…and George kills Lennie.’ Or, ‘How to ruin literary texts for your students.’
We’ve all had it: on the index page of ‘Of Mice and Men’ a child of questionable wit has written the epithet ‘George kills Lennie’. To quote my students: face palm.
On the better days I remember to check each text before doling them out to my unsuspecting Year 10s. On the worse days the novella’s grand finale is revealed the moment they open that battered cover and, worst, the innocent recipient announces the revelation in a mystified voice to the remainder of the class.
For me this crime is (very nearly) unforgiveable. My current GCSE class are aware they face immediate after school detention should they even contemplate such a heinous act. For what that scrawler has taken away from a reader new to the narrative cannot ever be replaced.
What has been seen cannot be unseen. What is known cannot be unknown.
When you know Lennie’s going to die you’re simply waiting for the inevitable conclusion. All nuances of hope and friendship are crushed. The lives of the ranch workers are branded as futile from the outset: we might as well hurry up and get to the final page so George can blow his brains out and they can all wallow back into their melancholy way of life.
In fact, why bother reading the blinking novel at all?
So why on earth are some teachers doing the pedagogical equivalent of this by revealing whole plots to students before they get a chance to read it for themselves? Why on earth would you want to ‘make sure students know the whole text’ before you begin to actually read?
I still remember, aged 15, the moment I realised Hardy’s Tess would die and my fraught tears at the tragedy of it all. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I still re-read the ending of ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ and rejoice in the magical final word that discloses Carter’s skilful inversion of the fairy tale narrative. And every time I’ve taught ‘The Kite Runner’ I’ve waited for the lesson after ‘that’ incident for students to bring their ‘gasp’ back into the classroom. These visceral moments of revelation have the power to spark a whole life time’s love of literature.
This is a plea on behalf of your students: please don’t steal these moments from them.
Don’t insist students know the narrative. Do the opposite. Guard the plot, drip-feeding each incident with the excitement, anticipation and revelatory power truly great works of literature hold. I promise you they’ll be more excited to read it. More engaged. And, who knows, maybe you’ll spark in them the love of literature all English teachers aspire to instil.