Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, May 15, 2014

I Was the Cheese, 1

I was looking for a Stephen Crane book the other day when I found Robert Cormier's I Am the Cheese, which had, over the years, been sliding behind the Crane books on my shelf, as if hiding in modesty--as if to say, "I am not Prince Crane nor was I meant to be."

And when I saw it--cliche warning--memories flooded over me, memories from the late 1970s and early 1980s when I was first teaching at Western Reserve Academy (1979-81) and then, in 1982, returning to teach 8th graders and to end my public school career in Aurora, Ohio (1982-1997).

In those years I was reading lots of what's now called "YA fiction" (we called it just "adolescent fiction" in those days). I wanted to know what my students were reading; I wanted to be able to recommend titles to them when they asked. And so I read Judy Blume and Paul Zindel and Lloyd Alexander and on and on.

And Robert Cormier. His books were hot at the time. His novel The Chocolate War (1974) seemed to be in every middle school classroom (and every middle-schooler's hand). And then I Am the Cheese (1977) followed quickly afterwards--and I ate it like a chuck o' chocolate (war or no war).

In those early WRA years I taught English I, frosh, and we read some pretty weighty stuff--The Odyssey, a Shakespeare play, etc. I just checked my author files and found I still have a folder on Cormier. It holds only a couple of things--five handwritten pages of notes on the book, including a list of themes/main ideas ("a novel of the search for identity"; "a novel of love"; etc.) and some questions to ask students--mostly on the "did-you-understand-this?" level ("What does Paul find when he finally reaches the motel on his lake?").

I also found a yellow handout I'd given my WRA frosh for February-March 1980--what was then our fourth marking period (we had five a year at the time). On the back is a calendar that shows we were doing some Odyssey-related literature (e.g., Tennyson's "Ulysses"--Link to the poem--and Tennyson's "The Lotos-eaters"--Link); we were doing some grammar and usage; some vocab; some essays; and ... I Am the Cheese. As you can see from the image, I set aside several days to talk about the book--and to arrange for a test, which my folder does not contain. (Wonder if I can find it elsewhere? I hope not--it's probably awful.)

I Am the Cheese is about a boy on a journey--on his bicycle--trying to get home. Here's how the book begins, resolutely in the present tense ...

I am riding the bicycle and I am on Route 31 in Monument, Massachusetts, on my way to Rutterburg, Vermont, and I'm pedaling furiously because this is an old-fashioned bike, no speeds, no fenders, only the warmed tires and the brakes that don't always work and the handlebars with cracked rubber grips to steer with. A plain bike--the kind my father rode as a kid years ago. It's cold as I pedal along, the wind like a snake slithering up my sleeves and into my jacket and my pants legs, too. But I keep pedaling, I keep pedaling.

Next time--more about the book, about my teaching of it ...

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