My first year in the homeschool co-op, I taught American Literature to high school upperclassmen. Over the summer I formulated objectives based on academic standards, but when friends asked about the class, I told them my goal was for the kids to truly appreciate literature. They didn’t have to like everything we read, but I wanted them to at least learn to appreciate it.
Secretly, though, my goal was for the kids to love literature.
At a summer planning session I met the parents of my students. They seemed enthusiastic about the class and said their kids were excited, too. I introduced myself to Tom’s mom.
“I should warn you, ” she said, “Tom doesn’t like to read.”
“I’d love to find literature that engages all the kids. Maybe I can find something to entice him. Tell me about Tom. What are his interests?”
“Ah!” I quickly ran through mental files searching for a classic book featuring a tractor. Couldn’t turn up anything. “Um, what else?”
“Just tractors. He’s on a tractor first thing in the morning, out in the fields before any of the others are up. I make him breakfast and he heads out early. All day long he’s either restoring a tractor, repairing a tractor, driving a tractor, or thinking about tractors.”
“Does he like to read anything?”
Later, I met his sister and asked her about his interests.
“Tractors, ” she said.
“Nope. Just tractors.”
“Does he ever read anything?”
Resolved to find a way for this kid to love literature, I dedicated the rest of my summer to finalizing my reading list and locating something that featured a tractor—a book, essay, poem, anything at all…anything but a tractor manual.
I found passing reference in a Willa Cather novel. Then I stumbled on this scene in The Grapes of Wrath:
THE TRACTORS came over the roads and into the fields…. Snubnosed monsters, raising the dust and sticking their snouts into it, straight down the country, across the country, through fences, through dooryards, in and out of gullies in straight lines.
The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was a part of the monster, a robot in the seat…The driver could not control it—straight across country it went, cutting through a dozen farms and straight back. A twitch at the controls could swerve the cat’, but the driver’s hands could not twitch because the monster that built the tractors, the monster that sent the tractor out, had somehow got into the driver’s hands, into his brain and muscle, had goggled him and muzzled him—goggled his mind, muzzled his speech, goggled his perception, muzzled his protest.
I decided not to have them read The Grapes of Wrath. I chose one of Steinbeck’s short stories instead. As summer waned, parents were emailing, asking for my final book list so they could start ordering. I gave up on tractor lit.
The students tackled The Scarlet Letter, sustaining remarkably high interest during class discussions. Tom seemed somewhat disinterested in the book, but when asked a direct question, he answered quietly. He may not have liked what we were reading, but he appeared to grasp the material. Now and then he even expressed an alternative viewpoint, energizing group interaction. Tom probably preferred to spend his Tuesday morning planting corn in the north field instead of discussing Hester Prynne with his peers, but he didn’t complain.
For the final assignment for The Scarlet Letter, I asked students to incorporate symbolism into an art project to represent one or more of the book’s major themes. They could draw, paint, sculpt, create a collage with magazine clippings. Then they had to tell us about their creation and how it related to the book.
One student fashioned an elaborate letter A out of fabric and glittery gold accents; another drew an anime version of the story highlighting key plot points.
Tom drew a chalk pastel of a farm. Along the left side, a tall, flourishing tree reached over a long fence, dividing a pasture and wooded area from a barn lot. Two tractors were parked near a barn: a green John Deere and a red Farmall.
We worked our way around the room, each student describing his or her project and how it related to the story. Then Tom stood up. He carried his 9-by-12-inch artwork to the front of the room and softly explained his piece.
The two tractors represented the protagonists—Hester, cursed to wear the scarlet letter, was, of course, the red Farmall. The fence represented the divide between the town and the forest. He found a way for each element to have meaning and connect with something we’d discussed.
“Tom, ” I said, “when I saw your artwork, I thought it was beautifully done. You’re a talented artist, and I was so impressed by your attention to detail. But I’ll be honest—I couldn’t imagine what those tractors would symbolize. Hearing you now … I think you did it. It’s unusual and unexpected, but that’s what’s interesting. You understand the story and explored the theme. It works. Well done.”
Tom nodded and returned to his seat. I hoped he felt my sincerity.
Throughout the year, the reading load weighed heavy on the students, but they determined to keep up. The class gained confidence as they learned ways to read and respond to literature. Tom never seemed to love the books, but he did the work, took the tests, and wrote the response papers.
At some point in the year, Tom’s mom and I discussed the possibility of having him listen to books on tape, as she was able to find a recording of every novel at the library. I said it was fine and asked that she have him follow along with the written version simultaneously, if at all possible.
Tom’s outdoor chores lessened during winter, making it easier to keep up with the reading assignments. As the school year wound down, however, snows melted and work on the farm ramped up. Tom’s mom said he was out on the tractor early most mornings again, revving up the vintage Farmall H he’d restored by hand. She had to nag him to get his schoolwork done. “He’s got senioritis bad, ” she said. “He just wants to be done with this school year and graduate.”
“Reassure him he’s on the home stretch. We only have one more novel, and it’s a much easier read than some of the other books we tackled this year.”
That afternoon I introduced To Kill a Mockingbird. As with all the books, I tried to offer context and enthusiasm. Spring distracted all the students, not just Tom, its siren song wooing them outside to sunshine and greening grass. I worried they would skim it. At the end of class, I revealed my year-long secret. “Oh, you guys…I really, really hope you love it!”
I paced the reading so they had a few weeks to read and discuss. On one of our last Tuesdays, Tom’s mom pulled me aside at lunch.
“Normally Tom’s the first to come down for breakfast, but the other day he was late. It was so unusual because he’s in a hurry to get out to the fields.”
“On the tractor, I know.”
“Yes! So I called up the stairs, but he didn’t answer. I looked out at the field where I thought he’d be working, but didn’t see the tractor out there. That’s when I really started to panic, worried where he could be. I phoned my husband’s cell to see if Tom was with him in some other part of the farm, but he said no. Then I got scared. I called for him again and then ran up to his room and knocked on his bedroom door.”
She started to tear up. “He said to come in. When I opened the door, he was lying on his bedroom floor with his headphones on—that’s why he couldn’t hear me calling for him. I asked what he was doing, and he said he was reading the book for class. He got so into the story, he couldn’t stop. He kept reading past what you assigned for the week—he read the entire book that day, because he wanted to know how it ended.”
She shook her head. “Ann, nothing keeps him from his tractor. In all these years I couldn’t get him interested in books or reading, but there he was, on the floor of his bedroom, late to his chores because he couldn’t stop reading!”
The other day I tried to track down my American Literature binder, to find the final assignment for class that year. I couldn’t dig up my materials, so I tried to remember if it was a paper or a test or something else. When I closed my eyes and thought back, I saw the chalk pastel of two tractors parked side by side in a barn lot—and a high school senior with headphones in his ears, a book in his hands.
Photo by Don O’Brien. Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Ann Kroeker, writing coach and co-author of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life that Lasts.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish