I raise my eyes and survey the group upon that first crescendo, and know I’ve got them. Establishing the narrator’s sense of intellectual superiority using my classic raised eyebrow, pursed tone, pinched articulation: simple. But the transition from this to homicidal maniac can be tricky. It’s delicate, nuanced, and I’ve marked the spots where each speck of volume increase, each push in word pace, each quaver indicative of mania ratchets up a notch. That first moment when the narrator betrays his homicidal obsession, quite early in the story, sets up the rest of my performance. And I’ve nailed it.
The staccato sentence construction of that second paragraph eases the interpretation: “Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire.” I’d underline the words to stress, offering my audience a sense of the approach to murder he calls “with what dissimulation” in the next paragraph. Then, boom! I raise my voice level and pace and simultaneously begin to extend the stressed words. The creepy effect: “I think it was his eeyyyyee! yyeessss, it was thiiiisssss! He had the eye of a vuuuuuulture –a paaaaale blue eye, with a fiiiilm over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees –veeeerrrry gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye foreevvvver.”
I’m moving into the key part of the narrative, that section in which he stalks his victim, nightly visitations which end without incident, so that it seems nothing will come of this decision. My classroom’s so quiet by now that I can lower my voice as though whispering in the night, and here I slow the pace, so that the suspense extends. It’s a critical juncture in the story as he talks about opening the view on his lantern to scope out the man’s room:
“I resolved to open a little–a very, very little crevice in the lantern. So I opened it–you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily–until, at length a simple dim ray, like the thread of the spider shot from the crevice and fell upon the vulture eye.
It was open–wide, wide open–and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness–all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow–”
Just then, an electronic crackling and microphone fumbling ploof-ploof overrides this performance. The Principal’s disembodied voice follows, repeating his pre-Halloween reminder: It has come to my attention that some students are confused about what costumes may be allowed, based upon the school dress code. To be clear, costumes must follow the dress code. No hats. No masks. None of the “3 B’s”–yes I mean boobs, butts, and bellies. And skirts or shorts must not be shorter than your fingertips. That is all.
And the mood created in the first ten minutes of class deflates entirely.
Nothing encapsulates the experience that is teaching better than Halloween at The Regional*. The creative planning for relevancy: check. The administrative challenges, and blunders: check. The teenaged inventiveness, and rebellion: check. The impediments to the process of education: check. The finger-pointing and laying of blame: check.
Oh yes, Halloween has it all.
For the English teacher immersed in the Romantic Era exactly at that moment in the year, Halloween seems a cosmic melding of students’ real lives and curriculum. If American lit, it’s Poe Day. A chance to read “The Tell-Tale Heart” and develop a concrete list of its Romantic elements. Perfect.
Or bring in Mary Shelley. Or a film of any Romantic Era critters. Dracula. Werewolves. Headless Horsemen. I don’t know what a Math teacher does with Halloween (They have Pi Day, after all!) but this is English teacher heaven. That intersection of such a recognizable day to particulars in a cultural movement, perfection as a teachable moment precisely because the familiar elements are steeped in sheer fun.
So I loved planning my Halloween lesson. If time and energy permitted, I’d even create a costume for that day, to enhance the experience. Students would always ask in the days leading up to Halloween, “You gonna dress up, Miss?” Of course, keeping them wondering, part of the fun. And teenagers’ struggles with Will I go trick-or-treating? and Should I dress up? allow a delightful glimpse into the children they were, and the inventive people they’ve become through their costuming designs. Of course some buy those packaged Superman or Snow White or Nemo get-ups, but I look forward to the clever homemade outfits, especially if kids team up for a group theme. A set of bowling pins. A milk carton (complete with a missing child profile). A pound of butter (or four separate sticks). The Power Rangers. The Seven Dwarves. A cereal box, or school bus, or taxi cab. Amusing, just watching the hall parade between classes.
And those push-the-envelope choices? The reports precede their arrival. Jonathan’s a cheerleader! Have you seen Vince yet? He’s a cross-dresser! Jimmy decided to come as RuPaul: Oh my God he looks just like him–uh, her!! Hysterical! Virtually all the transgender options are young men, often placing balloons in strategic locations, stumbling about for a day in fish-net stockings and spike heels, displaying extraordinarily deep (and sometimes hairy) decolletage, applying detailed eyeliners and lipsticks in deep jewel tones. Just this side of indecent, these youngsters set Halloween as the day to display their willingness to take a social risk, tacitly broadening peer views of “normal” while pushing administrative buttons. These are the costumes generally sent home (during Homeroom if manned by a vigilant teacher). If not, these are the grandstanders, creating a wild, raucous ripple throughout the day.
