Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

The Bee's Needs: Teaching "The Secret Life of Bees"

Hey, have you guys heard about this crazy new thing lots of teachers are doing? It's a little nuts, so you may want to sit down. I was floored myself when I heard, but lots of language arts teachers are using recently-written literature in their classrooms! Like, literature not written by Hawthorne, Williams or Dickinson. Nuts!

I kid, but my surprise isn't faux. I grew up in a public school that faithfully taught out of an (old) textbook, and began my teaching career at a school that used (old) textbooks. When I finally managed to look up from my 15th re-reading of "The Monkey's Paw," it was a delightful surprise to learn that many schools are incorporating newer works into their curricula. Perhaps it seems natural to you, but I was quite struck by the idea of moving out of the canon (whether it be the "old" canon of books written by dead white guys, or the "new" canon of books written by mostly dead white guys along with a few other folks too) towards literature that is current in tone, mood, depiction and style, if not setting and character.

Sue Monk Kidd's 2002 bestseller The Secret Life of Bees is a novel that is leading the way in updating our curricula. I picked it up for the first time recently and have decided that it's of a high quality and accessibility that makes it worth incorporating into my classroom soon. Here are some things to keep in mind if you decide to do so too.

Southern But Not Too Southern, Like Flannery O'Connor Turned Down to 4

So much of our great American literature rose from the Southern writers — O'Connor, Tennessee Williams, Harper Lee, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty popped into my mind right away. And so much of our great American Southern literature is, well, weird. And by "weird," I mean, freakish, disorienting and off-putting. If you need convincing, please try teaching "A Good Man is Hard to Find" to a 9th grade class. [An actual quote from my classroom: "Is she, like, dead? For real, dead-dead?"] Kidd's writing style is deeply attuned to the South, where she grew up, and full of references to the clammy heat of a South Carolina August, the kudzu growing up over everything that pauses for more than five minutes, and the joy of boiled peanuts added to a bottle of Coke.

Yet Kidd's style, while not shying away from the horrors of her protagonist's life and times, is gentler than the harsh light many Southern writers throw onto humanity's foibles. This is not to dismiss those other writers, but rather to point up a benefit that starting with Kidd's novel may hold for your class. Instead of throwing them into the ice-cold water of Southern literature, this is like stepping into a heated wading pool. Kidd's style is gentle, not acidic, but neither vapid nor unfocused.

To understand what I mean, think about the way Kidd writes about May's death and funeral. She doesn't sugarcoat the grieving process, depicting June and August's wails and Lily's utter confusion. But she also doesn't shy away from the gentler aspects of death: the sitting quietly with the body, the abundance of good Southern funeral food, the sharing of memories. Tennessee Williams would have ended with the bees stinging everyone to death at the interment.

Black and White: The Time Period of The Secret Life of Bees

I also find the time period compelling. Kidd set her novel in 1964, and the end of segregation is a recurring backdrop to the events of the novel. Many of your students, like many of mine, will read about the major events of the Civil Rights Movement, from Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream. It's an amazing story, and we are blessed that so many of the leaders of this era have survived to this day to share their memories with us.

That said, it's easy for our students to miss that the Civil Rights Era played out not just in Selma, Birmingham and Washington DC, but in the hearts and minds of people as ordinary as Lily, Rosaleen, T.Ray and Zach. For them, as with the majority of Americans, the changes were incremental. Lily's romance with Zach, with his heartbreaking declaration, "We can't be together now," should show your students that, for many people, the changes didn't come fast enough. Kidd should be commended for her depiction of the completely acceptable racism of the time. She's got a gift for nailing the casual racist, such as the sheriff's suggestion to stop "lowering herself" by living with "colored people." Perhaps your students could count of the number of horrific things said about black folks in the book, then consider how that would affect them.

A Pact With the Literary Elements Devil?

