Langston Hughes Reduced One of my Seventh Graders to Tears and It Was Amazing

group of middle school students ...
group of middle school students ...

One of my seventh grade boys cried in Reading class today. Under normal circumstances, having a student reduced to tears would not be something that I would be excited about; but not today.

Today, I found those tears to be amazing.

We spent the last two days reading the short story "Thank You, M'am" by Langston Hughes. It begins with an attempted robbery. A woman was walking down a street in Harlem at eleven o'clock at night minding her own business, when she suddenly finds herself in a physical altercation with a boy who is trying to steal her purse. A minor struggle ensues--and the woman wins. Rather than turn him into the police, the woman demands that the boy come home with her to clean himself up and get a bite to eat.

We left it at that point on the first day, and I had the students' interest for three reasons: 1. They enjoyed the action involved in the struggle between the woman and the boy, which required me to Google "half-nelson." (Silly me for assuming everyone watched W.W.F. on Saturday mornings. Now they know.) 2. They wanted to see what kind of justice the woman was going to bring to the situation, and how to boy would react. Would he run? Would she do something mean? 3. Hughes used the phrase "blue-jean sitter."

Sigh. Middle school students find butt references to be hysterical.

We had an insightful discussion about the inferences we could make about the characters based on the first part, in particular the detail that it was eleven o'clock at night. Why would the woman be walking all alone that late at night? Perhaps the woman was coming home from work. She is walking, so maybe she couldn't afford the bus or a car. She must be tough as nails to be able to do that, and to handle a would-be robber the way that she did. Shouldn't the boy have been in bed that late at night? Perhaps he did not have a good home. He does say "Yes'm," when she asks him if he is ashamed, and when she asks if he will run, so he does have some manners. Maybe he isn't all that bad.

Today, we read the conclusion. The woman takes the boy into her home. She makes him clean his face and comb his hair. She gives him something to eat on his plate, then something to eat in his heart and soul. As it turns out, she had been in some trouble in her past, and did not want to see this boy make the same mistakes she did. When he tells her that he was going to steal her purse because he wanted to buy some shoes, she hands him a $10 bill and told him he just should have asked. Perhaps because he had never known that level of kindness--or forgiveness, the boy is barely able to utter the words "thank you," as he leaves her company.

His life was changed.

And as the tears welled up in my student's eyes, I believe his was, too.

It's not that I want my students to cry when they read, but... I want my students to cry when they read. I also want them to laugh, to get angry, to become curious, to appreciate the people in their lives, to realize the importance of kindness and acceptance. It is their emotional reactions that show me that they truly get it. I want them to not only be able to read the words on the page, but also to reach deeper into the stories to discover what the author is trying to say about the human condition.

This unbelievable power that literature holds is what lead me to choose to be an English major in college. It is why I became an English teacher.

I just wish I could share this news with Langston Hughes. I would tell him that because of this story, one my students is going to think twice before he judges someone who appears to be going down the wrong path. He is going to show forgiveness to someone who wrongs him, even if it seems that that person does not deserve it. He is going to show genuine kindness to someone who he knows does not always get treated well by his family or his peers. He may become someone else's Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. And that might just change the way some of his classmates treat each other. And that might just change the culture of our community. And that might just change the world.

I guess what I would like to say to Mr. Hughes is, "Thank you, sir."