It is not easy for my students in suburban St. Louis to connect with the characters in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The novel is packed with gruff men. Middle aged, mostly friendless, they are all struggling to eke out an income on a ranch somewhere in California.
The one glimmer of hope in Steinbeck’s classic emerges through the relationship between two men—George and Lennie. They are not relatives. Yet in a society where individualism is paramount, George does far more than merely put up with Lennie. He cares for this mentally challenged man, blankets him with a protective shield. Other characters turn from, threaten, and even belittle Lennie. Most are astounded by George’s choice to attend to someone who seems like such a burden.
My students think beyond the scope of the novel to the larger question: What is our responsibility for other human beings, particularly for those who may be weaker, or isolated, or mistreated. Why is it that George cares for Lennie in such a self-sacrificing way? Are his choices heroic or simply human?
To further consider these questions, we view Carry On. It’s a short documentary that explores the relationship between two friends in Cleveland. Dartanyon Crockett has lifted Leroy Sutton, on his back, to every one of their high school wrestling matches. Why? Leroy has no legs. The film showcases the relationship, the mutual gains, the beauty in reaching out. As one of my students reflected, “George carries Lennie, just like Dartanyon carries Leroy Sutton.”
Then we turn to the unheralded heroes of 2010, profiled on CNN’s website. These individuals have carved a space in their lives to reach out and “carry” other people. They bring hope to the disenfranchised, just as George does for Lennie. My students read about each of them, and they vote (on the site) for the one they believe should be named Hero of the Year. This year’s winner will be revealed in a CNN special on Thanksgiving.
Through these activities, I ask my students to consider what our world might be like if we all carried someone, rather than hoping that others will step in. And I ask them to consider why it is that, so often, we do not.
There are no easy answers.
Are students truly moved by Of Mice and Men? Do they think about Lennie when they see someone struggling in the cafeteria or in the hallway? Do any decide to be a George to the Lennies in their world?
It can be difficult to accurately assess the transformative nature of literature on the lives of our students. However, I know that they are moved—to think, to read more, and even at times to act—because of the stories we share.
I know that they are moved to consider what it means to be tolerant, to be heroic, to have responsibility. And listening to them grapple with these ideas makes the trip west, into Steinbeck’s world, seem like quite a worthwhile journey.
Baker is a language arts teacher at Wydown Middle School in St. Louis, Mo.