In April, just before spring break, we’re reading Fahrenheit 451. Gathered around the table for literature class, I wait until the kids are silent and looking at me. It takes time for them to still their minds and bodies.
As quietly as I can and still be heard, I begin. “What we’re going to do is get up silently, without talking, without looking at each other, without clanging chairs or bumping anything–slowly and serenely, like great beautiful herons, and for the next five minutes look at the titles of the books on the shelves. Look for one that speaks to you, which symbolically or metaphorically describes, to you, how you have changed this year, which tells part of your story. Which somehow is a way to explain where you began, and how you got to this moment. If you find one that feels right, let it stay there, and go look at others, and then maybe come back the first one, or chose a different one.”
I look at them and nod, and they get up from their chairs. We wander around the room in silence, as though it were a library or a meditation. I’m crouched on the floor next to Phoebe. All four of the walls in the classroom, including a closet-like nook in the corner, are loaded with books, from floor to ceiling. We’re surrounded by books of every kind, thousands of volumes collected, bought, donated, or scavenged from books sales and the local dump. Novels, history texts, Bibles, cheap paper backs, shelves and shelves devoted to the Holocaust, Jewish mysticism, art history. Da Vinci’s Notebooks; a signed copy of North of Boston by Frost; the collected photographs of Dorothea Lange. Our walls of books stand in quiet, vehement contradistinction to the TV “parlor walls” in Fahrenheit 451, where Mildred gathers with her “family” each night and wastes away in the empty company of the fantastic swirling colors and the cartoon White Clowns who chop off each other’s limbs.
But our room is quiet, and every book has become a possibility. After five minutes they come back to the table. Henry has Updike’s Rabbit at Rest. Phoebe has collected four books and the one on top is Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance and under that is O Pioneers. Paul has chosen Parting the Waters and How to Read and Why. Ethan has selected Jarvis Jay Master’s That Bird Has My Wings. Henry Black has picked up The Rise and Fall of Europe.
“So what were you thinking when you picked your title?” I ask.
“I was thinking about how many ups and downs I’ve had this year,” says Henry. “Sometimes I’ve fallen into a pit, and other times I’ve done great.”
“This year I’ve felt like we are pioneers, I mean our class, and we are doing something great together, and sometimes we’re going to an unknown place,” Phoebe explains. These are ideas she’s never expressed. I guess she’s never imagined herself to be a pioneer. Now she is seeing her life as a story, and she’s telling her classmates that they’ve been characters with her along the way.
Ethan explains his choice. “I picked mine because at the beginning of the year I thought I wanted to be someone else, like other people had taken my wings and they were free and I wasn’t. I compared myself to them. They had parents that were together and my parents were divorced and I thought that I wanted their life and they had stolen mine. It’s taken a long time, but I’m realizing I like the life I have and I wouldn’t want someone else’s life.”
Henry Swan points to the book in front of him. “Well, I picked this because at the beginning of the year I thought I was at rest because I just thought that if people didn’t think like me then they had no soul and they were not interesting to me or important. But now I am thinking of them as being much more. And I am not at rest.”
Their understanding of themselves is physical and adventurous and expansive. They know nothing about the contents of what they have chosen, but books, immense with potential, still speak to them.
Once, I asked them if the copy of Fahrenheit 451 I held in my hand was worth anything at all. Was it worth defending?
“Technically, not really,” came one glib reply. “I mean, there are millions of copies of the book.”
“Okay,” I said. I then ripped the cover off and threw it on the table and proceeded to tear the pages out like chunks of hair until the floor around my feet was carpeted with Bradbury’s words.
“Stop, stop!” Sarah shouted. She was frantic and wild-eyed. She spent the whole lunch under the table gathering the pages and taping them back into order. Yes, this was not the last copy of the book in the world. But she believed in preserving the man who wrote it and the lives inside it.
In Fahrenheit 451 Montag pronounces to Clarisse: “Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ’em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That’s our official slogan.” His bluster is but a disguise for his ignorance. He knows the names, but does not know the meaning. Nor does he know himself, at least not yet.
My students carry their tattered books in backpacks. They leave copies on the table. They listen to the book read to them on tape, hunched on the floor against a shelf, head-phones on, book in hand. Our class copies have eight or ten names written on the inside cover, going back fifteen or more years. The pages are marked, highlighted, worn and folded over. Notes, stars, exclamation points, and arrows fill the margins. Sometimes they leave secret notes in the pages for future classmates. This is an awesome book! Pay attention! For the time they have them, their books are living things.
Griffin presented his project on revolutionary photographs. He showed us the mushroom cloud taken after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. We took fifteen minutes to study and discuss an image of Hitler striding up stairs alone at a rally in Nuremberg. Then he had us look at Lange’s epic photo, “Migrant Mother.”
He asked the class to practice looking by spending five minutes observing the photo, and he asked each of us to identify any noteworthy details. They don’t know a lot of the history, or that the migrant mother’s name was Florence Owens Thompson, nor that she had just sold the tires of the family’s car. Only a handful of them know what the Dust Bowl is, or about the conditions of California migrant workers in 1936. They don’t know that the bundle in her lap is an infant whom she had been breast-feeding just moments before.
But they see so much. They have eyes, and they are not afraid to use them. Given something beautiful, or mysterious, or heart-rending, and then given time, they will work to make sense of it. They don’t know the narrative or the context, but they are not afraid to inquire, suppose, venture, posit, wonder, or speculate. They use the evidence before them. Her ragged clothes. The tentative touch of her fingers on her lips. Her children’s head’s hidden. The tight cluster of human forms. The strength and fear in her eyes. The clarity of her brilliant irises.
Later Lange gave a brief history of the picture.
“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.
When I read Lange’s quote to them, they listened. There was a story and it confirmed what they already sensed. The children eating birds they killed, the tires sold, the frozen vegetables, the tent the family lived in—to know the context made the picture more potent, more cutting. Perhaps they became the children, or saw their own mothers, or, fleetingly, remembered the bountiful food in their own warm, sturdy homes.
The picture becomes a portal. They encounter books and images as Lange approached the migrant mother, as life approaching life. In this manner do my students enter the history of the past and the stories of their own lives. Books are steps and handholds, cairns and signs. The Confessions of Nat Turner. The Turn of the Screw. A Moveable Feast. I Never Saw Another Butterfly. Diving Into the Wreck. A Book of Luminous Things. It is a fantastic menagerie, the wall of whispering mirrors. Mansions are before and behind them, beckoning. They are up to their eyes in words.