I was tantalized when I saw the name “Melville” on your front cover and then became excited when I read in the Contents the name “Bartleby” [“Bartleby, Savitri, & Me,” January/February]. I just completed a unit on “Bartleby, the Scrivener” in my classroom.
I have the pleasure of teaching at a Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps residential treatment facility for girls. These girls, ranging in age from 13 to 18, have in some form or another broken the law. Many of them have experienced horrendous trauma and have horrid home lives. They have built thick walls around themselves to survive. I felt that “Bartleby”offered me the chance to talk about their walls and those that society creates in a nonthreatening manner while exposing the girls to a wonderful work of literature. Reading “Bartleby” was sometimes painful to get through because of the language Melville uses, but the girls managed and began to see the meaning underneath the words. We even compared it to Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” which led to terrific discussions about why people build walls and why others help tear them down.
I found that the girls did not focus on Bartleby so much as the lawyer. They became intrigued with his motivation for helping Bartleby and why it became so important to him to do so. I hope that the book helped them feel less alone and isolated. “Bartleby” does matter, even in such an odd place as a lockup facility for girls.
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A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2005 edition of Teacher as In Good Company