“Open your books to page 1.”
The familiar words of the youthful teacher
bounced off the walls of his English classroom.
The tortured groans of preoccupied students—
thinking of lunch, which barely passed as edible,
or their plans after school (work, video games, wandering the vacant mall)—
outnumbered the wild rustle of pages
by students eager to venture upon a brave new world.
The immortal first line:
“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”
“Why can’t we read this other book?”
“Why is he talking so funny?”
“This sucks already!”
A barrage of questions and comments.
Nothing the teacher hasn’t had to answer before.
“As you’ll see, he explains what happened in Twain’s other novel . . .
This is an example of dialect. We talked about it earlier . . .
Give the book a chance before you cast judgment.”
Judgment, acceptance, equality.
These are the lessons Huck struggles to learn
as he floats down the mighty Mississippi,
escaping the dangers on land,
things my students may have faced themselves:
an abusive, drunken father;
society’s oppressive hand demanding them how to live;
racist influences poisoning yet another generation;
and above all else,
the restrictive bonds of living by someone else’s rules.
Each tired face, caused by late night Snap Chatting
or working their way up the ranks in Call of Duty,
looks up from assigned seats
in their assigned classroom
at their assigned hour
on their assigned day
and thinks the same thoughts as Huck before heading toward Jackson’s Island.
The teacher tries to push them forward,
praying they will see a piece of Huck in themselves.
The distaste for school books and lectures and desire to experience the wide world.
The desire to dress the way they want, not how they are told.
The ability to meet life at their own pace rather than maintain constant motion,
going from one event to the next—
a blurred reality.
Eyes glaze over as the teacher drones on and on
despite his efforts at bringing the young boy to life.
Over 160 years removed,
yet so alike to these young, malleable minds.
“Then I slipped down to the ground and crawled in among the trees, and, sure enough, there was Tom Sawyer waiting for me.”
“Why does he take his clothes off and spin like that?”
“Why should we care about this Tom Sawyer guy?”
And then, from the back of the room,
a small, apprehensive hand raises upward.
The teacher, ever eager to encourage such a foreign action,
calls on the young girl.
“My question,” she begins.
She gives a nervous glance about the room.
She has the room’s attention in this brief moment.
“My question,” she repeats, then continues,
“is if he hated living in that cramped up house,
always listening to what the Widow told him to do,
why didn’t he just leave in the first place?”
Sparks illuminate from the sea of glassy gazes,
and for the tiniest of seconds they await an answer.
In that moment he finally had their true attention.
“That, Katherine, is exactly what Twain wants us all to consider.”