I yelled at some of my English III students on Friday. I wasn’t too emotional about it, and my voice only rose a decibel or two, but I let them know their work effort disappointed me. I had assigned Act I of The Crucible over the two-week Winter Break, along with ten Study Questions related to it. But only a handful complied, and most failed the quiz I had promised for the first day back.
As usual, I offered a second chance, reassigned the reading, and promised to give them the same quiz again. I explained that I understood how holiday breaks sometimes get away from us, and I announced I would simply average the two quiz scores in order to lift their performance. I was very magnanimous about it all and felt certain we would be back on track in no time.
During the lesson that class and the next, I strove to make the play more appealing to their modern sensibilities. We had already done a number of pre-reading exercises to set the stage, but clearly more was needed. So, in that first class back, I had seven students play the role of accusers while nineteen were forced to stand, condemned to death for refusing to confess to invisible crimes.
We talked again about crowds and the vise of “group think.” We discussed the incredible power the accusers–young white girls and one black slave–must have experienced in such a harsh, hierarchical society. We went on a “field trip” to the library where I showed a power point presentation on hysteria I borrowed from an online lesson plan. We shared the things we feared, and then we discussed the 1950s and the communist scare. I told them stories about students hiding under desks during drills.
We reviewed what we had learned about the Puritans and their angry God. I thought I had done a pretty good job of building interest in this play with the funny name, and I was confident most would now embrace the work. During the second lesson, I focused on conflict. ‘Without conflict, there is no story; there is no pulse,” I told them. I had students identify the struggles and hidden motives driving the main characters in Act I, but first, as promised, I readministered the reading quiz. It turned out almost half failed again.
I delivered a small lecture about giving this famous play a chance. We read selected passages aloud, especially the “jucier” parts involving the willful Abigail and her lust for the married John Proctor. I assigned Act II, reminded them there would be a reading quiz, and also asked them to plot the conflicts in one of their favorite television shows using the “somebody wants….but……so…..” model we learned.
On Friday, our third meeting in the new year, it became clear to me that too many had again ignored the homework. A few flocked to the board to outline their plot lines for shows like Meet the Browns, or Family Guy, and they aced the multiple choice quiz. But others sat with that sterile look all teachers dread. These were now two Acts behind and fading.
I stared at the class for a moment, and then I let loose. “This is unacceptable,” I barked. “I do not accept this notion that asking you to read twelve pages of mostly dialog is too much for you to handle,” I scowled. “I will not allow you to become stereotypes in this classroom. I will not insult your intelligence by believing you cannot possibly be expected to read about some white people from 1692. Yes, they might seem different from you and me. But life is life, and we can always learn something from the experiences of others,” I said.
Every eye was on me. I had their attention, and I knew my next words would be critical. “Listen,” I continued in a softer tone, “you are all college bound. You are eleventh graders. But showing up is not enough. You have to do the work, whether you want to or not. I want you to be the type of adults who arrive prepared and ready to contribute. Don’t become observers in your life.”
Then I told them about Cornelius Dupree, Jr., the black man exonerated that week after enduring thirty-one years behind bars for a rape crime he did not commit. I built the story slowly, beginning with the night he and a friend were innocently walking to a party. Perhaps they were telling each other jokes, or deciding which girl to dance with first. A week earlier, a young couple had been carjacked, robbed, and the woman raped. The police who stopped Dupree and his friend that night said they “fit the general description.” Young Cornelius was only nineteen years old at the time. He had no idea how his life was about to change.
Based solely on the eyewitness testimony of the victims, Dupree was convicted and sentenced to seventy-five years in prison. I asked my students to consider his state of mind on Day Two, Night Five-Hundred and Six, Day Three Thousand, Night Ten Thousand and Seven.
According to one inmate who served two years alongside him, Dupree not only maintained his claim of innocence, but also exhibited a “quiet, peaceful demeanor”–even after the Texas Court of Appeals refused to review his case three times.
“How does someone do that?” I asked my students. “How can the certain knowledge of your innocence not burn you alive with anger and hate? How was he able to press on? How would you feel?” After a brief discussion, I unveiled the horrible punch line. “Twice. Not once, but twice, Mr. Dupree was offered parole,” I said. “After his twenties and thirties had evaporated in a prison cell, he was offered a chance to feel the sun on his back and the wind in his stride. But he refused it.”
I asked the students to guess why he might have turned his face away from the glare of freedom.
“Because he didn’t do it,” one male student volunteered.
“Yes,” I exclaimed. “They wanted him to enter some sex offender program. He would have to admit guilt. Just like John Proctor in The Crucible, he would have to sign his name to something he did not do, something he did not believe.” I then asked for a show of hands. “How many of you would have signed that paper anyway?” Eight hands went up, including mine.
“You see,” I ended, “The Dallas district attorney cleared Mr. Dupree this week after DNA evidence, which just happened to have been stored away for three decades, proved his innocence.” I then reminded them of their homework assignment. “I want you to read Act III and see if we can figure out how someone can choose death and dying over telling a lie about truth.”
Then I wrote on the board what Mr. Dupree said when asked to explain why he had not taken the parole offer years before and simply acknowledged guilt:
“Whatever your truth is, you have to stick with it.”
I understand my students are my truth now, and I intend to see them through this play. I purchased the DVD, and I will show Acts I and II next class, so they can put faces on the many characters . But I will only show the movie to parts we have already read and dissected in class. I will maintain my pace and my expectations. Based on the look on their faces as they exited the class, I am certain they will all respond this time.
As one towering male student said, “Dang, man, what got into you today?” Then he reached out to shake my hand, and we smiled.