I wanted to model reading for pleasure. Though this may sound like a scam—getting paid for enjoying a good novel—it’s rather an excellent classroom practice. Library, educational, pediatric, and parenting organizations with otherwise divergent goals recommend that children read for pleasure, and teachers dutifully assign 15–30 minutes after recess or lunch for such engagement. But they rarely join in, pursuing instead the bureaucratic tasks that crush them, stuffing graded work into student mailboxes or marking papers or typing newsletters to parents, likely undermining their own lesson about the benefits of chucking all responsibility and reading for fun. A substitute teacher for first graders on this March 17,th I had come prepared to demonstrate very publicly my love of reading. I curled up in the big rocker at the front of the room and found my bookmark halfway through James L. Swanson’s Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer.
Liam was upon me momentarily: “What are you reading?”
“Something about Abraham Lincoln,” I murmured, already absorbed.
And now there were two. “Is it about his assassination?” asked Chase. I looked up appreciatively at the big word, closing the book enough to reveal the silvery cover. A wild-eyed John Wilkes Booth in the act of shooting the 16th President at close range beamed from my lap, the lustrous scene deliberately reminiscent of a daguerreotype image. The crowd around my rocking chair—attracted, finally, by the word “assassination”—looked in awe at the ghostly President, whose head was shrouded in the pearly halo of smoke characteristic of all spent black-powder weapons, whose absurdly long left arm reached out to claw the air beside him, whose famous sad eyes retained their lifelong look of grief.
The boys wanted to know all about it, starting with why Booth had both a gun and a knife in the picture. “Nobody knows why he chose a Deringer,” I told them, a pistol that could be fired only once. He owned other revolvers that could have held up to six rounds before reloading. In any case, it seems that the Deringer forced him to consider the need for a back-up weapon, the knife in his other hand. I offered that Booth was a very well-known actor who had performed countless death scenes, so perhaps he wanted to be dramatic. He was certainly in performance mode when he leapt onto the stage and shouted about ridding the country of a tyrant.
Well. That was a little rough—realizing that someone thought of Lincoln as a bad guy. I tried to explain that it was only sympathizers of the South who thought that, and they were fresh from defeat. But no, it was the murder they wanted more information about. The killer jumped onto the stage? From where, exactly? And did he end up using the knife? Did he get away? They shot questions at me like bullets, and I couldn’t help myself; I plunged. Yes, these were smart and inquisitive boys who demanded honest answers, but yes, too, it is a teacher’s dream to possess the treasure her students crave: I abandoned political correctness and succumbed to content, delving into the plot that had an unsuspecting accomplice waiting with a horse outside the rear door of the theater, an assassin so familiar with his venue that he used its underground tunnel to drill a peephole into the victim’s viewing box and so familiar with this particular play that he knew the precise scene during which his villainy would warrant the least detection—a single actor on stage, a line guaranteed to produce uproarious laughter.
They wanted more about the murder, so I showed them the period illustration on page 47, Booth’s leap from box to stage looking like the fanciful flight of a ballet dancer with the sinister addition of a clenched knife in his right hand, the dramatic aftermath of his business—a fallen Lincoln, a clutching Mary Todd—seen in the background. And yes, I answered, Booth had used the knife, just moments before on poor Major Rathbone, who’d moved to defend his President and friend. The thrust was deep and meant to kill, but the man saved his own life by shielding his heart with his arm, which took the blow instead. When Booth landed, he broke his leg, I thought to add, an intriguing detail that got some appreciative follow-up. We looked at the reproduced photograph of Lincoln’s box, taken just a day or two after his death, and we could see the draped flag that tripped Booth up, catching his riding spur and causing him to falter in the last performance of his life. We had to go back to the flying-Booth picture to see the spur on his left boot that led to a broken tibia.
They wanted still more. Excitement coursed through their little bodies as they crawled onto the rocker; they couldn’t get close enough to me or the book. Their hearts were in their voices when they asked for details about the shooting; they were overcome with the emotion and thrill of it; they were high on this story that was at once fabulously violent and true! My response was shameful: Did they know that Lincoln moved his head down and to the right a little bit in order to look at the audience, so the bullet came in just behind his left ear? I may even have tilted my own head here and then tapped behind my own left ear. We went back to the front cover for another look at the assassination scene.
