If I were to create a short portfolio of my proudest career achievements, it would include a song written last week by one of my seventh grade students. Let me explain why, and then I will share it with you.
We had been reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a literary classic, a timely tale for the coming-of-age, and a novel ideally suited to my particular purposes as an educator at VanDamme Academy.
It is a story of justice. From meddlesome children and gossipy neighbors spinning tales about a mysterious and reclusive neighbor; to a judgmental aunt declaring nearly every member of the town to be victim to a “streak” running through their family; to a jury quick to declare an innocent man guilty simply because of the color of his skin—we see prejudice in every pernicious form. And we see one man, Atticus Finch, rise above it all, counseling his children not to judge a man until you “climb into his skin and walk around in it,” serving as a pillar of the community and a model of human dignity, and working steadfastly to defend a black man against the false charges of his accuser and against the virulent racism of the town.
It is a story of idealism. The seventh graders and I had many a conversation about the beautiful guilelessness of the novel’s young narrator, Scout Finch. She is utterly frank, sometimes to a fault; when pal Dill awkwardly confesses that he doesn’t have a father…but he isn’t dead…she declares, “Then if he’s not dead, you’ve got one, haven’t you?” She is utterly without prejudice; when brother Jem classifies the community into four types of “folks,” she famously responds, “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” She is utterly innocent; naïve to their motives, she singlehandedly dismantles a violent mob, simply by singling out one of its members with a greeting of gentle kindness: “Hey, Mr. Cunningham.”
Throughout the story resounds the theme that this guilelessness, this innocence, this idealism is the province of childhood. In response to Scout’s simple wisdom, “I think there’s just one type of folks…” adolescent brother Jem responds, “That’s what I thought too…when I was your age.” As we advance into the teenage years and beyond, goes the conventional wisdom, we descend into cynicism and resignation.
Not if I have anything to say about it.
Typically, when I tell people I teach junior high, they look at me with an expression of profound pity, for just the reason indicated above. I am always quick to correct them: “No. You don’t understand. I love teaching junior high.”
At the junior high level, students are gaining a thoughtfulness, a sophistication, a wisdom, that makes it a great pleasure for me to engage their minds. And given the right educational environment, there is no necessity of their following the cliché path to teen angst. Immersed in a culture of exposure to and reverence for deep and meaningful values, they can hold on to the radiant idealism of youth.
It is the daily discussions like those described above, penetrating discussions of great characters like Atticus and Scout and the inspiration they provide, that help these teenagers to maintain their passion, their optimism, their dedication to values.
As evidence, I present a song by seventh grader Natalie Schroder.
We had just finished both To Kill a Mockingbird and a unit on composer George Gerswhin. Having introduced the students to songs from Porgy and Bess, I asked them to rewrite the lyrics to one of the songs from the perspective of a character in Harper Lee’s novel. Natalie chose Boo Radley, and here is her song (to the tune of “Summertime”):
Youth and Innocence
All these years
I’ve watched you through the window
Getting bigger each day
But you’ve kept your youth
And your child-like innocence
Don’t let it go
Just stay the same
You’ve seen the ones
Who’ve been blinded by prejudice
You know them
And their irrational ways
The very thing
I’ve been trying to hide from
Inside these walls
I’ve spent my days
I’ll be there
When you are in danger
I care for you
More than I can say
Preserving the light
Which shines through your souls
My children, hold on
Don’t let it fade
Little did Natalie know that in these final lines, she captured my life’s purpose, echoed in the very title of this blog. It is through educational experiences like this one that I try to help my students preserve the light that shines through their souls.
My children, hold on. Don’t let it fade.