So, I’ve been teaching this book to Grade 8s for a couple of years now. One would think that it won’t affect me as much as or more than the first time I read it years ago. But that’s the thing about compelling books. Each time you pick it up, it tugs at a different heart string, triggers some other buried memory or denied emotion and lets you swim farther out into the vast expanse of your understanding of the human condition, the complexities of power, the consequences of the decisions we make and the contradictions found in every us.
Without giving away too much, the book revolves around Jerry Renault, an annual, “voluntary” chocolate sale and the power structures in place at Trinity High (a corrupt teacher and acting headmaster, Bro. Leon, and Archie Costello and The Vigils, it’s leader and a secret group that lives to torment and intimidate the student body). Jerry, a freshman who recently lost his mother to cancer is beginning to discover and decide who he wants to be. He wants more from life and does not want to be like his father. He is brave and headstrong, and vulnerable and sensitive all at the same time. At first, he goes along with everything they tell him he should do: try out for football, be like Peter and not speak his mind, refuse to sell the chocolates as his assignment and then when the heat is on, eventually sell them thus, ending his Vigils’ assignment. In the middle of all of it, Jerry says No, not for the Vigils but for himself and disturbs the universe. “Cities fell. Earth opened. Planets tilted. Stars plummeted. And the awful silence.” In the end, Jerry gets beaten to a pulp, “murdered,” loaded onto an ambulance and driven away. And it was his conversation with his best friend, Goober at the tail end of that moment in the book that made start to cry in the middle of reading aloud together at the Harkness table.
I know. Am such a spaz. This makes it official (especially since I think I have given away too much up there. LOL.)
It was my last class for the day with my homeroom class (8PG). Joey Tandem decided to sit in to read and discuss with us at the Harkness table (erm, that could be your PLC visit for third term, JTandem, btw) and boy, was I glad he decided to do that because he was able to pick up the reading as my lower lip started to tremble and my tears started to fall. The kids were like, “wth?” and I was like, “omg.” I mean, we had passed the part in the book that made me cry last time so I thought I was in the clear…until we reached this part:
He had to tell Goober to play ball […,] to sell whatever they wanted you to sell, to do whatever they wanted you to do. […] They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless [it’s] their thing, too. It’s a laugh […] a fake. Don’t disturb the universe […] no matter what the posters say. (38.17) Take it easy Goober, it doesn’t even hurt anymore. See? I’m floating above the pain. Just remember what I told you. It’s important. Otherwise they murder you. (38.19)
In my head, I replaced Jerry and put any one of my Grade 8 students saying the exact same thing to someone and that did it. Just the thought of any of them giving up, copping out, throwing in the towel, thinking it’s not worth it – to disturb the universe – killed me. And I know I did it to myself. Imagined the scene and fed it. I know these kids are not inclined to do that. Not at all. Not right now. But just the thought, man, it left me breathless and sad and well, weepy. The kids were totally understanding of course, and curious (why the waterworks, Ms. P?) and I think, weirdly touched by the gesture. Anyway, thank goodness for best friend colleagues and mature students who get it. Who get literature. Who get me. I think any other school, time, place, it would have been a completely different story.
I am truly grateful for the Grade 8s this year. I am sure watching them graduate from middle school in less than two months will be bittersweet and yes, will be another cry fest for most of us. I do pray everyday that they continue to be “disturbers of the universe” and that no matter what happens, they’ll think it’s worth it. Whatever it is.
grateful slice: great books, awesome kids and being real