Thursday, October 23, 2008

Deconstructing The Scarlet Letter

Ok, I posted this, then I got all insecure and I deleted it (after a few of you were kind enough to comment) and then I remembered that I like to kick insecurities in the here I am reposting this.

Rowena, the Warrior Girl, tagged me the other day. I was supposed to give six random facts about myself, but instead, I thought I would share with you all a story. I've been meaning to write more lately, and I wrote this a couple of months ago and haven't shared it with many people, so I thought I would share it here. It gives a pretty good idea of me. I love recreating moments from my memory that were as good in real life as they appear on paper.

So here you go....the number one reason why The Scarlet Letter remains one of my favorite books. And yes, the principal really told me not to teach it.

Whatever you do, DON’T teach The Scarlet Letter

“Ok, y’all settle down.” I stood at the front of the room holding a box of The Scarlet Letter. Now listen, because I’m going to tell you something. No one in this school believes that you can read this book.” I started handing the books out, one by one, looking each student in the eye. “They don’t think you’ll ‘get it.’” I said as I passed one to Shenedria, then Sharonda, then Sh’miae, and finally to Caroldoria, my saving C in a row of S’s. “In fact, they told me not to teach it.” I paused and looked into Jabbar’s face, my most rebellious student, I knew he would love this. “So, guess what our new unit is going to be? “ Jabbar’s face turned into a slight smile as he felt the book in his hands. I kept walking and passing out the book. “Ok, we’re going to start today. It won’t be easy.” I said this as I looked into Jordy’s eyes. He knew something about life not being easy. He was 19, still trying to pass high school. His parents had abandoned him long ago, leaving him and his younger brother with his aged grandmother. He worked nights, sometimes all night. He never turned in his homework, but he always showed up for class. “It’s going to take effort.” A book to Bintu. “It’s going to take dedication.” A book to Tyrell. “It’s going to take us working together.” The last book to Amanda, the only white girl besides me. I went and moved back to the front of the room with my book in hand. “However, I really think this is a valuable book. On the surface it is about a love affair between a married woman and a priest.” Shouts, yells, and other suggestive whistles filled the air. “But underneath you will find a story about not being accepted by society, about making decisions, and most of all, about the judgments we place on others. So keep your hands and feet to yourself and enjoy the ride.”

The first chapter took us two days to go through, the new vocabulary came daily as I would read a paragraph. We would stop, and I would put it into understandable terms. The significance of the detail of the prison door, the lone rose bush that grew outside, the significance of starting the novel after the affair to show consequences, and the symbol of Pearl herself. They loved it, they struggled with it, they related to it, they lived it.

The time came for the first writing assignment. The kids had to write their own ideas of what was driving Arthur Dimmesdale. What were his intentions and motives? I came to Dicarrio Jenkins’ paper, the paper of the kid who, on the first day of class, told me I needed to pronounce his name with “a little more attitude.” This was his paper, “Arthur Dimmesdale was the baby daddy who jus wanted a booty call.” I remember that paper because I learned for the first time the definitions of “baby daddy” and “booty call.” I had to smile because I couldn’t mark it wrong.

I had four pregnant 16 year olds in that class. None of them married, none of them ready to be mothers. In fact, two babies had been found in the trashcans earlier in the year. The girls had gone into the bathrooms, given birth, then threw the babies away because they didn't know what to do. We talked about Hester raising Pearl alone. We talked about not having a father there to help, most of these kids didn’t have fathers either. During one poignant discussion, a young girl, Sade, came up to me and said, “Oh, Miss Bee, I be fittin’ to have this baby, can I use the hall pass, ma’am?” Just then her water broke. There was an amniotic fluid stain on the carptet all year long. That remains today, the most valid reason for using the hall pass I have ever had. I called the office, they called the ambulance. Did my kids understand having babies when you shouldn’t?

They became fascinated with the scarlet letter Hester was forced to wear. A large red A marking her sins to the world, telling the community to avoid her. These kids have grown up thinking that the color of their skin is a Scarlet Letter. Did they understand what it would be like to be in Hester’s shoes?

A black on white fight broke out across the school at a part a few days later. Many of my kids saw it, and some of them were in it. It’s the old West Side Story kind of fight. We discussed it, like we did everything. I realized that I was, to many of them, the moral parental influence that they so desperately needed. Did they learn from the hate that consumed Roger Chillingworth?