The author blew me away with her imagery, right from the first paragraphs. The book opens with Lily in bed, listening to bees swarm in her house: "I watched their wings shining like bits of chrome in the dark and felt the longing build in my chest." Apparently, Kidd based this on a phenomenon she experienced in her childhood home. (You can read an excellent interview with her here). This vivid description begins a series of equally beautiful-yet-tinged-with-menace passages throughout the book. I think especially of when Lily recounts being tortured by neighborhood boys as a younger girl, to Zach, while they sit on the river bank at night after his release. These set pieces deserve special attention when reading the book with your students. I can't think of a better passage to break out of the book to work on descriptive or narrative writing.

Kidd is also brilliant more quickly, nailing a short description. Early on, Lily notes that Rosaleen is clearly asleep: "I could tell by the way her eyes rolled under her lids she was watching the silver screen where dreams come and go." What a perfect little piece of writing, which manages to capture tone, description and characterization (of both the narrator and her subject!) in one short burst.

Everything That Rises Converges

Let me particularly give props to the way that narrative unspools in this book. I really enjoyed how the plot isn't too plotty, if that makes any sense. What I mean is that lots of big, important events happen in this story — Lily and Rosaleen run away, May commits suicide, Zach gets arrested — and each is given a leisurely amount of description and importance. Yet the thread of the entire novel is Lily's search to understand her parents' choices. When the novel begins, she doesn't even understand that her mother made a choice, and by the end, she is disappointed by the choices that her parents separately made. She's even disappointed in her own actions. Kidd neither loses sight of her main plot, nor reduces the subplots to subservience to it. (By the way, this is my number one issue in Young Adult literature: I call it the "It's too bad my grandmother died, but now I get to learn something about myself!" phenomenon. I think it models for teenagers that extreme self-involvement is OK.)

The journey Lily goes on seems real to me. In another novel with the same plot, it would have turned out that T. Ray shot and killed Lily's mom. Or there would have a long-lost, but suddenly-discovered note from the mother to Lily. Or T. Ray and Lily would have reconciled, after T. Ray rued his ways. Those are all really novel-y things to happen, right?

None of them do. This book is about imperfect people, battered by life (even at 14) and doing the best that they can. For August, that's pretty good. For T. Ray, that's barely within the limits of human society. But they move forward, and learn to live with the pain, regrets and decisions of the past. I'd like my students to have the example of this kind of thoughtful living.

Before I Get Engaged to the Book, Let's Ponder Some Problems

OK, here's something a little dicey for you to discuss with your class. I probably wouldn't have thought of this myself before my current teaching post, where my classes are 98% African- or Caribbean-American, but it certainly occurs to me now. And that is that this is a book about the Southern African-American experience as seen through the eyes of a white girl. Is that racist? No, of course not.

But the book is written in the first person, so we really only get to read Lily's thoughts and feelings. This can have the effect of making all of the other characters — who are mostly black — seem slightly alienated to readers. We know and love Lily so well by the end, but Zach, August, June and, especially, Rosaleen still seem a bit blurry around the edges. It certainly can be argued, successfully, that Kidd is showing us how Lily sees the world. But I'd still feel uncomfortable if I didn't take the time to, first of all, point this all out to my students (it's a great lesson on point of view!) and secondly, schedule literature written in the first person by an African-American into my curriculum.

Another issue that you'll have to contend with if you teach this book is the Black Madonna, who the women worship. My feelings about the religious validity of this are neither here nor there, but it could raise hackles in your classroom. Religion is always difficult to discuss with any group of people; for those of you in public schools, things can get even more treacherous. But the image of the Black Madonna is of central importance to the book. Ignoring her is like ignoring sexual sadism in A Streetcar Named Desire (a trick that one of my teachers pulled off, by the way).

My specific suggestion for you, in covering this particular theme in the book, would be to focus on what the characters get from their relationship with Mary. Who was it that said that faith is being sure of things hoped for? Oh, yeah: the Apostle Paul. This is what the ladies have — faith in the hope of a better tomorrow, a belief that when things were bad in the past, faith (in Mary) brought them through, and a reverence for something more than what they experience every day. Whether you and your students find their Mary worship sacrilegious, or deeply touching, or delusional, or all three of those, Kidd's depiction of it is a unique and involvingly deep evocation of faith in American lives.

