National Writing Project

Reading is Nuts

By: Philip Ireland
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 9, No. 2
Date: 2004

Summary: In this personal reflection, Philip Ireland weaves together a 15-year-old's current struggle with The Old Man and the Sea and his memory of learning to crack open "The Lottery" in the fifth grade. The lesson he learned from his teacher 20 years ago was that in order to crack the shell of great literature, one must pay attention.

 

The walnut gave a satisfying crack as it cleaved perfectly in two. I extracted the halves intact with a toothpick, popped them in my mouth, and washed them down with a long cold pull on my beer.

Shea, our friends' 15-year-old daughter, lay on her stomach in the camper, her feet crossed at the ankles, wrestling with a book.

"It's so-o-o boring," Shea whined. "A man, a boy, and a fish. So what?" Although slightly older than my students, Shea suddenly reminded me of my restless seventh-graders. Like her, they often resist expending the effort it takes to accomplish the task at hand when simply submitting to the task would require far less effort.

Shea had been assigned The Old Man and the Sea as summer reading for her honors English class. I empathized. While Hemingway's clipped—"It was a good fish, and strong, and the old man felt its strength in his hands"—writing style speaks to me now, Papa is an acquired taste, akin to beer and nuts, developed over time. I'd read The Old Man and the Sea a few times, watched Anthony Quinn's stone-faced portrayal of the old man, and cracked a few more Hemingways, too. I had come to see the man-boy-fish exterior as the protective shell of the story, not unlike the shell of the walnut I had been cracking as I talked with Shea. With work and a few tools, the woody shell falls away revealing a sweet filling nutmeat.

I would like to have told Shea that in order to crack the shell of great literature, one must pay attention. This is the lesson I learned, at least in part, in Mr. Brown's fifth grade classroom at W.B. Simpson Elementary School in Dover, Delaware. Mr. Brown was in the habit of patrolling his classroom like a night watchman in a bookbindery. As we read aloud, Mr. Brown wore a path between the rows of our bottom-busting oaken chairs, his black oxfords, size 14 triple-E, creaking along his familiar route. Even stooped by old age, Mr. Brown towered over us at six foot three. Bryll Cream pasted the few strands of gray hair straight back from the crown of his pink dome to the nape of his neck. Genetics had repeated the lank of his frame in his fingers, which more than anything resembled the gnarled outer branches of an ancient tree. And upon these pink hairy branches grew knuckles as fat and hard as, yes, walnuts.

On this particular day we were reading aloud the Shirley Jackson story, "The Lottery." Confident that we understood the predictability of Mr. Brown's route, a few of us dared to ignore Jackson's townsfolk as they prepared to select by lottery a son or daughter, mother or father for stoning. Instead of reading, I wordlessly—and rather craftily, I thought—lipped "The Lady of Limerick" to Billy Murphy.

Somehow I had failed to hear the distracted faltering in Elizabeth's reading. Somehow, I had missed the creaking leather of Mr. Brown's shoes as a clue to his altered route. Only when it was too late did my senses snap to attention. Bryll Cream filled my nose. The blood drained from Billy's face. No creaking steps, no tapping gait, no...nothing. A class of 30 fifth-graders, clued in by reader Elizabeth's distracted words, sat like stones in a graveyard. Not one student exhaled in that peculiar and particular silence of expectation that comes only in a classroom just before the hammer drops.

I watched Billy's eyes grow to the size of walnuts, shifting side to side seeking shelter, refusing to land on me, the instant pariah. Every hair on my neck and every cell in my knotted stomach told me that Mr. Brown stood directly behind me.

Down through the ages, teachers have invented and perfected encyclopedias of strategies for dealing with the inattentive and disruptive. And since Mr. Brown lived and taught through many of these ages, he had a large repertoire on which to draw.

"A word to the wise is sufficient. . . . Those who attend come to understand. Those who fool, fool only themselves," Mr. Brown said.

With that, he cocked that walnut-hard knuckle on a liver-spotted thumb, and let loose a fillip on the back of my fear-frozen head. Of course I saw none of this directly, but only through Billy's bulging eyes.

And then it was over.

"Elizabeth, please continue," was all Mr. Brown said. After a few minutes, I once again heard the words of humans trying to cope with a world they seldom understood, the story of people willing to sacrifice their child to the communal struggle to survive.

That was more than 20 years ago. But on that day, despite his crude method, Mr. Brown provided me with an early introduction to an important truth: if one is to benefit from literature one must engage with it. Since then, I've learned to struggle through the hardwood shells to the far more nourishing nutmeat of strength, perseverance, and folly offered by great writers telling stories of humans living everyday lives. It is this truth that I try to pass on—albeit in a kinder, gentler manner—to my students.

I hope Shea cracked the shell of The Old Man and the Sea. I hope she found just one sweet morsel in that orchard of a story, something nourishing, something she can return to again and again when she's hungry for brain food. It is this that I hope every time one of my students cracks the spine of a book for the first time.

"Keep reading," I told Shea that day in the camper. "It's worth it. You'll see. Just think of it as a nut to be cracked."

About the Author Philip Ireland teaches seventh grade language arts and social studies at San Marcos Middle School, San Marcos, California. He is a teacher-consultant with the San Marcos Writing Project.

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