In the latest installment of “Believing in Boys,” Suzanne Rosenwasser’s students learn from The Giving Tree.
Good teachers know that the lesson that evolves is often more teachable than the lesson that’s intended. In the first weeks of the all-male class I team-teach with the high school principal and a counselor, the three of us were on the receiving end of a host of lessons.
An earlier class about living one’s life within the norms of society stressed the importance of knowing the people with whom one passes the day. Making the boys visible among the school staff had immediate results. We learned that some of our boys regularly taunted Special Education students in the halls. Another report came back from a bus driver, who told us that Anel intimidated the smallest boys on the bus, challenging them to fights. A class spent in the empty cafeteria, where we built and flew paper airplanes, led to the discovery by the cafeteria manager of three missing cartons of ice cream sundaes.
And then, when we led a discussion about treating people equally, Eduardo said: “If you treat everyone so equally at school, why don’t the free lunch kids get chicken fingers?”
“What do you mean?” I asked innocently, unaware of what the free lunch kids ate.
Answers came back at me fast from the boys who were part of the subsidy, as well as from those who were not: “We only get grilled cheese or peanut butter and jelly; if we want chicken fingers we have to pay for them.”
“Everyone knows who the poor kids are because they don’t get to eat chicken fingers like the rich kids.”
“Yeah, and the cheese sandwiches suck.”
“They’re better than that nasty peanut butter. Mexicans don’t eat peanut butter.”
“Just bring your lunch, man!”
We talked about solutions, stressing that the school system doesn’t provide chicken fingers to anyone for free, and suggesting we take on a fundraising project that would earn the class enough money to buy whatever lunch each boy wanted once a week. It all sounded good, and we decided to work on a plan to raise funds as a group.
We connected this discussion to a recent class in which we played “The Line Game,” and watched a lesson about giving unfold. We knew from a survey we’d taken that only two of the boysread for leisure, and just three recalled being read to, outside of school, as children. So, we decided to prompt a lesson about reciprocity with a reading of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.
The principal pulled a stool up to the front of a semi-circle of desks where the boys sat, held up the familiar green book, and asked how many recognized its cover.
“That’s a kid’s book,” Jonathan replied with his legs sprawled out in front of him and his head on his chin. It was a position that made clear that he couldn’t care less.
“You’re right,” the principal said. “I read it to one of my kids last night and I realized it related to class, so I’m going to read it to you.”
“What if we already read it when we were like six?” Estevan wanted to know.
“Well, you never heard me read it, so just listen, okay? And we’re going to talk about giving and taking, so think about that while I’m reading.”
Once there was a tree….
and she loved a little boy.
And everyday the boy would come
and he would gather her leaves
and make them into crowns
and play king of the forest.
The principal read to the boys with a soft dignity, showing them the drawings and pausing dramatically here and there. The boys were fidgety and began making whispered comments when the fictional boy accepts the tree’s offer to sell its wood:
“Now we’re talkin’… give it up, girl,” said one.
“That guy’s cold,” another chimed in.
And from Eduardo: “Way to kill the tree, man.”
At last, the tree is only a stump upon which the now aged boy can rest; the story ends: “And the tree was happy.”
“That boy was a taker!” Anel called out.
“Why do you say that?” the principal asked.
“He didn’t give nothin’ back to that tree for sure,” Anel replied.
“And sometimes givin’ so much just makes you a fool, then people steal from you because you got so much,” Estevan said.
“Hey, the tree’s a sap, get it? A sap, right? What’s that called Mrs. R—you know that thing we learned in lit class?” The question came from Eduardo, and the connection startled me. Eduardo was a small Hispanic boy with an amazingly expressive face who either mumbled at me or squealed excitedly from time to time. Eduardo was born in the U.S. and spoke English with just a trace of an accent. He was one of the boys who was read to as a child and who read independently now, according to the survey. I didn’t have Eduardo in Language Arts, but I knew he was failing it.
I answered, “Way to go, Eduardo, that’s definitely a pun. Y’all hear that? How Eduardo played with the word sap about the tree? So, why do you think the tree was a sap?”
“Because she just kept givin’ her junk away,” Eduardo replied, enjoying the laugh he got, “and that’s the metaphor thing, right?”
“Exactly,” I said, shaking my head at how we sometimes arrived at these understandings, and wondering again why this boy was failing.
“Well, saps lose their stuff,” Anel shouted out, glad to have the floor again and eager to share his insights without thinking about their implications. “Like the girl at lunch today who left her backpack wide open with fifteen bucks just sittin‘ in there. You know I helped myself to that givin’ tree.”
“Hold on there, Anel,” the principal said. “Did you take this girl’s money?”
“More like she gave it to me. I told you it was just sittin’ there like that. She’s the jerk for leavin’ it there. Fools lose their stuff like that tree, right?”
“Do you still have the money? Because you have to give it back,” I interjected.
“I spent it,” Anel said matter-of-factly.
“How? You came straight to this class after lunch.”
“Well, I bought everyone chicken fingers.” Anel gestured at the rest of the class when he said this. I looked around and saw nothing but cats full of canaries.
It didn’t take much work to find the victim, and in the privacy of the principal’s office, Anel apologized to her and agreed to pay her back. Since the class was complicit in the crime, we decided they’d raise the money from the fundraising project we were about to begin, selling hot pretzels after school.
As for the giving tree, well, there’s a metaphor and a pun in that. We provided the boys shelter, but they continually left us stumped.