Yes, it's summer break, and yes, teachers get "three months off" a year. But, just like every other summer since I began my teaching career (hello, year four), I'm spending this one reading, prepping, planning, revising, and brainstorming. Time is of the essence this year -- I'm due with Baby #3 two short weeks after school begins. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, my plan is to start the school year, get my kids into a routine, ease in my substitute and take a few hours off to give birth before grading the essays that will be coming in from my 38 AP students and 51 Honors English 11 students . . .in between rehearsals for the fall play, of course. Oh, and join the PTA at Aidan's elementary school and sign up for snacks at Gabrielle's child care center in my infinite spare time.
As has been the case for every other summer thus far, I'm prepping for 2 new courses -- one is an elective, Drama, and the other is Honors English 11. (I've taught College (now Honors) English 10, but not 11.) Because I have AP fresh on my mind (scores should be arriving in July!), I've decided to start with mapping out this year's version of that course. Some strategies and lessons worked extremely well, and some were less effective. So, obviously, I'm going to get rid of the ones that worked really well and keep hittin' 'em up with the barnburners. (Do I have to say "Just kidding" or could you pick that up in the tone?)
My students have a summer assignment -- the first part is to read a chapter which introduces them to rhetoric, the Aristotelian triangle, and some of the basics of argumentation. Then, they must read the masterpiece, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Truly a landmark work, Capote's nonfiction account of the Clutter murders in Holcomb, Kansas in November of 1959 changed forever literature and the American psyche. It was the first of now many nonfiction crime novels -- extensively researched (with a heck of a lot of help from Harper Lee, of Mockingbirdfame) and intricately written, it provides fodder for many, many class periods of analysis and discussion. In addition to journalistically reporting the facts of the case, Capote manages to create sympathy for not only the victims but also, incredibly, the murderers as well.
For the first time in America's mindset, murderers were depicted as not simply freaks of nature, soulless beings without a moral compass who deserved to be shipped off to a secluded island and left to fend for themselves. Instead, Capote weaves the troubled backstory of Perry Smith into the narrative of his heinous crime. Amazingly, the reader begins to feel sorry for Smith, who was abandoned by his parents, abused by foster care families, battered by Catholic nuns, ridiculed by schoolmates, rejected by females, overlooked for educational opportunities, and was rendered powerless in the wake of his domineering and manipulative partner, Dick Hickock. The concept of "Nature versus Nuture" comes to the forefront when we consider Capote's own biography -- a troubled childhood filled with neglectful parents, bullying peers, and social inequity. As Truman says in the film, Capote: "It is as if Perry and I were raised in the same house at the same time. At one point, I went out the front door and he went out the back."
And really, that's a complex observation -- what makes one person turn out successful in spite of hardships endured and another turn out to be the perpetrator of a multiple homicide?
Capote forces the reader to contemplate the issue a bit further when he recounts the execution of both murderers (gruesome hangings which took about 20 minutes a piece to complete). Finishing the novel, the reader is left with the sad realization that an eye for an eye only leaves two people blind. I've created the first synthesis essay (a position paper using secondary sources) for my students. The topic is capital punishment. I've been working like a fiend on this novel -- I have a gazillion (approximately) ideas and activities for analysis and discussion planned and I am feeling quite satisfied with what I've come up with.
After about 2 weeks straight of reading only "work literature", I went to the fiction stacks on a recent family trip to James V. Brown Library, and I selected at whim a Jodi Picoult book I hadn't read yet. The title is one of her newest -- Change of Heart -- and I put it under my arm without reading the dust jacket -- not one of her books has let me down, so this was a safe gamble. Imagine my surprise when I settled down to read the first few pages and discovered that Change of Heart is about a capital murder case and a death row inmate who wishes to donate his heart to the sister of one of his victims.
Like Capote, Picoult does not ignore the complexities of such an issue. Instead, she names the elephant in the room and creates fictional situations which truly test the reader's convictions. It's easy to say that capital punishment is wrong because it is hypocritical to outlaw murder and turn around and punish that crime with death. It's easy to say that the death penalty shouldn't be in existence because it's more expensive than life imprisonment and it's not an effective deterrent to crime. But, it's not so easy to say that the seemingly remorseless murderer of a 7-year-old girl and her police officer stepfather should get to live to a ripe old age. Especially when the girl's underwear was found in the murderer's pocket. Especially when the father of the girl died in a car accident five years earlier. Especially when the grief-stricken mother's only remaining child has a heart problem that will no doubt claim her life.
And, while my own anti-death penalty beliefs have remained in tact, I can't say it wasn't a challenge for me to consider the possibility of tragedy such as this occurring in my own family. We are ultimately ego-centric people, aren't we? The survival mechanism, the primal urge to protect our young, the snarl of a lioness as she contemplates fight or flight. Would I welcome with open arms the killer of my child as he donated his organs to save my other child? Would I want to grant him that opportunity for penance? Or, would I do absolutely anything to save the only child I had left in the world?
Though Ecclesiastes tells us there is a "time for every season under heaven", even, "a time to kill", I know that I'm not nearly qualified enough to be the one who arranges the schedule. I would lead into a topic that's been knocking about in my brain right now -- the idea that genuine self-respect and respect for others could quite possibly bring about world peace -- but I think that will have to wait for another day, another post.