I recently had an enlightening day reading with middle schoolers. It was definitely more fun than when I had to be in middle school myself. I had volunteered for an intergenerational reading group, part of Project Read. This meant that adults in the area would read the same texts and do the same homework as the students. We would then meet with them in small groups during regular class hours to discuss the reading.
On this particular day, we had all read Shirley Jackson’s story, The Lottery. This classic of secondary school has long provided fodder for discussion, confusion, and in some cases distress. I know at least one person my age who says that she’s still disturbed by it. It’s interesting to read the reactions of readers as shown in their letters to the New Yorker, where it was first published in 1948.
- Many students were excited to discover the similarity of the story to that of The Hunger Games novel/film, and even more to learn that others had made the same discovery.
- I was surprised to hear one boy say that the story must have been set very long ago, because “the heads of household were all men.” Another added that “the men did all the talking and mostly talked about the women, rather than letting them talk.” I don’t believe that middle school boys from my time would have said the same.
- One student said that the stoning in the story was wrong “because there were only 300 people in the village.” (One death would make a big difference.) We then talked about whether stoning someone to death was ever justifiable.
- A big question concerned why people in the story, especially Mr. Warner, didn’t want to change. Several students agreed that the people who resisted ending the practice of stoning were similar “to the people who resist allowing fast food restaurants into Brewster. People are afraid of new things.” I didn’t do a poll, but I imagine a sharp generation divide on the fast food issue, with the older ones opposed. The students were right: The older folks don’t want change. Nevertheless, I was uncomfortable equating stoning people to death with opposing fast food.
- A volunteer adult added, “sometimes you’ve been doing something your whole life and it’s hard to admit that you were wrong.” I doubt that the 13 year-olds have that same feeling about doing something their whole life.
- I was dismayed to hear two girls in separate groups describe incidents in which boys had thrown (multiple) stones at them.
- Another student said that Tessie Hutchinson was stoned because she was engaging in protest. The usual reading is that her cry that the stoning was unfair was disingenuous since she never said anything until after she’d been selected. But in the context of Ferguson events I can now understand the interpretation the student made.
- My best contribution was to bring up Martin Niemöller’s famous First they came… statement. This much-quoted passage reads all the more powerful for me knowing Niemöller’s own earlier national conservative views and anti-semitism. And it makes his analogy to Tessie Hutchinson more telling. The statement is quoted in a book that the students will be reading later in the year in their Holocaust unit.
Like any good learning experience, this one was shared broadly. The teachers, volunteers, and middle school students had to cross some boundaries, but all learned something about the story and about each other. A quote on the classroom wall seemed especially a propos for this intergenerational encounter:
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” –Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad