More Than a Hothead

Maybe I should take up screenwriting. I’ve seen plenty of students move through the same stages as characters in a movie.

Take Misty, for example. I spotted her the first day of class, a bad-tempered kid with fists balled, muscles tensed, and lips pressed into a sneer. Her classmates gave her wide berth.

But I had taught long enough to keep watching for a softening of the eyes or a lifting of the head or the drooping of the shoulders—to catch a sign that Misty longed for something else. It came when the stone hit Tessie on the side of the head in Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery.” In that moment, compassion joined the anger in Misty’s eyes.

I pulled my stool next to her desk while students were writing their responses to Jackson’s story.

“This story makes me mad,” I whispered to her.

“Ain’t right,” she said, not whispering. “Just ‘cause somethin’ always happened, don’t make it right.”

I nodded, dared to squeeze her shoulder, and left her to her writing.

Literature helped Misty move toward her essence, revealing that under her anger was a person with a keen sense of justice and empathy for the underdog. It didn’t always show. Misty still earned plenty of demerits. Not long after, she was suspended for fighting in the lunch room. But when we read, her eyes showed that anger was not all that defined Misty.

“Could I read this to the class?” I began asking about her reading responses. “I think it will help them understand what they read.”

At first, her nods were curt. But one day, she motioned me to come to her desk and handed me her writing.

“Would this help?” she asked.

Misty, we were all discovering, was more than a hothead.

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