Friday, November 30, 2012

The Ties that Bind

I adore my job, but despite my best intentions, transcendent moments do not happen every day. Mostly, my job is grading, chasing students for their late assignments, teaching students how to stand on their own two feet so I don't have to chase them for late assignments, and untangling the sticky web of social drama that my middle school students weave between classes. I teach stuff, and sometimes it's heard, sometimes it's not.

But was special. Today I bore witness to a moment of high drama, fireworks, celebration, and yes, transcendence. I don't know that anyone else noticed, but for one seventh grader and this teacher, today was the stuff of miracles.

In order to understand what happened, I have to go into a bit of developmental neurology, psychology, and educational mumbo-jumbo.

Middle school students are in the middle. Literally, they are between elementary school and high school, but figuratively, they are no longer children, not yet adults. Middle school students occupy that place of limbo between innocence and experience, and that's a difficult place to live.

Wait, let me back up.

Children are literal beings. They think in black and white, and when I explain to them that literature can have meaning underneath the surface of the words, some of them look at me as if I've said their books come to life at night and hold square dances. Allusion, metaphor, symbolism - some make this leap from literal to figurative thought at 11, some at 12, others don't hit that transition until high school. And that's okay. This leap is not about smarts, it's about neurological connections that take place in the brain. I can't make them see allusion or metaphor or symbolism, I can only present it to them time and time again, and hope that there will be one day, one moment, when my discussion of the extended metaphor Dickens creates between Wemmick and his wards in the jail (Wemmick is the gardener, they are his lovingly tended plants in the greenhouse of the prison) coincides with the precise moment two neurons intersect in a given student's brain, and those neurons create the pathway that will allow that student to know.

In other words, my students are pupa-people, ready to burst forth from their weird little pimply and gangly chrysalis (from Latin, chrysallis, "golden colored pupa of the butterfly" from the Greek khrysos, "gold"), and this bursting forth can happen at anytime.

And that bursting happened today, right there in my wee little classroom.

The seventh grader in question used to explain literature much as she'd explain the guts of a Kenmore washing machine. She would describe the parts, maybe make a connection to the whole, but her reasoning was all technical specs and maintenance schedules.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, she saw. She understood that Estella is a candle that attracts moths and Drummle is a spider who scurries and burrows. She will be one of the first to see the link to Frankenstein that I have already set up in their minds.

Today, I wrote a quiz that asked more of them than mere regurgitation of facts, but expected interpretation in its place. I had warned them that this quiz was coming, and most of them rose to the challenge. This student, though, she knocked the quiz out of the ballpark.

She understood the subtext, the meaning in between the black ink and white page. Like Dorothy, she saw technicolor where black and white dominated her field of vision.

And I'm in trouble, because after today, she will be able to read this post and find the overabundance of forced and mixed metaphors. The washing machines, the Wizard of Oz, webs, the gardeners and candles; they are hers to find.

Year after year, I find myself in this place of privilege. I could not be more grateful, and yet I don't think she will remember what took place today. There will be no birthdays, no anniversaries, of the day she made her leap into the figurative world, but I will know, and mark it. November 30, 2012, Room A, right there, in chapter 38 of Great Expectations.

NB: I wrote about a similar moment over at the Core Knowledge blog, so if this piqued your interest, you can head over there for more.


  1. That it happened with Dickens made my heart skip a beat. It's these sudden bursts that keep teachers and parents energized and optimistic. Please tell your student that another MS English teacher is super proud of her!

  2. congratulations. and thank you for emailing me about this and sharing it with me. you do important work. but you knew that already without me telling you.

  3. How very exciting! Now it's time for her to go back and re-read all her favorite childhood books. How are the stories different now that she can "read between the lines"?

  4. Fascinating! Such a great reminder that children have to mature developmentally in order to mature intellectually. I think a lot of parents (often those of "gifted" children) forget that part. Thanks for sharing.