I began reading Huck Finn with my 10th graders today. I told them near the beginning of the period that I had been looking forward to their class all day so that we could read together. I wonder if other teachers tell students little secrets like that. If not, I think they should. I think it’s great for students to see that we really enjoy the material we’re teaching. I think that sort of affection and appreciation can be contagious. We began with Twain’s NOTICE at the beginning of the book. I asked the students why Twain would write such a thing. Predictably, their first reaction was to take him at his word and assume he really didn’t want us to find a motive, moral, or plot in the novel. I asked them, “What do you want to do the minute someone tells you not to do something?” and they immediately understood. By asking the reader not to look for a motive, moral, and plot, Twain was making sure that the reader would do the opposite. Clever guy.
I read aloud for the first two chapters. One student who just finished the book mentioned that until he heard me read it, he couldn’t figure out what Jim’s word “gwyne” meant. That comment is a perfect argument for starting the story by reading aloud in class. We had to have a discussion about snuff, which is mentioned early in the story, because the students hadn’t heard of it and wanted to know all about it. Of course, they immediately leaped to the conclusion that I knew too much about it not to have tried it; sometimes it doesn’t pay to be a know-it-all schoolteacher. And for the record, no, I haven’t tried snuff. We talked a bit about superstition and the meanness of Tom Sawyer.
As we read, I was pleased to hear the students laugh in the right places. I do hope they enjoy the book. I think some of them were intimidated by the book’s size. We have the Norton Critical Edition, which has about as much text of literary criticism in the back as it does novel text. Students at my school pay an activity fee that covers the cost of paperback novels, but the novelty never seems to wear off when they get new books. Each time they ask if the books are theirs to keep. It reminds me a bit of that scene in Freedom Writers when the students get new books, and murmur over them. The only books our students can’t keep are the textbooks or expensive anthologies that we use.
On a personal note, I have taught this class of 10th graders for two years now. I have them for two classes this year — American Literature and Composition and Writing Seminar. I’m really proud of how far they have come and all they have learned. We have accomplished a lot together over the last year and a half, especially this year, and I am excited to watch them grow and learn. I don’t think I will be teaching them next year. I think it is a good thing to have different teachers. But I’m going to miss them next year.