For Sale: baby shoes, never worn
By Kevin Stein
Every story we read is an act of creation. The words on the page only tell us so much; it is our own hopes, our own fears, and our own memories of summer afternoons that illuminate the spaces which the stories leave dark. It is the nature of stories to be incomplete. And it is this incompleteness that can make stories so difficult for our students to enjoy.
At the end of last year, one of my students came to me with a list of phrases that she was having trouble understanding. They all came from the O. Henry story “A Ramble in Aphasia.” Like most O. Henry short stories, “A Ramble in Aphasia” has a knife twist of an ending. As I helped my student tease out the meaning of the phrases, she suddenly stopped and said, “He never lost his memory!” She grew silent, looked down at the book in front of her, and then looked up at me and said, “He is a real jerk!”
When we give our students a story, we are asking them to not only read, but to create. As they struggle to grasp the words on the page, it’s not surprising that sometimes they might confuse moments of not-understanding-what-is-written with moments of not-knowing-because-something-is-specifically-being-left-out. When I use short stories in my language classes, it’s my job to help students tell the difference and see those moments of not knowing for what they are, a chance to create meaning by working with the text.
I find that dramatic readings can help students recognize when they are being asked to bring something personal to a particular part of a story. Dramatic readings aren’t full-fledged plays, but are more kinesthetic than just reading out loud. In a dramatic reading activity, a story is split up and parceled out, each member of the group given responsibility for a different section of the text. Sometimes students break the text up by characters and than assign one or more students to play the role of narrator. Sometimes they simply divvy the text up by paragraphs. The students remain in their chairs and read the story out loud. As they practice reading the text three or four times, they begin to fill the words with the hues of emotion, just as they begin to fill the air around them with hand gestures small and large. They also begin to invest themselves into the parts of the story which had, perhaps only a little earlier, seemed empty of meaning.
The title of this post, “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn,” is often attributed to Earnest Hemingway and has been called the shortest novel in the English language. It’s a fine example of how plot — the points of a story a writer chooses to explicitly reveal to a reader — and story — everything that a reader and a text need to bring together to make meaning — can be very different things. The activity of time-lining a story can help students get more comfortable with the story/plot gap. First have students read a story. Then have them identify all the main events in the story and write them down on a blank time line. That is just the first step of the exercise. The real work comes in helping students include those parts of the story which have been left out. A time line of the plot points only of “baby shoes” would look something like this:
But how would your time-line of the full story look? What events would you chose to make explicit that are only hinted at in those six words. There’s a lot of space in this haiku of a novel. I doubt two people would fill it up in exactly the same way. For our students to enjoy reading a story, they might, at first, need help identifying just where those spaces exist. But once they do know, they can start to share how they fill in those spaces, and doing that is one of the great joys of talking about literature.
I believe that teaching my students how to ask for directions, answer a phone, write a resume, or draft a simple business letter are all important parts of my job. These skills will help my students survive day-to-day when they go to study abroad or find themselves in a situation where they need to use English on a regular basis. So I can understand why some teachers might be hesitant to use stories, especially difficult literary stories, in a language classroom. We only have a limited amount of classroom time and learning how to set a date for a business meeting probably seems more important that discussing why Edgar Allen Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart” is so creepy. But I would argue that this focus on the practical surface can obscure the underlying linguistic needs of our students.
All communicative interactions require us to deal with ambiguity. All texts, whether a business letter or a conversation with a friend, require us, at times, to read between the lines. And working with stories gives our students a chance to do exactly that. Great stories are filled with moments of silence. They are like the real world, rife with spaces waiting to be filled. When our students work with great stories, they are practicing one of the most important second language skills of all, how to take responsibility for not only understanding, but the act of meaning making when using the receptive skills. And without the awareness and courage build your own meaning in the dark corners of a text, no story, whether it be the simple recounting of a day or the laying out of an intricate five-year business plan, is ever truly complete.
A complete list of free O. Henry texts from Project Gutenburg is available here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/634?sort_order=title
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