Teaching Junot Díaz in Middle School
Years ago, before I taught his work, I almost walked right into Junot Díaz.
I was heading around a corner near the Harvard Square subway station in Cambridge when he turned toward me from the other side of a large building. Thankfully, we were both well-trained Boston pedestrians and managed to avoid an awkward collision.
Despite my urge to say something, I couldn’t think of anything on the spot to acknowledge that I knew who he was and admired his work. In the heat of the moment, I didn’t want to risk saying something like, “Hi Junot, I just finished The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and it changed the way I think about books. Also, I recognized your bald head and thick-rimmed glasses from watching your interviews and book talks on YouTube. Want to be friends?”
Really, I just didn’t want to be obnoxious and stop him in the middle of the sidewalk—dude looked like he was on a mission. Still, after he passed by, I regretted my silence.
That fleeting moment stuck with me. Years later, after I went to grad school for education and started teaching middle school English, it still bummed me out from time to time that that I did not say something to him when I had the chance. After all, the cadence, energy, and emotional punch of his prose had been a driving force in my choice to make a career out of exploring literature with others.
Mixing Up the Curriculum
I now teach at a fantastic independent school outside of Boston: The Meadowbrook School in Weston, Mass. In an effort to liven up our reading selections, I recently decided to incorporate some new forms, such as flash fiction and creative nonfiction, into my classes. And, as I fully expected, my biggest success with this experiment was an essay written by Mr. Díaz himself.
I had been trying to work him into the curriculum for a while, but it’s tough. Despite teaching books often found on high school English reading lists, I still teach middle school. I can’t use texts that are rife with sexuality and profanity, like much of Díaz’s work. But I also want texts that will truly push my students to become better readers, writers, and thinkers. I’m always searching for literature that strikes a balance between intellectually challenging and developmentally appropriate.
One day, sifting through some old copies of the New Yorker, I finally came across a Díaz piece I could use with my kids. It was called “The Money,” a short childhood remembrance about a time when Diaz’s family’s apartment was robbed and how he “solved” the case. It was a work of creative nonfiction and it had the content I was looking for: a young narrator, edgy language, exciting plot, thoughtful insight on the human condition, and, for good measure, even an allusion to Dostoevsky.
I taught “The Money” to my 7th grade students along with two other short pieces by other authors. Díaz’s story was unquestionably their favorite. It made them laugh and it made them think. It also gave my students, most of whom are white and from wealthy families, a window into the world of a young Dominican immigrant whose background and relationship with money is incredibly removed from anything they’ve experienced or are likely to experience. That’s important to me because I firmly believe that if there’s one thing we should hope to teach our students, it’s empathy.
An Authentic Voice
Yet my students’ biggest take-away from the piece wasn’t necessarily related to empathy, but was just as important in my opinion. They strongly connected with Diaz’s poignant but unsentimental epiphany at the end of the story. After he stealthily recovers the money that some neighborhood kids stole from his mother’s hidden stash, Diaz says,
It took me two days to return the money to my mother. The truth was I was seriously considering keeping it. But in the end the guilt got to me. I guess I was expecting my mother to run around with joy, to crown me her favorite son, to cook me my favorite meal. Nada. I’d wanted a party or least to see her happy, but there was nothing. Just two hundred and some dollars and fifteen hundred or so miles—that’s all there was.
These words led to a shockingly mature discussion in my classroom about the importance of acting in a way that is morally “right” —even if one’s actions go unnoticed or unappreciated. This 900-word personal essay pushed my barely adolescent students to think and talk about a complex idea in a sophisticated manner.
After we read each of the examples, I asked my students to write their own personal essays or flash fiction, and several went on to closely imitate Díaz’s style and voice. The oft-repeated relationship between imitation and flattery comes to mind.
Their enthusiastic response to this piece and subsequent experimentation with language in their own work served as a great reminder to me of why it’s important to teach stories that feature a strong, distinctive narrative voice that students can identify with. Authentic expression is immediately recognizable and allows the reader to trust in the writer and what he or she has to say. Plus, trying out another writer’s voice in middle school could be the first step for my students in discovering their own voices down the road.
Meeting the Master
As luck would have it, Díaz was scheduled for a reading and book talk at MIT about a month after I taught his essay. I was psyched. I had read all his work to that point, and I knew from the aforementioned geeking-out on YouTube that he’d be a dynamic public speaker. He did not disappoint; the unstructured talk that preceded his reading was an entertaining mix of savvy street slang, academic vocabulary, and brilliant insights that I’m still reflecting on.
After it was over, my wife kindly waited in line with me for an hour and a half so I could meet him and have him sign my book. It was perfect—I had a second chance to meet him and communicate my love for his work. And I actually had something to say this time.
When it was finally our turn, he greeted us warmly and I shook his hand. I told him I had recently taught “The Money” to my middle school students and they had loved it. He smiled graciously. “That’s great, man! I always wondered what people made of that f***ing story.”