Gesturing to the rows of glossy white spines, the veteran teacher is happy to tell me: “We have enough to lend each kid their own.”
She’s talking about a book by Ernest Gaines about a Black man on death row for someone else’s crime. All tenth graders are supposed to read it. There aren’t always enough copies of required reading books — but this time there are.
In other words, at the start of the school year, my career, my classes, won’t already be behind.
Even though I just met her, I know to trust her; she’s been teaching for 13 years. As I, a first-year teacher, ask what I never knew would be a question, my words wobble.
“Other books, we don’t?” I ask. “There aren’t enough copies of everything?”
I remember my own tenth grade English class in Baltimore County: the hours I sat hunched over “Crime and Punishment”; bringing “Night” with me on car rides; waking up early to finish reading Act 3 of “Macbeth.”
“How are they supposed to read it?” I ask.
“Oh, hardly anyone’s gonna read outside of class,” she says, waving her hand to dismiss my distress. Except I am not comforted. She suggests I assign a few chapters for homework just in case, but to always give a good summary the next day. “You know, before you read the next chapter.”
I shake my head, trying, already, to assemble another question. “So they’re just going to read to themselves every day? When am I supposed to actually teach?”
My sophomore year, class was for questions. Lessons. Never the book itself. We learned about allusions. How to analyze quotations. Once, when studying Elie Wiesel’s memoir, our teacher asked us to write down every identity we claimed.
“For example,” she said, “I’d write: woman, wife, mother, teacher.”
During the subsequent moment of silence, I made my list: daughter, sister, friend, girlfriend, student, clarinet player.
Our teacher continued, “Imagine you were living during the Holocaust. Take your list, and cross out each identity that the Nazis could’ve taken away from you.”
Each line felt like I was slicing off another part of myself — and this was hypothetical.
I think about my own students who won’t need this type of lesson; without trying, they can connect to the oppression Ernest Gaines’ character endures. But don’t they need to learn about character development? Figurative language?
Except this isn’t like my sophomore year. Every word I hear in this book room reminds me of that. “Actually, you’re going to read to them,” my fellow teacher says. “Unless there’s an audio version of this. I’ll check.”
And so I learn to teach in a way I was never taught to learn. Four times a day, I read, explain, and ask questions about the same sliver of this novel. With each passing class period, it becomes harder to feign enthusiasm for a scene I’d been genuinely eager to read earlier in the day. But the repetition helps me know the pages intimately; I pause at all the right times. Push their thinking. Paraphrase confusing passages.
One day, when a boy who sits in the corner volunteers to read, I put my book down to pass out papers. Usually, when he reads, I’m reminded of someone confidently walking into a room of strangers. So when I notice his words slow and sound almost shy, I know he’s unsure how to pronounce something. Without glancing at the page, I say it for him: “Maneuver.”
“Maneuver,” he repeats.
And we do — every day, finding our way through what we shouldn’t have to be asked to navigate, twisting and turning together.
Kerry Graham teaches high school English for Baltimore City Public Schools and is a Creative in Residence at The Baltimore Banner.