My head keeps going back to my first semester of teaching high school, five years ago. I wish I could say that I'm remembering legions of teenagers who left my class inspired. Instead, what I'm remembering are lessons I botched and units that failed before they started because I didn't have the slightest idea what I was trying to teach.
I bring this up here because the memory that makes me cringe and laugh the most is of teaching The Hobbit to thirty tenth graders. I, single-handedly, turned a magical land of myth, hobbits, wizards, and dragons into a land of drudgery, vocabulary quizzes, and comprehension worksheets.
My first mistake was choosing to teach The Hobbit in the first place. I didn't choose it as part of a well-organized educational plan. Instead, I chose it while standing in my school's book room, looking at the available class sets of novels for tenth graders. My students hadn't read a novel yet that fall, and I had the vague idea that they ought to. I hadn't read Red Sky at Morning. I wanted to save Lord of the Flies for spring semester (bloody pig heads felt like spring, somehow). The Hobbit seemed like a good choice. All kids like dragons, right?
It was doomed from the start. I've always found Tolkien's novels to be excellent sedatives. I once summarized the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy to my husband: "Something happens, so a bunch of hobbits, a wizard, and some other people go for a very long walk. Something else happens, so they walk for another two hundred pages. Repeat, until the last book and the last something." I realize that this attitude is a failing on my part, rather than on Tolkien's, but the point remains that I had no business trying to get a classroom of kids—kids who mostly tested at a sixth-grade or below reading level and who had already been betrayed by an educational system that warehoused them in a "regular" level English class while their "enriched" peers sat in another classroom entirely—hopped up on reading with a book I found dull.
My tenth graders possessed fabulous bullshit detectors. It took them three seconds to figure out I wasn't nearly as excited about The Hobbit as I claimed to be. Twenty minutes to eight on a Monday morning, we hadn't even started, and they already suspected they'd hate the book. By half past eight, when the bell rang, they knew they did.
Day after day, we slogged through the long hard walk of that book. I didn't have any educational goals figured out beyond getting them to the last page. We read the whole book in class. I knew I should figure out a way to get them to read it on their own time—getting students to rise to expectations and all that—but I didn't know how, and I didn't have the energy to try. Instead, each day we filled out vocabulary sheets, we read the book out loud, and we answered comprehension questions. We watched the agonizing crawl of the clock's minute hand. When the bell rang, my students filed out, heavy packs slung over their shoulders. I watched them go with the taste of failure in my mouth. All of my dreams about inspiring youth with a love of literature, and instead I found myself exactly the kind of teacher I despised most.
Eventually, I decided that reading the whole book out loud was ridiculous, so we alternated reading out loud with reading silently. At first, it didn't work. About half the class tried to read, and the other half whispered, threw notes, sharpened pencils, and generally wiggled around so much that even the readers gave up after a few minutes. I started handing out worksheets covered with easy but specific questions, about two questions per page of the novel. It worked; the students read diligently, penciling in the answer to each question as they encountered it on the page. I watched them as they did this for as long as half an hour at a time—reading reduced to connect-the-dots. It was the first time I had succeeded in getting them to read silently for longer than thirty seconds. It was a success, of a kind, but one bought by squeezing the last tiny drop of joy out of reading.
One morning, a student slouched up to my desk and sighed. "Miss," he said, "why do we have to read about wizards and dragons? What do dragons have to do with my life? I want to read about real things."
I froze. I couldn't think of a single thing dragons had to do with his life. I took a long swig of coffee. Finally I said, "What about getting to the end of this stupid book? What about the vocabulary quiz I'm giving tomorrow? Don't you have some dragons to slay right here?"
He laughed, told me I was crazy, then slouched over to his desk. It says something, that I remember this as one of the most successful teaching moments of the unit.
The other successful moment had to do with Gollum. Even I couldn't wring the last drop of magic out of Gollum. As he appeared, the students straightened up in their desks. They insisted only the best readers go that day; none of them wanted the story slowed. When we finished the chapter, I talked to them about shadow selves. I suggested that Gollum was a shadow of Bilbo, the self Bilbo most feared becoming, the self that would follow Bilbo for the rest of his life.
I had them write about their own shadow selves. One student's shadow sat on his porch all day drinking beer and throwing rocks at neighborhood kids. Another's huddled beneath the laundry room sink, humming and hugging her knees tight under her chin. Another student, who bounced around like a Superball and had the loudest laugh in class, wrote about a shadow who was afraid to speak, who shuffled slowly and never looked anyone in the eye.
I already knew my shadow self too well. She stood up before a class of tenth graders every morning at twenty to eight handing out worksheets instead of education. She transformed reading into a long slog through a dark forest. She had no idea what dragons had to do with her students' lives. She had forgotten her intention to slay a dragon or two herself this year.
Eventually, we reached the end of our walk. As I read the last line aloud, the class broke out into applause. They were relieved to be done. So was I. Still, I sensed a little pride mixed in. They had read every word. They had read silently for half a class period at a time, something they'd never done in my class before. They had, by god, triumphed over The Hobbit. I told them I was proud of them, and I was. I just wasn't proud of myself.
I rewarded them with yet another trope of a bad teacher—a movie. In a fit of worse judgment than usual, I showed them a movie I hadn't seen for twenty years. I had fond memories of the 1970s cartoon version of The Hobbit—surely I didn't need to watch it again. Within minutes of pressing play, I knew I had messed up. The animation was weird and stiff. The soundtrack consisted of endless repeats of a man singing "The greeeatEST AdventURE!" in a folksy falsetto.
At first the students laughed, made fun of the strangest cartoon they had ever seen. Eventually, they settled in, watching with horrified fascination, occasionally whispering to each other, wondering who would make, or watch, such a movie. One boy—a student who skipped class more often than not, walked with a swagger—turned in his desk to face me. His eyes were wide, and he used a frightened little boy's voice, instead of his usual laconic grunt. "Miss," he said, "what kind of man sings like that?" I dissolved into giggles and put my head on the desk, shoulders shaking, tears streaming from my eyes. This is my last memory of teaching The Hobbit.
I wish I could tell you that I turned around after that and became the kind of teacher I had meant to be, but that wouldn't be true. I think I got a little better. I do know that I liked the students in that class, that sometimes we'd joke around together. I also know that on the last day of class, one boy, the one with a rock-throwing shadow, turned to me as he left my room for the last time and said, "I want you to know this was my favorite class this year."
And my last failure that year, the one that makes me want to hide under the laundry room sink for the rest of my life, was that I said, "I'm sorry," instead of "Thanks." I meant, "I'm sorry that we're failing you like this. I'm sorry that my terrible class was your best one this year. I'm sorry that the best you can hope for is to have a teacher who laughs at your jokes sometimes. I'm sorry." But who knows what he heard? I wish I could find him now, and tell him, "Thank you."