For these students, a fairy tale was personal

Jane Jacobson ’75 teaches world studies and English composition at Terra Bella Academy, an alternative school in Mountain View, Calif., for children who are unable to attend traditional public schools because of problems such as expulsion, chronic truancy, or illness.

Last summer, I taught English at a school on the grounds of a children’s shelter. Having worked in wealthy school districts where parents and administrators seemed to think that teaching their children was a special privilege, I wanted to work in a place where teachers were needed and even appreciated. The Alternative Schools Depart-ment of Santa Clara County had openings, one of them as a summer-school teacher at the McKenna School, in the shelter.

The San Jose Children’s Shelter is part of a campus setting not unlike the corporate parks that have sprouted up all over Silicon Valley. Administration buildings, a cafeteria, a gym and art studio, and the school all cluster around residential cottages for boys and girls of different ages. Well-groomed grass and plantings, along with installations of children’s mosaics and murals, add to the first impression of cheerful efficiency. 

But the children are not fooled. On the run from home and hurt, they come to the shelter at many stages of their individual journeys: removed from unsafe situations of neglect or abuse; detained until courts can decide issues of custody; or returned from a temporary foster family. No matter what the shelter might provide — a safe place to sleep, regular meals, medical attention, art projects, and field trips —these are not the comforts of home. Often the kids feel that the shelter walls, meant to protect them, only keep them from any hope of a real family life.

Some, a lucky few, will be reunited with loving parents and brothers and sisters, their whole family intact. Some might win a “placement” in a truly kind, stable foster family. Most will spend time on the streets, in juvenile hall, and then bounce back — hungry and weary — to the shelter.

During the school year, many children living at the shelter get transportation to attend school in their home neighborhoods. But some, removed many times from their families and foster homes, no longer have a school district to which they belong. So they go to the McKenna School at the shelter. During the summer, the school and the shelter created a combined program for all the kids. In the mornings, a small staff taught language arts in a two-hour block. The rest of the day, the shelter sponsored activities like those at a summer camp: bowling, drama, trips to the beach.

The teenagers had mixed feelings about summer school. A few appreciated the chance to catch up on their work; some even welcomed the opportunity to have books to read. One girl asked me for a copy of Hamlet because she had started the play just before Hurricane Katrina hit her school in New Orleans, and she wanted to know whether Hamlet had decided to kill himself. “I have some good reasons, too, but I haven’t done it,” she told me.

I wish I could have heard more about her journey from New Orleans to San Jose, but within days, she had moved on through the system. All my students were transients. Each morning I would check the Pop Chart — the population list of kids who had left or entered during the night. Partly I needed the numbers to prepare for the day’s classes, as my enrollment could vary from as few as three or four to as many as 20. Partly I needed to deal with my own heartache about the realities those numbers put in such stark relief. The day’s population might include “Baby Boy,” still unnamed, one day old; a brother and sister, ages 12 and 14, brought to the shelter by the police at 3 a.m.; and a 17-year-old, a student of mine, a runaway.

The other teachers, staff, and I had an uneasy hold on the teenagers, as parents do, encouraging them to stay, forbidding them to leave, but ultimately unable to control the choices they make. A teacher forms positive bonds with students through the lessons given day by day. I believe the lessons of literature matter deeply. Literacy lets students express themselves, empathize with others, read the signposts along the way, and most of all, tell the narrative of their own lives.

But not many students long to know whether Hamlet survives. They lack not so much basic literacy, the ability to decode language, as they do cultural literacy, the ability to find meaning in the works they often are asked to read. So the summer school tried to give the students books they might relate to, such as Nikki Grimes’ Bronx Masquerade, winner of the Coretta Scott King Award. The book alternates between short prose chapters and poems written in the voices of the 18 characters, inner-city high school kids. Each day my students would read along as I read aloud to them. Often, they did relate to the story. The girls, for instance, understood the lines of a poem: “So you curse / and smash the mirror / which gets you what? / A bit of blood / a handful of glass splinters / another source of pain.” Many of my students, victims of neglect and abuse, had cut or otherwise harmed themselves. 

The more savvy students suspected that these books were written for them, even about them, as a special case for “reluctant readers.” They had noticed the different books that other students were reading in high school: Lord of the Flies, A Tale of Two Cities, The Great Gatsby. One student told me that Grimes, the author, “sounded like someone trying to sound like a kid with problems.” Other students, for whom English was a second language, had trouble getting through the cultural filter of the books: They had not encountered the Bronx, Harlem, or the civil-rights context of the book. Still other students, who had grown up in California, found New York City to be alien and remote.

As I sensed their restlessness, I searched for literature that would be simple enough for them to read and listen to without a struggle, yet meaningful enough that they could believe it was true, the real deal.
Then I remembered the story of two children, sister and brother, whose parents were too poor to feed them: “The two children had been unable to sleep for hunger, and had heard what their stepmother had said to their father. Gretel wept bitterly, and said to Hansel, ‘It is all over with us.’”

One of my students sat up straight and slapped the desk. “That mom’s some kind of crack ho.”

“Not even the mom, the mom’s been gone,” someone corrected her.

“Yeah, just some woman Dad’s got at the house,” another student said.

“He gonna listen to her?” the first student asked, still indignant.

“Yeah, what happens?” everyone chimed in.

So, I had them. They cared about what happened next. They listened to “Hansel and Gretel” listening to their parents talking in bed. Here was a situation all my students could recognize: abandonment, hunger, learning the true dangers of the adult world before you are ready, being an older child like Hansel, responsible for comforting the younger child even when you are as terrified as your sister is.
Most of these teenagers were hearing this Grimm fairy tale for the first time. A hush fell over my classroom as the lost brother and sister reached the gingerbread house. Every student understood the sweet yet false invitation of those sugar windows. Didn’t the cheerful cottages of the shelter belie their feelings of pain and anger?

They had lived Hansel and Gretel’s story of neglect and poverty, but until I read the story to them, they had not known how much our culture could confirm or reflect their own experience. A lack of basic cultural literacy means feeling that one is outside the community; it means being denied access to universal values, dreams, and endings.

We construct a sense of self through the stories we read and tell. Without the stories, we do not know who we are or where we belong. For my students to be successful I do not need to teach to the test, I need to teach to their hearts.

I read other stories to them over the summer: “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Snow White” — the gritty Grimm versions, not the Disney stories some knew. But their favorite remained “Hansel and Gretel.” My students wanted to hear it over and over again, because despite the birds eating up their breadcrumbs, the children found their way home.