The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Sketching a Little Madness

I teach 8th grade English here in New Haven. And when I taught my 8th graders Emily Dickinson’s “A little madness in the spring” it was a little joke to myself. I knew they would be bonkers as soon as it started to get sunny and humid. I knew we would be pushing our homeroom, communal deodorant spray on more than one of them, and I knew I would find them lying on the grass during recess, loafing around with each other. I wanted them to use the poem to justify themselves, as a smart way of saying 'let us be.' But here’s the thing. The joke is on me. There is something inside these teenagers that is positively popping. They are taking their newly-over-one-hundred-pounds bodies and they are pawing all over each other. This is what Dickinson calls “wholesome even for the King." For summer reading, I assigned Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. In it, Alexie paints a portrait of a ninth grader named Junior, growing up on the Spokane Reservation. Junior is smart and a self proclaimed "weirdo." He chooses to go off the rez for a better education. The better education, as is often the case, is at a rich, white suburban school over 20 miles away. Naturally, Junior becomes a traitor to his community on the rez, and is ostracized as the token Indian at Reardan, his new school. His people call him an apple-red on the outside and white on the inside. The outsider idea is nothing new to adolescent fiction, but what stands out in this book is Alexie's signature, candid wit, and Ellen Forney's illustrations.

For all of his hardship, Junior is saved by the cartoons he draws. And the cartoons make the book; it's sprinkled with hilarious caricatures cataloging his father’s alcoholism, his best friend’s abusive father, and his sister’s death. His self-deprecation and optimism in the cartoons pull the reader along through a thoroughly weighty and grievous narrative. And Junior says of his cartoons, "I take them seriously. I use them to understand the world…Sometimes I draw people because they're my friends and family. And I want to honor them." Words often fail him and cartoons don't.

Lately, my students have been coming to class early to draw pictures on the chalkboard. A colleague enlightened me recently by giving me a few Maxine Greene essays on "esthetic education" wherein the use of art as a means of expression, inspiration, and invigoration in a classroom is seen as instrumental to better and more holistic learning. So, I always let them draw. Yet again, my students (and Junior) teach me. They already knew that drawing- making pictures of narratives is essential to their learning.

We are reading Lord of the Flies. Of course they have some ideas to process through pictures: Jack just stuck a pig in last night's reading! Golding is forever alluding to the “essential human illness” that we all understand but can’t totally articulate-especially when suffering from heat stroke, or puberty. Lord of the Flies discussions have been markedly focused and engaged; the novel is moving them. How does the elusive and present human illness make sense to these 8th graders? They draw it.

Their drawings, which take up the full length of the board, are the boys-in tattered clothing (or naked-no sniggering!) and the pigs, and always a special focus on the boy with the "mulberry birthmark" on his face, whose only real mention in the novel is that he is noticed to have disappeared. He is a lost boy, gone, early on in the novel. My students can't seem to forget him; they draw him everyday. (And not just because he had a birthmark.) But, I think because they want him to be remembered in the midst of the maddening cries of the novel. Because they wouldn't want to be forgotten.

As Junior says, "I draw because I want to talk to the world. And I want the world to pay attention to me."

So I am thinking that a little madness in the spring on all absolutely true accounts is teaching me that my students are reflecting and processing this novel in their doodling. It means something to them, and they want to honor it, even if they can't necessarily write a thesis paper on it-yet. I am thankful that they are getting it out, and the antecedent of 'it' is madness, wholesome, and tremendous.