For our fiction unit we did a few months ago, I had my students preview eight fiction books and then choose one to read and discuss in small literature circles. One of the books was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.
If you haven’t read it, The Book Thief is a really beautiful story centered around a girl growing up in Nazi Germany. It’s written in this really unique, lyrical style with Death personified as the narrator, and is equally gripping, heartwarming, funny, and dark.
The ending is crushing, though.
On one of the last days of our fiction unit, I was sitting with The Outsiders group and heard quiet gasping behind me. I turned around, thinking that someone in another group was laughing. I saw a student I'll call Fernando, one of my students in The Book Thief group, with his hand to his mouth making little sniffling noises. Fernando’s group mates looked at me with concerned expressions.
In case you don’t remember being a middle school male (or if you never were one), crying in front of your peers is kind of a big deal. I mean, it’s a big deal for girls too, I know, but I think the stigma is particularly bad for guys. It’s made worse at a school like ours, where the vast majority of our students have been raised in a machismo-type culture that sets some pretty rigid expectations for men. On top of this, it’s not like Fernando was crying about losing a sports game or getting in a fight or something. He was crying about a book.
Although everything in me just wanted to scoop him up and cry along with Fernando (and also adopt him), my top priority was to address what was going on without drawing more attention to him than necessary. I wrote him a pass to go to the bathroom as long as he needed and set it on his desk quietly. He got up and left. A few kids noticed him leaving and looked at me. I motioned for them to go back to their reading and they did, because I have created a classroom environment I call Love One Another Or I’ll Destroy You in which my students know I will take a blowtorch to them if they so much as snicker at something like that.
After fifteen minutes or so, Fernando returned while the rest of the class was at lunch. His eyes were still red and puffy.
“Hey, Fernando,” I said quietly.
“Hey,” he said.
“Was it the ending?” I asked stupidly. "You okay?"
“Yeah,” he said, "It was just so sad." He instantly started to cry again. I do that, too, when I’ve been crying and anyone asks if I’m okay. I walked over and put a hand on his shoulder. I didn’t really know what to say, so I just stood there.
He insisted he was fine, blew his nose a few more times and went to join his classmates at lunch.
As soon as he left, almost the moment he had shut the door, I began typing a letter to him that I wrote out by hand later during a break. That afternoon, I had the front office send a note to him during class asking him to drop by my room after school, and when he came by, I had the letter in an envelope for him.
“Here,” I said, handing it to him. “Don’t read it until you’re home, okay?”
“Okay,” he said.
I don’t know if Fernando read the letter or not. His family ended up moving a few weeks later, and he never mentioned the letter (though I didn’t expect him to). I imagine that, if he did read it, it was the type of thing where he read it once, threw it in the back of his closet, and won’t see again until he digs through his stuff when packing for his freshman year of college, and even then he might only say, “Oh, Ms. Teach! She was so weird. I remember the day she had a cracker in her hair.”
But I’m glad I wrote that letter.
So often I forget to acknowledge the things and people that amaze me. I’m talking real, meaningful acknowledgment, something that shows I have sat with my feelings for longer than it takes to type out a text or upload a grateful Instagram. I didn’t even think about it when I typed out my letter to Fernando, but it makes sense that that was my instinctual response. I express myself best through writing, so writing to Fernando was the best way I knew to let him know that I noticed him and was proud of him.
I would like to challenge myself and you to notice and acknowledge the people around us more. Maybe you acknowledge differently than I do—by creating little gifts or having face-to-face conversations. Some people acknowledge by baking or doing really kind favors for people. Maybe you acknowledge people by buying them gin and tonics, in which case I hope you acknowledge me very soon.
This was my letter to Fernando. I came across it yesterday while cleaning out files on my computer, which is also what prompted me to write this post. I didn’t delete the letter because it’s also going to be my letter to the next guy (or girl) who is moved to tears by literature during my class.
I just wanted to let you know how moved I was by your response to the end of The Book Thief. It really shows me that the lessons the book teaches us—and really, the lessons that The Holocaust teaches us—have affected you deeply.
I cried while reading The Book Thief, too. Even though it is a fictional story, there are so many people whose lives were like Liesel’s. And Max’s. And a lot of the other characters, too.
Learning to be a good reader is way, way more important than your grade in this class or even your score on [our state’s standardized test]. It’s about reading a text so closely that it grabs you by the collar and shakes you. It’s about being so entrenched in the lives of characters that you find your heart pounding, or you laugh out loud, or you cry. It’s about grieving characters when they die because they have become a part of us.
I hope you know that it is always okay to cry. I also hope you are proud of the scholar and the young man you are becoming, because I am. Very much so.
Go forth and acknowledge your Fernandos.
P.S. What was the first book that made you cry?
P.S. What was the first book that made you cry?