What else can I say? It's a good book, and I enjoyed reading it. Sounds like faint praise, but I love to hear my students say that about anything I assign them. Literature doesn't have to be a long, hard slog through a foreign time and place. After all, we want our students to be readers — heck, we want ourselves to be readers! — let's give them books that make them want to keep reading!

See you next month!

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Monday February 16th 2009, 3:16 AM
Comment by: Kidnurse. (St. Louis, MO)
I read this book when it first came out. By the way, I am an adult. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I've given it as gifts to several girlfriends. I've even listened to it as a book on tape. I'm glad teachers are starting to use less antiquated books for kids to read. It's hard enough to get them to read and then to get them to love books is sometimes even harder. Best of luck to all of the teachers who choose Sue Monk Kidd's "The Secret Life of Bee's." It's a fantastic book.
Monday February 16th 2009, 8:08 AM
Comment by: Barbara W. (Providence, RI)
I watched the movie "The Secret Life of Bee's on DVD. It was a great movie. I haven't had the opportunity to read the book, however, I'm told from those who have read the book that it was a great read!

I wish I had read the book before seeing the movie. It appears to have been more descriptive. This book is a good read for middle and high school age children, as well as, adults. I am an adult and it gives me great pleasure to see literature presented in schools where the students will feel encouraged to read, analyze, and describe their relationship to the characters.

Reading is truly essential and when students become engaged and excited about what they read it can only encourage them to want to read more. Ms. Monk I complement you on your style and choice of book(s) for students to read. I think you are on to something... "No Child Left Behind".

I am going to watch this movie again this time with a friend who has already read the book, so I'm sure there will be alot of fill ins...
Monday February 16th 2009, 12:28 PM
Comment by: Kathleen C.
Thank you, Shannon Reed, for introducing contemporary literature to your students, and sharing the experience with us. The Secret Life of Bees is a great example. It's such a personal story that students can relate to it, yet it's beautifully written.

I'm not a teacher, but it seems to me that most young people cannot relate to far-away experiences until they are able to relate personally to someone else's story. So a story like The Secret Life of Bees is ideal. The students can relate to Lily, the character their own age; they can apply critical skills to the beautiful writing as well as to the racial disconnect issue, and the book can serve as an introduction to more objective and conceptual analysis, like the Civil Rights Movement. After reading and discussing a number of books like this one, could some of the students relate to Hester Prynne?

Thanks again for a hopeful and thoughtful article.
Wednesday February 18th 2009, 4:37 AM
Comment by: Kcecelia (San Francisco, CA)
Maybe you could strike a balance between new and old works and do a comparison of the two. The Secret Life of Bees was an entertaining book, but did not have (for me) the impact of such writers as Williams, Welty, O'Connor, and Faulkner. My reaction to my first reading of A Rose for Emily in high school will never leave me. The Southern Gothic style now strikes me as a perfect antidote to teenage angst. When I read works such as A Good Man Is Hard to Find I had to stretch myself out mentally and almost physically to the meanings and meat of the text and it felt unfamiliar but wonderful to do so.

As to your students question in response to the story A Good Man Is Hard to Find: it seems reasonable after the exhausting journey of this story to ask, "Is she, like, dead? For real dead-dead?"and might lead one to a discussion of how the changes in what we read and see on a daily basis in news and in entertainment have changed our responses to ambiguity and violence, and even in our belief in the reality and permanence of death.

On another note, a couple of comments on words in your article:

When you spoke of Tennessee Williams choosing a story line for The Secret Life of Bees in which everyone would be stung to death at the internment, I am certain that you meant to use the word interment instead. The former means imprisonment and the latter means burial. I did enjoy the image of a crowd of prisoners a la The Bridge Over the River Kwai reacting heroically to a swarm of murderous bees.

["Inter(n)ment" has been fixed. Thanks! --Ed.]

I am also curious about your use of the word alienated in the phrase "seem slightly alienated to readers." Alienated is an adjective defined on VT as socially disoriented or caused to be unloved. It seems to me that you are saying that the other characters remain more at a remove when seen through the eyes of a naive young white girl. (btw, I agree with you that this creates an opportunity for an interesting lesson in the power of point of view. You could contrast Lily with that old white guy Fitzgerald's unreliable narrator Nick in The Great Gatsby.)

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