Recently, my last-period class was in a heated argument, not over racist undertones, minstrel gags or the repetitive use of a word that I ask them not to use (and that they remind me Dave Chapelle employs more often than I assign detention). Instead, the lively discussion was centered around the end of the novel, when Tom Sawyer appears almost by magic and changes the thoughtful, morally complex river narrative into a bunch of hijinks reminiscent of The Benny Hill Show’s closing credits.
One student fiercely argued that Twain duped us; all the investment we’d made into Huck and Jim’s relationship and Huck’s moral development had been crushed by the realization that Jim had been free all along. The end, he suggested, was like those bad student essays that close with “And then I woke up.” Another student, sitting on the opposite end of our seminar table, said that the final act of Huck Finn was obvious satire by Twain, who was illustrating the poor treatment African-Americans received well after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War. Other students started taking sides and, although voices raised louder than some teachers might have felt comfortable with, I was proud that my students cared enough about the novel to get so spicy.
“Awww,” a normally stoic girl sighed as if we’d all turned into fluffy white kittens. Confused, I stared at her, wondering if end-of-the-year stress had caused a mental breakdown. This fiery debate did not deserve a gooey response.
“Awww,” a few more girls echoed. Was this some sort of last-day practical joke? Then I looked out the window and saw a boy from another school holding up a dozen roses and a sign that read “Will You Go To Prom With Me?” His sentiments were directed toward his girlfriend, whose skin had now turned the color of ripe cherries. The moment reminded me of that iconic scene in Say Anything, when Lloyd Dobler (played by John Cusack) holds up his boom box outside of Diane’s (Ione Skye) window to try and woo her with a now-dated Peter Gabriel ballad. I felt schizophrenic; the tone was shifting so quickly in class, from an intense war of words to a sentimental puddle to a stunned silence.
All the students turned to me. I flashed on a moment in the novel we were supposed to be discussing, in which Huck decides that, since everyone sees him as a sinner, he should just go with the flow and embrace his role. As this was like a movie scene, I thought of what a teacher in a movie would do.
“Run to him, Kathy!” I yelled. “Run to him, hold him and never let him go!” I pounded the table with my ink-stained fist for emphasis.
Confused at my odd and seemingly bipolar response, she cocked her head.
“Did you hear me? I said, go now or you’ll live to regret this moment for the rest of your livelong days!”
Maybe “livelong” was a bit archaic and over-the-top, but my dramatic command worked. She went outside to chat with her romantic beau and was greeted upon her return with a standing ovation from her peers. Even the anti-sentimentalists in the group, who favor death metal and avoid any sort of deep literary interpretation, had to admit it was all pretty sweet.
I just then had one of those epiphanies that only teachers are cursed with: The dramatic tonal shift in class mirrored the same mood shift in the novel!
“Hey guys!” I chirped. “Guess what I just thought of?”
“Awww,” they sighed and clapped again.
Robert Wilder’s most recent book is Tales from the Teachers’ Lounge. Daddy Needs a Drink appears the first Wednesday of each month in the Santa Fe Reporter.