Those costumes, and the ingestion of massive amounts of sugar (the worst years were the ones that included Pixy Stix, straw-filled yardstick length infusions of solid sugar rush) fevered an energy not conducive to school. Parties (of course, a banned activity, not a lesson plan) somehow sprang up, creating monstrous creatures so hyped on glucose they could not function in a classroom setting. Adding to the distraction of wild costuming and sugar IVs, the school newspaper and yearbook and video club sent roving cameras out to record the best dressed for posterity–and as Student Council sponsored the costumes as a “Spirit Week” contest, to record the winners as well. All of this must be navigated successfully for a teacher to accomplish a lesson plan.
That, and of course the sporadic announcements as the Principal’s disembodied voice wafts from the loudspeakers announcing one of three things, beginning with this pre-Halloween reminder:
It has come to my attention that some students are confused about what costumes may be allowed, based upon the school dress code. To be clear, costumes must follow the dress code. No hats. No masks. None of the “3 B’s”–yes I mean boobs, butts, and bellies. And skirts or shorts must not be shorter than your fingertips. That is all.
Or in a rather exasperated tone halfway through first period:
If you are wearing a hat or any obscene costume, expect to be sent home. Teachers, inspect your students’ costumes right now, and send any inappropriate students to the Assistant Principal’s Office asap. (This, by the way, would be said as though a word “asap”, not as the acronym A-S-A-P.)
Or in a downright snippy tersity around lunchtime:
Teachers, this is a reminder that PARTIES ARE PROHIBITED IN THE CLASSROOM. And do NOT feed candy to your students!
Usually faculty meetings post-Halloween (or pre-Halloween if the Principal thought ahead, and some do) expended a great deal of time exhausting the dangers and results of feeding students too much candy, the disruption to the school day created especially with inappropriate costumes, and eventually fell into a tedious finger-pointing of those teachers who just don’t follow the rules. Two such categories exist: the truly nefarious teachers hosting “ghost story festivals” or other euphemisms for a party; and the simply disrespectful ones who failed to notice the nuance in costuming that should send the wearer to the AP office for dismissal. Generally this unravelled when a particularly rigid teacher criticized those LBGT cross-dresser costumes that appear annually. She’d label them “beyond bad taste, downright immoral.” That judgment sparked mayhem from many camps.
So my Halloween lessons struggled to achieve their initial intention. Reading “The Tell-Tale Heart” aloud requires 32 minutes, focused, intense, with a fairly modulated raising of volume to achieve the desired effect of the man’s traipse into a manic state by its end. Originally I selected this length story so that I’d have 10-15 minutes after the reading to spark the Romantic elements discussion and get that immediacy of understanding that launches the entire Romantic Unit.
But my students were often the most clever costume designers, and the photo-shoots that seeped into my room as the bell rang–a few times we’d even get a “drop-by” photographer interrupting the reading in progress–delayed the reading just enough that I couldn’t accomplish the full lesson. Those announcements tended to hit right around the moment I was building the emotions about THE EYE and his nightly lantern viewings. Broke the mood a bit, stopping right then to listen to our leader. As a veteran of Halloween days and the many other disruptions constant at that school, I could usually fall back into the narrative and reel my students marginally back into the mood. But if those socially conscious students who felt their freedom of expression had been limited were present? I’ll never forget Steve’s disillusion when he was made to remove his dress, not because it broke any rules, but simply because the Principal thought he “shouldn’t wear a dress.” His resentment bubbled up with that PA chat; he needed to discuss the issues then and there. “The Tell-Tale Heart” fell by the wayside completely.
Most teachers came to dread Halloween. The drag on a fruitful teaching day never seemed justifiable, even to those of us who found such delight in that costume parade. The dissent sparked among colleagues, the disappointed civil liberties of students, the absurd posturing into which administrators were pushed: just not worth the price of admission . . .
*Every incident and person described in Becoming Mrs. L is real and accurate, according to this writer’s best recollection of each event. In order to protect their identities, the names of all schools, staff and students have been changed, including the author’s. Becoming Mrs. L is not about one specific place or time or person or incident, but about the real challenges every teacher meets in the course of a career.
Discussion Topic: Several chapters in Becoming Mrs. L describe all those distractions that inhibit a teacher’s ability to accomplish a lesson plan. Interruptions occur in “School Daze” from a Principal’s constant PA announcements and the many school groups using the day to promote school spirit or to raise funds. But teachers know at anytime unannounced visitors may drop by, or the classroom phone may ring, or the office may request a student for dismissal or an appointment or discipline. A teacher’s program is not seen as sacrosanct, but something to be interrupted at any time, for any reason.
How can we as teachers change this pervasive school climate so that our well-planned lessons actually happen?