Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Sound And The Fury

Earlier this year, our school was collecting new and gently used books to donate for a fundraiser. Someone brought in a couple of bags of books the day after the deadline and so they've been stashed in our mud room for a few weeks. Recently, a friend of our school asked if we could help her collect children's books that emphasized diversity, so I thought I'd go through those leftover bags with the kids to see if there were any there that fit the criteria. I thought we might be able to re-visit some of the conversations we'd had about skin color from earlier in the year.

It became quickly apparent, however, once we got beneath the surface layer of board books, the bulk of what we had was adult literary fiction. A handful of 4-5 year olds had gathered around to help, so I began reading the titles to them, and if I was familiar with the book, told them a little bit about it. When I came to William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, I said, "Oh, this is a good one. It's really the same story told four times by four different people. One of the characters is a guy named Benjy. He has a grown-up body, but his brain is still three-years-old. You'll probably read this in high school."

Silas said, "I think we should read it now."

"It's a grown-up book. It's pretty complicated."

Calvin said, "We should read it."

"Okay . . . 

"Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting." I stopped there and looked around at the kids.

"Who is hitting?"

"I don't know."

"Read more."

"They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree." 

I stopped and said, "Benjy's the guy telling the story, but I wonder who Luster is."

"I think he's a dog."

"Maybe so. Dog's like to hunt in the grass." 

I went back to reading, "They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit." 

I paused again, "There sure is a lot of hitting in this book."

"I think they're having a fight."

Back to the text: "Then they went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass." 

I tried to summarize, "So somebody is hitting and there's a dog named Luster and there's a fence and a flower tree and a flag they took out and put back in."

No one responded. We were outdoors. I didn't want to keep them from their play. I said, "How about I put a book mark at this place and we read a little more later?"

"No, keep reading."

"Okay . . . 

""Here caddie." He hit. They went away across the pasture. I held to the fence and watched them going away . . . "Listen at you, now," Luster said." 

I stopped to point out, "Luster can talk. Maybe he's not a dog."

"I think Luster's his friend."

"Hey, I know! A caddy is in golf. Maybe they're golfing! They're not fighting, they're hitting golf balls!"

"Yeah, and there's a flag they take in and out like mini-golf!"

I nodded, "That makes sense." 

I went back to reading, ""Ain't you something, thirty-three years old, going on that way. After I done went all the way to town to buy you that cake. Hush up that moaning. Ain't you going to help me find that quarter so I can go to the show tonight." 

I said, "He wants to go to a show."

"I think it's a music show."

"Or maybe he just wants to go to a movie."

"Those are both shows," I said. "Luster wants a quarter so he can go to a music show or a movie." 

I went back to reading, "They were hitting little, across the pasture. I went back along the fence to where the flag was. It flapped on the bright grass and trees."

"Definitely golfing." There were four of us still listening and we all nodded our agreement.

I tried again to set the children free, but they wanted to keep reading. When we came to "the N-word" I read it as "N-word." They interrupted me to ask what it meant. Having grown up in the deep south in the 1960's I've known what that word meant my whole life. I guess that's at least proof of a little progress. I said it was an old fashioned bad word which satisfied them.

We talked about what it meant when Faulkner wrote about birds "slanting and tilting." We discussed the propriety of telling someone to "Shut up!" and the silliness of Luster threatening to eat Benjy's cake and candles. When Benjy noted that his shadow was bigger than Luster's we figured out that it meant Benjy was bigger than Luster. I thought they would get completely lost, as I did as a teenager, when the narrative begins to jump around in time, but it didn't seem to faze them. We just stopped and tried to figure out who the new characters were. We weren't always "correct" in our surmises: we've determined, for instance, that "toddy" refers to the hot beef inside a burrito, but that's fine. We aren't the first to make mistakes about this book. I didn't correct them, but rather let them correct themselves as they had when figuring out all that hitting was just golf, not fighting.

We thought some of the grown-ups were kind of mean to Benjy, but some of them were nice. 

We agreed with Benjy when he thought the pigs were "sorry because one of them got killed today."

We had been reading The Sound and the Fury for a good 20 minutes, just the four of us, and it was time to go inside. The boys weren't ready to be finished, so I marked the page and promised we would get back to it later. Later, as we wrapped up for the day, they begged me to read it to the whole class instead of the usual picture book.

Yesterday, we took the novel outdoors again, but this time we were a larger group of 8-10, all choosing to listen to me read Faulkner instead of digging in the sand or swinging on the swings. We had a long discussion about the smell of trees, when Benjy described someone as "smelling like trees." We even smelt leaves, some of which did have a fragrance. We talked about words like "rasped" and "stooped" and "jouncing" and "snagged." Calvin showed us a few places where his coat was torn from having snagged on things.

I kept trying to stop, telling them I could just mark the page where we left off so they could play, but they were not having it. They wanted to keep reading The Sound and the Fury, so I guess we will.

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Nancy Schimmel said...

This is both funny and amazing.

Jennifer Fink said...

Amazing! I'm a huge proponent of reading aloud, of child-led learning, of big words and bid conversations, yet I never would have guessed or been brave enough to try The Sound & the Fury with kids.

Why? B/c I was forced to read it in high school. I was supposed to read it as part of this academic decathlon team I was on. It was not a book I chose; it was forced on me. I hated it. I was confused. I couldn't figure it out. And I gave up on it.

That was over 20 years ago, but that mental block remains. I read your post, got to the Faulkner parts, and my brain automatically glazed over, started to scream, "I don't get it!" I'm in my 40s, I'm a professional writer and an intelligent person, and I shut down now when I get anywhere close to that book.

Your kids don't come with that baggage. Your kids came opened minded, came to the book of their own accord, with no expectations. And they're getting it in a way I didn't in high school and can't now, due to my experience. What a difference, and what a gift!

(Also, I loved the fact that you constantly checked in with the kids to see if they still wanted you to keep reading.)

Keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

Who could have ever guessed without your script of how it all went down? Remarkable! I have to say though, the students are blessed with a teacher who knows the right things to say while reading it. It's not like you just plowed through the sentences....bravo!

Aren said...

I love this because it shows incredible respect for children. I work for a program that provides professional support for early childhood teachers in my city and will be using this as an example of how to respect the innate intelligence of young children.

Rafer Nelsen said...

I've tried to dig into Faulkner a couple of times as an adult, of my own accord, and I have yet to finish a book. I just talked to my parents over the phone, as my son turned 5 and they were checking in. They are retired now and they told me they've been reading Absolom! Absolom! aloud to each other in preparation for a free online course at Yale, and they say out loud makes all the difference with Faulkner for them. Apparently so!

Holly said...

What an amazing thing! I adore this book & it took me 4 turns to understand as much as they did. I love that you introduced this book by accident and their interest. Ah! :)

Sydney Gurewitz Clemens said...

This is a deeply respectful story, and I love it. I am moved also by Peter H. Johnston's writing in Choice Words and I've tried, in my most recent book, Seeing Young Children with New Eyes, What we've learned from Reggio Emilia about the Children and Ourselves, to show other ways of being respectful to children.

There's too little of it around. Thank you!

j. wilson said...

Oh how I LOVE this! Those bright minds of theirs make me teary and joyful.