The Power of Literature

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After 32 years teaching, I will retire in June, and lose a big part of who I am. Don't get me wrong, I am thrilled to be here. Yet still, I know I'll be losing a lot.

There's a certain rhythm to a school year; how at the beginning of every poetry class I poll the kids and find out most of them dislike poetry. So I point out how song lyrics are poems, and we listen to and analyze songs, and then we write our poems, and invariably, people flood to the front to share their poems. Hate poetry? Not so much.

In 'Of Mice and Men', when George is forced to shoot Lennie out of love, unwilling to make the same mistake Candy did letting someone else kill his dog, there is an outcry of emotion in the class - often tears, even wailing - that makes me feel so privileged to do what I do.

And when we read 'To Kill a Mockingbird', and the students see the depth of Atticus's wisdom in teaching Scout compassion and empathy, and Scout turns to her father and says, "Mr. Tate was right. It'd be sort of like shootin' a mockingbird." Man, that gets me every time. It's like I'm hearing those lines for the first time, just like them.

And 'Into the Wild': How certain students realize how despite the stupidity and arrogance of what Chris McCandless does, he also attempts an act of great beauty few people ever achieve, and how the real tragedy of his story is the clarity he seeks so passionately only comes at the end of his life, when it is too late.


My biggest joy is watching my students learn through literature how life is a tenuous gift to be held and appreciated every moment because before you know it, you're older and the present is only memory.

With a Perspective, I'm Pete Gavin.

Pete Gavin teaches eighth grade English at Kent Middle School in Kentfield.