Lessons from Language Arts

Michael O’Connor[1]

There are days when I really miss teaching.  Now that I’m no longer directly in the classroom, I can’t help but have an internal running pro/con list.  Sure, there’s the meager pay, long hours of lesson planning and grading, and difficulty in working with the occasional student or parent.  But there’s also the opportunity to observe and facilitate the growth and development of young minds, as well as the tremendous formation of the whole student, intellectually, physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.

I loved being a teacher for many reasons, including teaching reading and language arts to middle school students.  One of the best ways I could challenge my students, in all of the ways mentioned above, was to identify a truly great piece of young adult literature.

Now I know what you’re thinking.  Young adult literature?  Isn’t that Twilight and all the other vampire series that have suddenly become best sellers and threaten to transform subsequent generations into blood-sucking, overly-passionate romantics who like really bad television?  Well, I guess that is technically included in the genre.  But thankfully, young adult literature is much richer than that.  It includes stories like The Giver and The Hunger Games that question the role of power and illustrate the bravery of those who stand for justice.  It highlights significant lessons from history while helping readers identify with young heroes, such as in Number the Stars.  And it encourages readers to learn more about new cultures and new peoples, branching out from their own world to expand both their mind and heart.

One such story is The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.  It chronicles the life of Esperanza Cordero, a Latina girl in Chicago, who slowly learns about herself, her family, and her neighborhood through short vignettes, small glimpses into her blossoming mind.  One episode, entitled Those Who Don’t (Cisneros 28) which I re-read recently, struck a chord within me and reminded me why I love young adult literature.

Here, Esperanza comments on outsiders who are scared to come into her Latino Chicago neighborhood.  She vividly describes their fears saying, “They think we will attack them with shiny knives.”  She knows she is considered “dangerous.”  After acknowledging this, Esperanza shares why there is no need to be afraid, at least from her perspective.  Yes, it’s “all brown all around,” but she knows the people walking around, deemed suspicious and dangerous by outsiders, are just people.  They are “Davey the Baby’s brother,” the one called “Fat Boy, though he’s not fat anymore, nor a boy,” and “Rosa’s Eddie V.”  Perhaps what’s most powerful, though, is when Esperanza admits her own fear of other neighborhoods stating, “But watch us drive into a neighborhood of another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight.  Yeah.  That is how it goes and goes.”

Only for middle school students, right?

In these past few weeks, I’ve watched the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announce 45 school closings.  I’ve listened to President Barack Obama announce the need for tax reform and more equal opportunities and rights for all those living in America.  These announcements point to one thing:  change.

Change is inevitable all around us.  We may not like change, and sometimes it isn’t justified.  Nevertheless, change happens.  It is our decision how we respond to it and how we interact and consider others in the process.

When schools close and merge, communities merge, as well.  Sometimes these communities are very different from one another.  When our President asks us to consider reforming the tax code, we start comparing the rich and the poor, the 99% and the 1%.  Regardless of your stance on these issues, changes will come, with decisions towards one side or the other.  Or perhaps even through compromise.

But in these moments of change, I think Esperanza from The House on Mango Street is on to something.  We are separated, physically and mentally, by difference and stereotype.  Race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status define our neighborhoods and determine where we want to live, work, hang out on the weekends, send our children to school, and attend Mass on Sundays.

Esperanza’s thoughts make me stop and think.  My Catholic elementary, middle, and high schools all closed back home in NEPA.  I remember how I felt when I heard about the closings and mergers and learned that students from my schools would have to go to other schools in other neighborhoods.  I was furious, upset, and confused.  And probably, at the heart of it, I was afraid of people from different neighborhoods because I didn’t know them.  Not for any one reason or another.  But because I was human.

Even today, living and working in Philadelphia, regardless of how intentional I am to think otherwise, I am afraid of certain neighborhoods.  I carry these stereotypes, these fears with me.  I do my best to confront them, to combat them, but they are still present.

I do not have all of the answers on how to confront these issues, but I think the first thing is to step outside of our comfort zone and try to look at people and neighborhoods with new eyes of faith and justice.  By seeking new perspective, by seeing their humanity, the face of Christ, we can grow closer in love, more deeply in compassion and understanding, and challenge our stereotypes presented by society, others, and ourselves.

Sometimes the hardest facts to acknowledge are presented in unexpected ways.  For me, The House on Mango Street was that source.  Perhaps the lessons from Esperanza will have meaning for us all in the myriad of changes we face through school closings and mergers, a shifting political landscape, and the opportunity to interact with new neighborhoods and new people.


[1] Michael O’Connor is the Assistant Director of Programs for the Alliance for Catholic Education at Saint Joseph’s University (ACESJU), a post-graduate teaching fellows program that serves urban Catholic schools in Philadelphia.  Originally from Kingston, PA (in a region fondly referred to as “NEPA”), he received his M.Ed. from the Alliance for Catholic Education Service Through Teaching program at the University of Notre Dame while teaching middle school for two years in Birmingham, AL.  He is proud to now call Philadelphia home.

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One Response to Lessons from Language Arts

  1. A great read! Thanks Michael.

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