Here's installment number two ...
Well, it was such a busy fall that when the books came, I just left the box, unopened, alongside my desk. And so it wasn’t until early October that I got around to reading Frankenstein—and realizing there was no way I would teach it. Now don’t get me wrong … I loved the book. But I knew after about two sentences that my classes would not be able to read it. It was just too hard, too strange. Here’s a typical sentence early in the story:
These reflections have dispelled the agitation with which I began my letter, and I feel my heart glow with an enthusiasm which elevates me to heaven, for nothing contributes so much to tranquillize the mind as a steady purpose—a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye.
I quickly calculated the book’s “readability” using the simple formula I’d learned in some teacher workshop I’d taken. I used the second paragraph in the book. College reading level. I checked some other sections, too: All said high school or higher. Not good.
Still, as I said, I loved Mary Shelley’s book and read it very quickly, but all along the way I was trying to figure out how on earth I could use it with my students. How could I make them enjoy a book they couldn’t even read? I didn’t think it possible. At school, I looked at the box of books—the box of Frankensteins. And wondered: Now what?
The novel surprised me, too. It was not at all like any of the movies or cartoons I had seen. It begins in the Arctic, where an explorer writes a letter to his married sister, Mrs. Margaret Saville, about a dying young man he has found out on the ice, a scientist named Victor Frankenstein. Before he dies, Victor tells the explorer a horrible story—about how he created—from old body parts—a creature seven feet tall, a creature that eventually learns to speak. And does he ever learn to talk! In fact, some of the book is told by the creature himself—in sentences like this one (college reading level—I checked):
A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt, at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses.
This creature is not the slow, plodding, stupid beast of the movies. He is quick, agile, athletic, intelligent. But he is so ugly that no one wants to be around him. People run from him. Try to kill him. And so he becomes bitter. Blaming Victor for his unhappiness, he begins murdering Victor’s friends and family. On Victor’s wedding night the creature appears and chokes his bride to death—and causes the death of Victor’s father, as well.
Now in a murderous rage himself, Victor chases the creature, determined to destroy him. Victor pursues his creation clear into the Arctic, but he weakens in the savage cold and is near death when the explorer finds him The last we see of the creature, he is running off into the frozen mists. We imagine that he will die, too.
As I was thinking of ways to teach the novel, I remembered that in an old box in my house I had a Classics Illustrated comic book version of the story, one that I’d read when I was a boy. I found it, realized it followed Mary Shelley’s story pretty closely, and decided I’d copy it for the class, read it with them, and then give them just selections from the original book to look at.
And hoped that would satisfy Mrs. Clairmont.
About that same time—I just checked my records: It was Monday, October 7, 1996—a new student came to my class. Her name was Vickie Stone. And she was different—not at all like most of the girls in our school. She was quiet. Dark-eyed and serious, pale and thin, she seemed very gentle. Intelligent. She wore somber, simple clothing that looked, well, homemade. She tied her thick black hair into a single braid that hung to the middle of her back. She was so plain, so ordinary looking, that no one else even seemed to even see her. In a vast forest, no one notices an average tree.
As the days went on, my first impressions were confirmed. She showed not the slightest concern about the activities at the school. She was not interested, as far as I could tell, in sports, in dances, in music and movies and television—in short, not in any of the things that most of the other girls liked. I never saw her at any after-school functions.
The other students left her completely alone. In class. Out of class. This, I thought was a little odd, too: Most new students—especially girls, especially studious girls like Vickie—had to suffer social torments of one kind or another. But Vickie almost floated through her days … seemingly unnoticed.
One day, passing through the cafeteria at lunch time, I saw her sitting by herself. This was not unusual for a new student the first few days or weeks. But, feeling a little sorry for her, I walked over to her table. “Everything going all right, Vickie?” I asked.
She looked up, her dark eyes wide with surprise, as if she were wearing Frodo Baggins’ elven cloak of invisibility and I had somehow seen her. “Sure, Mr. Walton,” she said after a moment. “I’m fine. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, I just … well …”
“Because I’m alone, you thought I might be unhappy.”
I smiled. “Something like that. Should I mind my own business?”
“No, that’s all right.” She held up the book she was reading in such a way that I couldn’t quite see all of the title. “I like being alone,” she said. “It gives me time to read.”
“I could use more time like that,” I said lightly.
She just looked at me. And after muttering a few things, I went on my way, no longer too worried about Vickie Stone. She looked to me like a survivor, the kind of kid who doesn’t need other people around just to convince her that she’s alive. I headed to the library to look up the word I’d managed to see on the cover of her book just before I left: teratology. It wasn’t in the small dictionaries—I had to use the huge unabridged one: teratology—the science or study of monsters and monstrosities.
What was an eighth grade girl doing with a scientific book about monsters?
From then on, I noticed that she was always reading at lunch—and during every other spare moment she could find, too. In the few idle minutes before and after class each day, she would pull a book from her bag and read while most of the other students jabbered like jays.
Now here’s something even more odd: She never raised her hand in class—and I never called on her. I started to a couple of times—but when I looked at her, when I began to say her name, her deep black eyes stopped me. Something in them just stopped me. Cold. And I called on someone else instead. Soon I barely noticed Vickie Stone—there were more aggressive and even hostile youngsters I had to contend with. In a way, slowly, I became almost grateful for Vickie’s silence. One fewer kid to deal with.
On that same October 7 when Vickie arrived—perhaps by coincidence?— I announced that we’d be learning about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. I happened to look her way. Her dark eyes were glimmering with interest … mixed with something else. Was it worry? Or maybe something more powerful? Maybe something like fear? Or perhaps I was just imagining it all. So simply such things begin. One moment your life is normal; the next it is not.