Don’t assume they aren’t listening
Last spring in my middle school language arts classes, I taught the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave for the eighth year. It’s the autobiography of Douglass, who was born into slavery. In his formative years, he experienced an epiphany: literacy equaled freedom. As a result, he taught himself to read and write. Years later, sure enough, he escaped from bondage.
As a free man, he became an outspoken leader for civil rights and suffrage and was eventually appointed United States Minister to Haiti. Douglass’ narrative is one of my favorite books in American literature for its honest and raw portrayal of the horrors of slavery conveyed with Douglass’ frank, accessible, and often poetic prose.
It’s an important book that is as relevant today as when it was first published in 1845. As a result, students find the text compelling and riveting. They are spellbound as they read of the realities of slavery often for the first time.
During the unit in which we read Douglass, one of my brightest students—let’s call her Ellen—endured a new low in her personal experience with anxiety and depression. She had battled these demons for a few years then, but did seem to sink even deeper during the month or so that we spent studying Douglass’ text.
It was a tough spring. At a time when her peers were looking forward to spring break, the April dance, and their graduation to high school, Ellen found it difficult just to get to school. She was often absent. On a good day, she was late to first period by half an hour.
As we read Douglass’ account of his life, Ellen seemed bored and detached. And, to be honest, I worried at the time about the content of the book being detrimental to her fragile state. How helpful can it be to read about the atrocities of human bondage when one is already suffering from negative emotions from all sides?
When we read Douglass’ stories about his various masters and life primarily as a city slave, Ellen stared blankly across the room or at the wood grain Formica pattern of her desktop. She did not turn in assignments, and only rarely contributed to class discussions. However, she would take usually do well on the occasional reading comprehension quizzes. Even so, I could tell she wasn’t engaged with Douglass. Or that’s what I assumed.
One day at the end of class, near the culmination of the unit, she casually mentioned to me, “I wrote this poem last night.” An introspective girl, Ellen enjoyed writing poetry and it wasn’t the first time she had asked me to read something she had written outside of class.
I glanced at the title, “Master Mind, and then skimmed through the stanzas as the next group of students coasted in for the boisterous last class period of the day. I noticed Frederick Douglass’ name tucked among the lines; my interest piqued.
“Can I keep this and read it after school?” I asked Ellen. She nodded and sauntered off to eighth hour.
After school, I picked up the poem and read it again. This time, I was able to concentrate.
As I read, I began to realize Ellen had written about her own kind of slavery… to depression.
I felt bad for assuming she hadn’t been listening when, truth be told, she had indeed found connection with Douglass’ experience and words. Yes, she understood and appreciated the horrific dehumanization of American slavery that Douglass experienced, but she went further. She correlated Douglass’ oppression under slavery and injustice to her own oppression under anxiety and depression.
In no way, I’m sure, did she intend to downplay or distract from Douglass’ experience when she compared her own struggle with mental health to his struggle with state-sanctioned slavery. After all, students cannot help but be shocked at the inhumane treatment Africans suffered under the peculiar institution. When Ellen applied Douglass’ experience to her own, I believe it was an honest attempt to deal with her crisis.
And what’s more, she creatively built on that attempt and created her “Master Mind” poem to sustain and even heal herself.
In short, Ellen was doing exactly what educators want their students to do: apply classic literature to contemporary life.
Here are two excerpts from Ellen’s poem:
I am a slave to my own mind.
I’m tied up, naked, and afraid,
While my uninvited thoughts hold the whip,
All day, I try to please my master,
Only to be starved of my happiness.
My fear shatters all remnants of hope,
By striking me for laughter…
For I want to be the next Frederick Douglass.
I will escape the darkness in my head,
And I plan on writing about my struggle and the struggle of others…
I am simply bringing a different kind of modern slavery to light.
And to think I assumed Ellen was just filling a chair in my classroom. Yes, she was staring into space, but she was still engaged, making meaning, finding sustenance and encouragement from her identification with Douglass.
This was the ultimate text-to-self connection, wasn’t it?
Let’s not always assume that students aren’t “getting it.” They may be understanding and gaining more from a text than we ever expect.
This experience with Ellen has shown me the value of being watchful of how students are connecting with our classroom texts. From now on, I won’t be so quick to assume that students who stare off into space are not engaged.