Reading with Ms. Holmes: Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals

At various points throughout the last couple of weeks, Ms. Holmes said things like:

Nothing happens in this book. 

The segregationists do mean and nasty things to prevent Melba from going to school and then she does go to school and they do slightly different mean and nasty things to her.

“Melba goes to school and gets beat up” is what happens in practically every single chapter.

She goes to school, goes to a news conference, and then does the whole thing over and over and over again.

It’s like she took her diary entries and put every single thing that happened in them into the memoir.

Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals has so much potential. A memoir? Meet those Common Core Non-fiction requirements! A female author? Excellent. Writing about her year as a member of the Little Rock Nine integrating Central High School? Relevant, difficult, important content about history and identity and difference! An eighth-grade accessible reading level? Amazing. Even the first two chapters, which describe her life pre-integration, making particularly clear the way segregation affected her adults’ opportunities and self-worth, suggest that this is going to be a tour de force aimed at the middle school crowd. Furthermore, Beals handles early instances of violence in the memoir with pitch perfect tone: she conveys that the danger is very very real, without exaggeration or melodramatics.

But then Warriors Don’t Cry stagnates, and with it student interest and engagement. Asking a reluctant reader to read a lot of pages that basically all say the same thing is just not good for anybody involved. By the end of the memoir, the repetitiveness tried everyone’s patience: We get your point, Melba! Ms. Holmes says that she would significantly shorten the lengths of the unit, were she to teach it again, but it would not be top of her list for a re-do. Indeed, the Harlem Renaissance poetry brought in at the end of the unit for compare and contrast was a saving grace. Even when nothing new occurred in the previous evening’s reading, the poems still got students relating to the memoir’s major themes of perseverance and strength in the face of systematic adversity.

Ms. Holmes and I both believe that part of our responsibility as teachers is to facilitate tough conversations about race and identity, in history and in the present. Warriors Don’t Cry does provide this opportunity, and the two days of historical context at the start of the unit were some of Ms. Holmes’ most successful lessons. In particular, images of the segregated South were particularly effective at helping students understand the effects of Jim Crow in concrete terms.

Ms. Holmes observed that better, more complicated and compelling literature – like Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun – provides a better foundation for conversations about race and identity and what discrimination feels like. Because there’s more nuance in the text, there’s more to talk about and it doesn’t feel like a pool noodle whacking you on the head with thematic connections. The great irony, then, is that these academic level students would struggle with the complexity and subtlety of Raisin but zoned out of Warriors Don’t Cry because it was too obvious. Does a middle ground exist? If you think you know of one, Ms. Holmes and I would love to check it out.

Up Next with Ms. Holmes: TBD, but Our Man in Havana is, thus far, superbly odd, so check back for that review soon!

About this post: Ms. Holmes is my dear friend and currently an 8th grade English teacher at a public school in New Jersey. Reading with Ms. Holmes is an occasional series in which I write about my experience reading along with her actual students (and keeping up with the homework too!).

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