meaning of selfless giving. She taught me to treasure stories for the lessons they taught me as well as for the hours of enjoyment they brought me.
I find myself reflecting on those memories today, when we celebrate International Literacy Day, because that love of literature, that passion for sharing stories, is the reason why I teach. I want to open the world of stories to students the same way my grandmother did for me, to be their guide through the magical land of Narnia or the packed throngs of Dickens’s London. I want them to know the wonder of traveling through time and living an entire life in the pages of a book.
Who are your favorite storytellers?