By Devin Kirby, AmeriCorps member serving on the National Grid team with The English High School
If I had to pick a book to share with my students, it’d be John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. From what I’ve experienced serving in both 9th and 10th grade English language arts (ELA) and History classrooms, I guarantee the discussions generated by this particularly powerful novella would be engaging, enlightening, and thought-provoking. But first, the summary:
The Pearl takes place in turn-of-the-20th-century Mexico and follows the trials and tribulations of Kino, a poor native Mexican pearl diver. After Kino’s infant son Coyotito is stung by a scorpion, Kino luckily uncovers an ephemeral pearl of unprecedented size. Overjoyed at finding what quickly becomes known as The Pearl of the World, Kino and his wife Juana publicly display the pearl as a symbol of advancement out of poverty and hopelessness. This feeling is only compounded by Coyotito’s recovery, as the local doctor quickly attends to the baby on credit after hearing of Kino’s discovery. Kino and Juana foresee a better life for themselves and their son in the shimmers of the pearl—a dream that quickly devolves, in classic Steinbeck fashion, into a depressing sham.
Students were able to connect these conversations to their daily lives, extending Steinbeck’s representations of isolation and companionship as an avenue to discussing modern culture and social dynamics in the digital age of social media.
The pearl dealers of the town reject the pearl as actually too large to be marketable, and Kino, furious, prepares to travel to the capital and sell it there. As he departs the village, he is ambushed, robbed, and attacked several times. When Juana steals the pearl and attempts to make it disappear, Kino beats her in a fit of rage. His son, Coyotito, is accidentally shot and killed by a tracker following them, and Kino himself is pushed to his limits and eventually murders several of his stalkers in cold blood. Defeated, Kino and Juana simply return to their village, where they toss the pearl back into the ocean.
It’s kind of a bummer, right? So now let me say why I’m excited.
My 9th-graders just finished another Steinbeck classic, Of Mice and Men, a deceptively complex and layered text packed into barely 100 pages of dialogue written in Depression-era vernacular. In other words, it’s a quick read, but certainly not an easy or straightforward one. But the extent to which the students unraveled even its most nuanced points astounded me. Freewheeling discussions and written responses probed deeply into the central themes of dreams, friendship, loneliness, belonging and how the psychological effects of these abstract ideas manifest themselves in and through the characters. Even better, the students were able to connect these conversations to their daily lives, extending Steinbeck’s representations of isolation and companionship as an avenue to discussing modern culture and social dynamics in the digital age of social media. I saw a similar sequence unfold in History class, where 10th and 11th-graders used their experiences working after school jobs as a reference point when learning about Andrew Carnegie and workers’ rights reform in the early 1900s.
My students continue to impress me with their insight, and I have seen firsthand how their analysis of text catalyzes their critical thinking of the world around them. With The Pearl being such a morally loaded parable dealing with topics ranging from representations of wealth and social mobility to domestic violence and moral philosophy, I can only begin to guess as to what my students will learn about themselves, the world around them, and how they interact with it on a day-to-day basis. These are the threads I hope my students will continue to unravel with our hypothetical exploration of Steinbeck’s work.