Day after day, week after week, we read, and talked, read and talked. I lost my voice, I bought it on tape, and still we read.

The day we finished. I will never forget. It was a graduation scene from a cheesy WB drama like Felicity, only it was in inner city Florida, the kids didn’t have name brand clothes and BMW’s. In fact the ceiling had fallen in the day before, the heater ran non-stop and there was a never-ending battle against cockroaches. I read the last sentence. Arthur and Hester were now buried quietly besides each other. I closed my book. There was a moment of silence. I looked up at them and said, “You did it.” Then the explosion I was waiting for. They stood, they cheered, they hugged, they threw their novels up in the air like graduation caps.

When everyone said they couldn’t do it, they did it.


Alisa said...

D'Arcy, this is so amazing. It just goes to show what a great teacher you are.

I have never thought about skin color being a kind of scarlet letter before. Wow. Your students can really teach me something!

This is really making me thing about the other kinds of prejudice we have, the other scarlet letters. Thank you for making me think.

Stina said...

Should I re-post my comment then?

From yesterday:

"Oooh I got chills. More stories, more stories!"

:) Remind me to tell you tonight about an argument I got into with my professor in graduate school regarding poverty vs. race as a "scarlet letter."

barney6 said...

D'Arcy, I love it. I don't know why you would feel insecure about it. I got tears in my eyes. Thank you for sharing your experience. Isn't it amazing what people can do when you just believe that they can? Everyone needs someone to believe in them.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora D'Arcy,
Thank you for being a Teacher and a Learner. You are an inspiration and the world needs you to do what you do, and how you do it.

Claire, said...

What a lovely story! Wow, I love it.
My dear mother gave me an old copy of the scarlet letter (I can see it right now from where I sit) when I became pregnant my Jr year of HS.
I dropped out and became a Mom. Accident or design, it was the best thing I could have done with my life. Where would I be without my precious daughter, who has grown up with me, and taught me everything I need to know.
She'll turn 15 on December 3, people always think we are sisters, I love telling them I'm her Mum.
Thank you for posting this, D'arcy!

mapelba said...

A good story considering the day I've had today.

smiles4u said...

D'Arcy, As I read this, many different emotions were sparked inside of me. I have reread it 3 more times and each time, I was even more touched by your words and what you have shared here. This is beautiful on so many levels...the beauty of you and who you are, came out whether you meant to or not. The beauty of you the teacher...the teacher that believes in her students and see's so much more to learning and teaching because you know deep in your heart that each one of your students comes to you hungry for something...and you made them hungry to learn and the pride they felt in learning and getting to the end of something that most people, other than you, didn't think they could do. Wow!

Tears flowed as I read this and they do now as I try to somehow convey to you what a brilliant post this is. To think you almost didn't share this. You have blessed my life today, D'Arcy, just as I think you have blessed your other readers, but most of all, those students that get the honor of being in your class. Thank you for taking a chance and remembering to kick those insecurities in the butt, and reposting this. I have said this before, you are an amazing young woman and there is a great purpose for your life...and I am so thankful that our paths crossed, because in the short time I have known you, you have touched my life with your open,honest sharing, with your travel stories, your photo's, with your wisdom and your kind, beautiful spirit that flows in everything you write, and in every comment you leave me on my blog.

Thank you. Thank you for sharing this beautiful memory. Thank you for touching the lives of the young that you get the opportunity to teach. Keep up the greatness my friend, just by being you!

Gustav said...


The Scarlet Letter had a profound influence on me on a number of levels as a teenager.

In the end, we all need to love and accept each other.

And you, teaching this story, makes me so proud to be your friend.

Have a joyous day.

Rowena said...

Oy. I've had such a problem commenting on this, but feel such a need to. First, I read it on my google reader, and couldn't find it when I came to your blog. Then I tried to comment, but blogger was down and ate my comment.

But I have to keep trying because I loved this post. It really resonates with me as an ex-teacher who was told the same thing, at different times with both Hamlet and Siddhartha. No one thought my kids could understand, read, or enjoy either works, but both pieces turned out to be transformational for my students.

We often do not give kids enough credit, particularly kids from the innercity, poor kids, minority kids, pregnant ones or ones in and out of trouble, kids with learning disabilities or emotional difficulties... and yet if given the chance they can indeed rise to the challenge.

