When I start a favorite book with a class, I recall the weeks I was a tour guide for my folks and best friend from high school, all of whom flew to Poland for my wedding.
I knew, for instance, as we rounded the bend and the Oravski castle (where Nosferatu was filmed; watch from 20:00-22:00 and 25:35-27:00 for the castle’s main scenes) came into view that everyone’s jaw would drop. Perched on the top of a rocky hill, the castle tends to have that effect on people.
Later, in Krakow, I knew what the reaction would be as we entered the Basilica of St. Mary on the market square. The high Gothic walls draw all gazes upward, and all mouths fall open.
So, too, with books. As we approach the shocking moments, the truly moving scenes, I anticipate students’ reactions. When Samneric tell Ralph that Roger has “sharpened a stick at both ends,” students ask, “Does that mean what I think that means?” When they meet Anne Frank in the pages of her diary, the knowledge of her fate shakes them.
Yet I’ve never seen a student react so emotionally to a novel as I did recently, as we read Nightjohn. It’s the story of a young slave girl who surreptitiously learns to read with from John, a slave who escaped north but returned to lead other slaves to literacy. There are some brutal depictions of violence against slaves, including the story of Alice, young girl who is whipped and then attempts escape. The pursuing slave owner finds her and lets his dogs attack. She survives, only barely.
“My heart hurts,” said a young African American girl who sits toward the back of the room. By the time the bell rang, a few tears were rolling. As she was leaving, I spoke to her, a little concerned.
“Are you going to be alright?”
“No,” she cried. She walked out of the class and completely broke down. As she sobbed, friends — who hadn’t been in class with her — crowded around her compassionately.
It was bittersweet, in the truest sense of the word. That someone was that moved by a book was both a source of hope and empathy.