I am rereading Shogun by James Clavell. For years it was one of my favorite books. But when I began it this time, the memory of Efrain reading Shogun in the remedial English class I taught swept over me. No wonder he read it! The beginning has a samurai beheading a man with one powerful stroke of a sword, Japanese women bathing the shipwrecked English pilot and marveling at his “equipment,” and sex. What teenage boy wouldn’t be drawn in?
But in August, at the beginning of that school year, Efrain was a junior who had never read a book, and I was a middle school math teacher who, in spite of loud protests, had been assigned one class of “dummy” high school English. I decided to experiment with the class, based on the master’s program I was in, and instead of assigning the textbook full of short stories and grammar exercises, I brought a sack full of random paperback books from my home. The first day of school, I spread the 23 books on a table in the front of the room, explained to my juniors and sophomores that they could choose a book and read each class period. There would be no homework. If they read a book in the six-week grading period, they would get a B. They headed to the table and grabbed books without even looking at the covers. The thinnest book was grabbed first. I picked one of the four remaining books and sat down at my desk to read with them. A few muttered, “I hate reading,” but these were kids whom I had taught in middle school, and they were polite. After a few minutes of staring at the books in their hands, most opened and began.
Thus began the best teaching year of my life.
Every day the 19 students (16 boys, 3 girls) came into the classroom, got their book off the shelf, and began to read. At the end of the first week, just before the final bell rang, I went to the front of the class and asked, “Is anyone beginning to enjoy their book?” I flinched, anticipating rotten tomatoes, but to my surprise, Efrain said, in his heavy accent, “Man, dis book is better dan de movie!” His cousin David turned around and stared in disbelief. Efrain was reading Jaws.
A week or so later, Efrain finished Jaws and asked me what my favorite book was. “Shogun,” I told him. He asked how many pages it had, and when I said about a thousand, he waved the idea away, shaking his head. “Nah, Ms. Caruso. Dat’s crazy.”
Week followed week. Everyone was reading. As they finished their original books, they went to the library where they could select something that interested them. When Donald finished The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, he came up to my desk and quietly told me I would like it. I thanked him and told him I would read it when I finished my current book. Donald was correct. The Right Stuff was amazing. Donald introduced me to Tom Wolfe.
Each time Efrain finished a book he would call out to me, “Ms. Caruso, what’s a good book?” and I would say, “Shogun.” He’d just shake his head. But there was now a paperback copy of Shogun on the classroom shelf–just in case. And one day in November Efrain picked it up and took it to his desk. He stared at the cover and flipped through the 1000 pages for several minutes before he began. It was like watching a feral cat step into the house. I didn’t say a word.
Day followed day, week followed week. Efrain carried Shogun in his back jeans pocket. One day he came into class and said, “Hey, Ms. Caruso. My boss sez I can’t be reading a book dis thick, an’ I tell him I am.” By now Efrain was deep into the story; he was “in” feudal Japan. And best of all, he told his classmates. “Man, you guys. Dis is de best book EVER,” he said often. And they looked at him–and the size of the book–with awe. When he finished Shogun, Efrain talked for ten minutes, telling the class why he liked it so much–and TJ went to take it from the shelf. Efrain asked the school librarian to order more James Clavell books, and she did. Efrain went on to read Noble House and Tai-Pan, as did TJ. Two other students read Shogun.
What a year that was. When my professor suggested that we call Pizza Hut in the big town 15 miles away, to see if they would give each student a personal pan pizza, in conjunction with their Book-It Program, because they had read so many books, I called. The management agreed but said they couldn’t deliver. We would have to come in. All we needed was a school bus and a driver to take us there. The high school principal said he didn’t want to set a precedent; so, I told the kids we were not going to Pizza Hut unless their parents called and made a fuss. But it was a small rural town. The kids were from mostly poor families who did not make a fuss. I figured it was hopeless.
And then Efrain made it happen.
A few weeks later he was leaving school at the same time as the superintendent, and he told Mr. Carpenter that his class had read a lot of books that year, enough to get a Book-It party at Pizza Hut, only they needed a bus driver. “I’ll drive the bus!” said Mr. Carpenter. When Efrain told us the story the next day, I headed straight to the office to see if Mr. Carpenter meant it. “Heck, yeah,” he said. “That is a real accomplishment. I would be honored to drive that bus.”
And he did.
* * * * *
Many years later, I was in our town, after having moved to Vermont. I was in front of Hartzog’s Grocery, when Efrain walked toward the door. We talked about that year, and how the intervening years had changed us. His health was not good, and I was older. We laughed and chatted, then we said good-bye. A few years after that, one of his friends messaged me with his funeral announcement.
Ah, Efrain. What an influence you had on your classmates, daring to read a 1000-page book, and liking it. And talking about it. You were the first in that class to become a reader. And then a leader.