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Of Mice And Men And My Students

My ninth-graders recently finished reading “Of Mice and Men.” This is my third consecutive year teaching the novel and I imagine I’ll be teaching it for years to come. The students love it. Something about George and Lennie’s plight resonates with them, even though a ranch in 1930s Salinas, Calif., seems a world apart from a high school in New York City in 2012. Why do my city-smart students love reading about two Depression-era farm workers?

Perhaps, as I like to tell my students, we should dig a bit deeper. George is smart, but due to circumstances beyond his control, his life has been one of struggle and frustration. Lennie is physically imposing, but due to an unspecified learning disability, he’s lost in the world of adults. In different ways, each of these characters is doomed, through no fault of their own.

George and Lennie exist in a harsh world, one that is familiar to many of my students. It’s a world where economic survival trumps human connection, where a person’s worth is measured based on their ability to add value to the economy. When a farmhand’s dog gets too old and decrepit to be of any use, he gets shot.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the boss’s son, Curley, struts around like a peacock, antagonizing the workers, comfortable in the knowledge that his privilege will protect him. I saw Curley on television last month when Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued his Martin Luther King Jr. Day attack on New York teachers. “We have to realize that our schools are not an employment program,” Cuomo announced. “They are an education program for the students. It is this simple. It is not about the adults; it is about the children.”

Like Curley, Cuomo lives both on the ranch and above it. From a distance, false dichotomies like “adults vs. children” might serve a political purpose. For those of us who work in the schools, however, pitting students against teachers is both dangerous and misleading.

What does all of this have to with “Of Mice and Men”?

If you work with young people, you’re aware at every moment that they won’t be young forever. My high school students will be adults soon enough. Sometime in the next few years, they’ll be out in the world, searching for work. Should we stop caring about them because they’re no longer children? Should these students grow up, like George and Lennie, in a world where working people have to struggle to survive, and are called selfish for demanding a fair shake?

Once these young adults find work, they will quickly find that work is not enough to sustain them. George and Lennie work for a living, but their shared dream — to own a farm and live “off the fat of the land” — is what keeps them going.

Like George and Lennie, our students have dreams. Yes, they want to be doctors, engineers, firefighters, and teachers, but their dreams don’t consist of the day-to-day work in any of those professions. They dream of curing diseases and building cities; they dream of saving lives, of being heroes, like the ones they read about.

Today, as during the Depression, the world seems designed to beat the dreams out of our students, as it finally does to poor George Milton. And just as George is forced to choose between loyalty and survival, we teachers are asked to choose between devotion to our students and dreams of our own — whether our dreams are of raising families in New York City or owning a little farm somewhere, with chickens and rabbits. In a few short years, my students will graduate into a world where they’re forced to make these same impossible choices.

I taught a class two years ago where we read the novel’s brutal, final scene aloud. As George raised the gun to Lennie’s head, the students gasped. They stood on their chairs; they shut their eyes. When he pulled the trigger, some of them screamed, while others just shook their heads in disbelief. It was some of the most glorious chaos I’ve experienced in a classroom.

Why do my students love “Of Mice and Men”? They know that George and Lennie — and the poor old dog — all of these characters deserve better than what they get. My students know that they deserve better too.

Finally, they love “Of Mice and Men” because John Steinbeck tells it like it is. Things are unfair for working folks like George and Lennie. My students get it; they see the rich schools on TV, and they know what their own schools look like. So, Gov. Cuomo, Mayor Bloomberg, Chancellor Walcott: just tell it straight. You can cut funding and close schools. You can fire teachers and school aides and paraprofessionals. Just don’t tell my kids it’s because you want the best for them; they don’t enjoy being treated like they’re stupid.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.