The ‘Trouble’ with really amazing books

I’ll set the scene for you: it’s the Tuesday before school vacation. The students have just passed in their last long-term assignment (strategy records for Shakespeare’s Secret or Chasing Vermeer), they know they’ve just got lunch, recess, math class, and then the holiday party. Things seem manageable. They can hold it together for that long.

And then, something changes. It’s too cold outside. Recess will be… indoors.

Anyone else get a sinking ut-oh feeling in the base of the stomach? I know my class – know that they need an opportunity to run around and burn off their Lunchables if they’re going to be functional for the rest of the day. The combination of the impending vacation + indoor recess = a very long afternoon.

Except it didn’t. (This is the part where the book comes in, for those that are wondering). They were dismissed from the cafeteria and stormed the classroom, but instead of getting out playing cards, paper, logging onto the computer, or complaining that they were bored, they had a request:

“Can you read more read aloud? Please? We promise to be really good.”

And they were. So good that you would’ve thought that I was one of the mean, nasty teachers who rules by intimidation. There wasn’t whispering, poking, and there was barely even fidgeting.

And they were able to continue to be that good and focused… until math class.

 Exhibit B: It’s now post-break and we’ve had a two-hour delay for icy roads.

They come crashing into the classroom at 10:15 instead of 8:15 and have just enough time to chat and pledge the flag before we head down to our ‘lunch’ period.

And how do they greet me this morning as they slide down the hallway on snow-wet sneakers? Not with: “Good morning, Mrs. Schmidt” or “How was your drive, Mrs. Schmidt?” or “How are you, Mrs. Schmidt?” (Which is normally how they greet me – I have a very polite class!). Instead it was 26 versions of: “We missed reading, can we read later?” “Are we still going to do read aloud?” “What happens because we missed reading? Can you squeeze it in?” And, I kid you not, “Could we have lunch in the classroom and you could read to us?”

I could add on an Exhibit C and probably all the way to Exhibit Q, but you’ve got the point.

The book this blog is about is Trouble by Gary Schmidt – hence the snappy title. My students love to say, “it’s not just a story, it’s literature.” And I agree.

They are so engrossed in this story that it’s discussed at dismissal, during recess, in the hallways, during math, in social studies, in science, over IM at night… And this is in addition to the half-hour we spend discussing it each day in class. Discussion I have to cut off, despite their fervent protests (and despite my own desire to keep reading and listening!).

And when they talk about the book, I’m amazed again each day. They discuss how in most books and movies there’s a good guy and a bad guy, but in this book (like life) people are a mix of both good and bad. They’re discussing motivation, consequences, racism, classism, stereotypes, and the benefits and dangers of tradition.

As a teacher, I suddenly feel superfluous. My only job is to read out loud, Gary Schmidt’s done the hard work in writing the book, and my students are benefiting – both as people and as writers – as they try out his craft in their own pieces and apply his story’s lessons to their lives.

So the real ‘trouble’ with a good book is that it makes the real world a whole lot less appealing. Who really wants to multiply mixed numbers (or even have recess) when there’s a whole lot of Trouble waiting between two covers?