I offer the following paragraph directly from page 45 of Manhunt to provide a little context, some insight into what I myself had been reading. Perhaps it demonstrates my own restraint in the retelling, showing an extent to which I did not go with my students that day. Acknowledging this transparently self-serving gesture for what it is, I reiterate that I did not read the following aloud:
Instead it struck him in the head, on the lower left side, a little below the ear. The ball ripped through his chestnut-colored hair, cut the skin, perforated the skull, and, because of the angle of Lincoln’s head at the moment of impact, drove a diagonal tunnel through Lincoln’s brain from left to right. The wet brain matter slowed the ball’s velocity, absorbing enough of its energy to prevent it from penetrating the other side of the skull and exiting through the president’s face. The ball came to rest in Lincoln’s brain, lodged behind his right eye.
Booth’s escape provided just as much interest, and the book’s two maps outlining his 12-day route out of Washington contributed to the discussion. We never got to his final days at Garrett’s farm, where he was trapped in a burning barn before being shot by an army officer. Our 30 minutes were up, and the boys reluctantly unfolded themselves from around me, chatting to each other as they went to their desks for math.
Two hours later we were in the cafeteria with the other First Grade working together on a holiday craft. Everybody started with a white dinner-plate-sized, precut shamrock, and they accordion-folded green strips of paper for arms and legs. We had some fun discussing whether the shamrock was the leprechaun’s head or body, and I told my kids they could decide and decorate accordingly. I wandered the room, helped with glue and folding, and allowed for the kind of noise, movement, and interaction that works just fine when kids are doing crafts. I wasn't all that interested in micro-managing the artisans, caring little if the resultant creature ended up with four legs or no head or an effortlessly scribbled single-colored theme. Although some kids dashed off any old thing, most labored lovingly over their work, so I made it a point to notice the particulars of each leprechaun as we lined up at the door:
“Look at his face—he’s up to something clever; I can tell by the eyes!”
“Oooh, a rainbow-colored leprechaun; how unusual!”
I look for that spot of real effort, that source of pride. My comments elicit knowing, explanatory responses. I’m mostly successful at discovering what they want me to discover.
“I like the way you created designs on his shirt—it looks like real fabric!”
“Ah! You made extra long legs for your leprechaun; she’s tall just like you!”
The pleasure they get out of my comments almost makes me feel bad. Do they get enough individual attention? Their flood of words describing the minutia of their creative process tells me they are dying to talk, to emote, to create, to vent, to think, to find things out for themselves, to participate in a way far more active and independent than the listening and obeying required of them all day long.
“Look at all that hair! That’s one hairy leprechaun!”
“Oh, I see your leprechaun has a red scarf around his neck. Is he cold?”
“It’s blood. It’s where his head got shot off.”
“Tell me about yours, Liam, what’s that?”
(A knife sticking out of his chest. And the blood that flowed from the wound.)
Please God, let this not be happening.
“Colin?” I ask weakly. “Dylan?”
(A killed leprechaun. A murdered leprechaun.)
Finally, Chase presents his bloodied and mangled green and red mess for inspection: “An assassinated leprechaun.”
Horror turns to sheer panic. What will the parents say? I can’t let these go home. I decide I will keep them at school, suggesting Ms. Cryker will want to see and display them when she returns. But what will Ms. Cryker say? I can’t let them stay here. I am consumed with guilt and worry and indecision as we get ready for home. Coats, mail, book bags are collected. What about the leprechauns?
“What about the leprechauns, Mrs. Lainey?” someone calls out. “Are they going home?”
God, I don’t know what to do. I stall for time, “What do you think, Colin? Do you want to bring it home?”
“Sure,” he says, ready to stuff it in his book bag. I wonder whom to take a chance on, the teacher or the parents. I think only of myself and then feel guilty that I’m not more concerned about potential trauma to the kids. They seemed fine. I have my own kids who are extremely sensitive, and I think I’d recognize the difference between run-of-the-mill morbid fascination and serious anxiety.
If I had more time, I’d explore the issue, asking if they were bothered by the story, reminding them it’s in the past and that Lincoln didn’t feel any pain, something Swanson emphasized in his book. But it’s chaos and we’re late, so I tell them to take the leprechauns home. I walk them out to their cars and manage to catch one mom I know, and I tell her that we talked about Lincoln’s assassination today, in case it comes up at dinner.
(Reprinted from last year.)