Helen Keller Moments

My job is a series of nearly whiplash-inducing ups and downs.  Sadly, of course, the downs – the dumbass kids – make up the higher proportion of this particular roller coaster ride (and, coincidentally, a higher proportion of the fodder for my writing here).

Luckily for me, though, the occasional good ones are enough to keep me getting up in the morning.  These are the kids who “get it” in spectacular and obvious ways, and whose entire perspective of the work we’re doing – and, not for nothing, of themselves – changes in what I call “Helen Keller moments.”  I spell W-A-T-E-R in their hands and suddenly they’re off to the races.

These are the kids who make me love – LOVE! – my job.

Take today as an example.  After a couple of excruciating weeks of apathy and piles of pink paper (have I told you all about my pink paper policy?), I decided to do a review of The Book Thief in preparation for an essay test I’m going to give the students on Monday.  (Chili’s note; what follows kind of requires that you’ve read The Book Thief; I’ll do my best to explain it so that it makes sense to those of you who haven’t, but that’s really not the point of the story.  Sorry if I leave some of you behind).

I told the kids to do their morning writing about the book; what questions, observations, or connections did they make that they wanted to bring up to the rest of the class?  One of the students – we’ll call her Jennifer – mentioned that she was intrigued by the idea of Death as a narrator, but that she felt she couldn’t quite get underneath it.  She knew it was important that Death was the narrator, but she wasn’t sure why.  We talked a little bit about how Death describes his senses (he can smell color and hear emotions and taste ideas, that sort of thing).  Then, I brought up the fact that Death tells us he only sees Liesel four times; once when Werner dies, once when the pilot dies in the plane crash, once when the air raid hits Himmel Street, and once when Liesel herself dies as an old woman, many years after that air raid.

I held up three fingers to represent the first three times Death sees Liesel.  “Okay, you guys,” I said.  “HOW does Death know about all this stuff” – here I pointed to the spaces between my fingers – “when he’s only seeing her for the time it takes him to collect these souls?” – here I pointed to the fingers themselves.  “He isn’t presented as an all-knowing narrator, so how does he know about Max and Mama and the apples and, well, EVERYTHING?  Why is his knowing kind of ironic?”

There’s silence…

This is nothing new…

I’m willing to wait it out.

I looked up to find that Jennifer had a look of utter shock – SHOCK!  I tell you! – on her face.  Her eyes were huge, her mouth was in a big O, and her eyebrows were up to her hairline.

“OH.  MY.  GOD, Mrs. Chili!!  Death STOLE Liesel’s BOOK, didn’t he?!”


Yes, Honey; Death essentially stole Liesel’s autobiography (though, to be fair, the book was tossed in with rubble and debris being removed from the ruined street; it’s not as if he wrestled it from her hands).  THAT’S how he was able to know about all the things that he couldn’t have known about.  It kind of blew one or two minds to think that, really, this whole time, LIESEL has been telling us her story – through Death’s reading of her autobiography – but I didn’t want to get them too worked up over that (we’re still working on basic plot and characterization functions here; I don’t want to push my luck too far).

I made a HUGE deal about this connection – this clicking – that Jennifer did; they know perfectly well when I’m upset with them, and I want them to know just as clearly when they do something great.

Jennifer’s discovery helped salve the last few weeks.  She left the class “getting” it, and that’s what I’m in this for.



Filed under critical thinking, great writing, Helen Keller Moment, I love my job, Literature, self-analysis, success!, Teaching, the good ones

8 responses to “Helen Keller Moments

  1. Yep, that’s why I teach, just waiting for that one moment when someone gets “it”. I love teaching, my students, in fact I’m passionate about it. It’s just the crazy principal I work for that has sucked the life from me. I will definately come back to read more! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Not exactly hence the title, though it certainly plays into it in ways that I don’t think the students fully appreciate yet, even Jennifer (but she’s closest to getting it, I think). I’m going to ask it as a bonus question on the test and see if any of them can express that the title MAY be referring to Death as much as to Liesel.

  3. Rowan

    Pink paper policy? I vaguely remember that one but can’t find it. I think I wanted to use it this year but…sigh…challenging year, I get the ones other teachers refuse to have in their classes. Strangely they do behave for me although not much work actually gets done by the most challenging. But, they do hold the door open and say please and thank you. One takes successes where on can find them I guess. But must we have ankle bracelets (the electronic monitoring kind, not the cute ones) as a fashion accessory?

    • Rowan, I feel your pain and thanks for the giggle re ankle bracelets. When I taught in a middle school, 6th – 8th, my husband often teased me about which student was I car pooling with this week?
      Yes, I would like to know what the pink paper policy is?
      And Rowan, do you have a site? How do I get there?

  4. Pingback: Where the Rubber Meets the Road « A Teacher’s Education

  5. writeitalready

    Whoa. So Death is the Book Thief. Well, one of two anyway. I never thought of it that way.

    These are the moments that make me love teaching, too. Thanks for sharing it with me.

    I hope one day I get a class of my own again. I am definitely going to spring The Book Thief on them!

    • Love, love, LOVE The Book Thief! My freshmen are getting it sometime in November or December (though that may be optimistic; we still have Something Wicked This Way Comes and Alice and Through the Looking Glass to get through before then…), and I can’t wait. When you get your own classroom again, try teaching Book Thief next to Mockingbird – Scout and Liesel are beautiful characters to talk about together…

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