Interestingly, I wonder why you deleted the original post. Did you not give yourself the credit? What were you afraid of by sharing this? Did you think your readers wouldn't understand? I do wonder these things, because I see nothing here in this post to be ashamed or afraid of. I loved it (three times I came back to post. three times!)

Dottie said...

I was uber sad when I tried to comment on the original post, only to find it was deleted.

I remember when you were teaching at that school and the struggles you had in working with the students. But to have a glimpse into how you worked with those kids really touched me.

'I got yo back Miss B!'

Steve and Jenn Fletcher said...

So I always have such a difficult time commenting on your post because everyone else writes comments that are both profound and touching, while I have a tendency to type in sarcastic quips...

But I just wanted to say to you, thanks for being such a good role model to those kids. You know my beef about the "No Child Left Behind Act" and the government's idea of placing ALL of the responsibility of getting students to succeed with the teachers (instead of placing it with the parents, where the primary responsibility SHOULD lie).


If every teacher was more like you, then YES, that program might actually work!

jomama said...

i love this story, d'arcy. i remember you telling me about the girls leaving their babies in the trash in the bathroom, and about the student of yours needing the hall pass.
all i can say is that so many people (i think me included) would've been so disheartened in that situation, would've lost a lot of motivation. and you helped these kids to push through and do something that was so difficult for them, to overcome some of the adversity facing them, and to give them some confidence in themselves.
this story is just so wonderful and i hope you keep sharing them.
i'm just so proud and honored to know you and to consider you my friend.

HappyWifeHappyLife said...

I'm so glad you reposted this.
I understand about being insecure. Back when I used to write (and why is that PAST TENSE?!) I was very insecure about it too.... it's just such a personal thing to put it OUT THERE for all to see. So, yes I understand.

But girl, you have NOTHING to be insecure about. Your writing is AMAZING. Incredibly talented, you are. And may I just add to the chorus of others and add my voice that I'm so glad you chose teaching as your profession? I know it's difficult and I know lately you've had some challenges but our schools need MORE teachers like you, sweetheart. You rock.

If I may, I'm going to compare you with one of my favorite writers (back when he was at his BEST) - Pat Conroy. This story evokes HIS first book, "The Water is Wide" which chronicles the year he spent teaching young African-American kids on Dafuskie Island back in the late 60's/early 70's. It's am amazing book.... I bet you'd love it.

(An interesting aside... I actually - through a coincidental series of events - got to know 2 of his daughters when I was much younger.)

ANYWAY, the point is - your writing talent is a God-given gift. Since you intially posted this story, I've thought about it again and again and wanted to read MORE MORE MORE. Please keep writing MORE MORE MORE!

You're the best, D'Arce!

Sugar said...

I love this. Your description of the kids from your world view was great.

And Jabbar? I think I remember that was the "naughty" elephant on Babar. I'm pretty sure...

What an experience. For you. For the students. THIS is why I wanted to be a high school English teacher. (Minus the cockroaches)

D'Arcy said...

You guys are amazing. I deleted it because I felt a little it looked like I had been the one to do all this work, to raise these kids up, when in reality, it was all them. They were (and are) one of the most amazing group of people to ever cross my path of life. They taught me so much that year. They had lived lives I couldn't even imagine. They had childhood's snatched from them and responsibilities piled high...and yet...through all this, they read a book and let it change them.

This is why I reposted it. Because the stars of this story are my students...they are the heroes. They are our world.

G said...

oh wow, what a wake up call... what a harsh reality.

I'm so greatful for teachers like you, and for books like the scarlet letter... and for your students. god, what a life..

Hey, It's Ansley said...

I'm reading a few of your posts in reverse, meaning I have already read your post about speaking with your doctor who questioned why, according to him, you might not be living up to your potential and are "just" a teacher, about price tags and what people are worth. Take this story and give it to that doctor. Take this story and make it your price tag. Find those former students, and your current students, and their parents, and grandparents, and children they had while in your class or will have in the future and ask them how you changed their value in the eyes of the world and also in their own eyes. It's not just the hours that teachers work or the textbook info they teach that makes them underpaid and worth so much, it's enlightenment, it helping people see what they are worth inside.