My Name was Supposed to be Elizabeth Ann

— Stories from the Roads (Not) Taken

One of my all-time favorite novels is Khalid Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, which I believe contains one of the most engaging and efficient first chapters I’ve ever read. In it, 38-year-old Amir lives in San Francisco and reflects on an unexpected phone call from Rahim Khan, a family friend in Pakistan who offers Amir “a way to be good again” (2).  Readers don’t know what happened or why, but we are immediately hooked, immediately vested in Amir’s struggle to understand how he “became what [he is] today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975” (1). 

I distinctly remember reading Amir’s story for the first time, shortly after its 2003 publication. A colleague whose reading tastes mirror my own recommended it as a fantastic read. It’s wrenching, she said, but so worth it. I raced through the first several chapters…and then I arrived at the scene she’d referenced. I never throw books. I wanted to throw this book. How could anyone do such a thing? How could anyone betray a friend in such a horrific way? That night, I lay awake on my couch for hours reliving that scene, so distraught I refused to continue reading.

And then I remembered Amir’s realization in chapter one– “It’s wrong what they say about the past…about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. … I knew it wasn’t just Rahim Khan on the line. It was my past of unatoned sins….There is a way to be good again” (1-2). Okay, Amir, I thought. Grudgingly. I’ll give you another chance to prove yourself.

I finished the rest of the book the next day. Amir did not let me down.

The following spring, I introduced the novel to my AP Lit students. The year after that, I introduced it as a One Book, One Class end of year unit for all of my senior English classes, and I’ve taught it every year since. Every year students ask, When are we reading Kite Runner? When are we flying our kites? They’ve heard about it from their friends and siblings. They want to read this book. After spring break, I say. Promise.

But this year, I worried I might have to break that promise.

*****

In my district, spring break is typically scheduled Good Friday through the week following Easter. Last year, Easter fell the end of April, and, except for a few intermittent rainy days, the weather was perfect for another of my favorites, gardening. Over the ten-day break, I cleaned and prepped my shade and butterfly gardens, dug out and replaced several overgrown shrubs, and outlined my front flower beds with close to fifty purple and yellow violas. Then we mulched, three square yards of rich, dark brown bark that took us all day to spread. Beautiful, our neighbors said as they stopped to chat during their nightly walks.

This year, I could barely even get outside for a walk, let alone chat with neighbors because of Covid restrictions. I spent the first part of the week preparing the guest room and the house for my mother-in-law’s move, the second half lesson planning. When NJ’s governor closed schools in March, intending to reopen April 20, my classes were all mid-way through units whose foundational lessons and skill practice we had already completed together. Thus, transitioning my content from classroom to online formats wasn’t terribly difficult. But then Gov. Murphy extended school closures through at least May 15. 

I foundered like a first-year teacher.

Twenty-nine years ago, my then-principal handed me a list of books and said, Go teach. I had neither answer keys nor annotated books. No mentor, no curriculum, no unit outlines, no tests or quizzes or lesson plans. Nothing. Twenty-nine years later, I have a file drawer full of self-annotated books and a closet full of binders, each of which contains units I’ve created for the books, essays and projects I use within my rotating teaching assignments, each of which is backed up on three different computers and two different Google drives. Among them are two, three-inch binders filled with my Kite Runner resources, none of which would work in an online learning environment.

I had to redo everything. Not only for The Kite Runner, but for my elective courses’ poetry and drama units. I could have shortcut the process. I could have gone online to one of the many valuable, wonderful resources available to thousands of other educators in similar circumstances and merely copied their units. It would have certainly been easier and less time-consuming. But I couldn’t do it, particularly with my beloved Kite Runner.

Why, you wonder. What’s the big deal about a book? About any book, in fact? 

Great questions. My students often ask me the same. And honestly, sometimes the answer is absolutely nothing. Sometimes students refuse to read for one of the millions of reasons any of us give for refusing to do what we don’t want to do. And sometimes stories that resonate with one reader leave another reader unmoved.

But this book is one of those marvelous exceptions. Although it is an AP Lit-approved title, The Kite Runner is an engrossing page-turner that even struggling readers enjoy. Sure, I’ve encountered students who read the book and just don’t like it: Amir’s central conflict is intense. But they are the minority. Instead, the majority congregates in the nurse’s office during lunch and read, comparing how much they hate Amir. I’ve had kids tell me it’s the first book they ever read all the way through, the first book they’ve ever loved, the first book they’ve ever reread. Some kids race ahead of our schedule and pop in my room because they cannot wait until class to chat. Once, a PE teacher told me he had to break up an argument in the boys’ locker room that became pretty loud–they couldn’t agree on who was the bigger jerkface, Amir or his father, Baba. 

So what is it about this book that speaks to my kids? Like Amir in 1975, they are young people navigating a world whose rules were set long before their birth and input. Rules over which they have minimal control. Soon, they will exit their childhood and become adults, an exciting transition but as nerve-wracking as crossing a minefield. What if they screw it up? And how can they impact a world increasingly determined to define the human experience as Us versus Them?  Amir’s struggle to find “a way to be good again” provides a road map of sorts toward the world they hope one day to create. 

I want my kids to have that map. Considering how much they’ve already lost of senior year, I didn’t want to take away one more thing. I wanted to keep my promise.

Maybe one book isn’t that important.

But maybe it can be. That’s why I spent much of the break redoing my unit plan, recreating materials and writing lessons before heading upstate once more.

This time through a snowstorm.

The normally six-hour trip became nearly eight Friday as we inched across icy roads. One ten-mile, unplowed stretch snaked along steep, mountainous drops. Emergency workers extracted two people pinned when their mini-van flipped on its roof. Farther down, police and firefighters uprighted a jack-knifed tractor trailer, its driver mercifully unhurt. At least three cars slid into ditches, warning flares blood-red against the snow. Thanks all to my husband, we arrived safely. Saturday, we repeated the trip eastward, his mother cushioned by pillows and dozing up front.

Pathetic fallacy notwithstanding, I hope the weather does not foreshadow the next chapter of our lives.

*****

After Rahim Khan’s phone call in chapter one, Amir ventures to a nearby park and contemplates his childhood. Blue and red kites soar against a brilliant summer sky, and Hassan’s voice rises like a ghost from the past: “For you, a thousand times over” (2).

And therein lies the heart and soul of this remarkable story: What obligations and responsibilities do we have toward our families and friends?

Neighbors?

Those whose paths may never cross our own?

Hmmm. Do you see where I’m headed with this?

Good.

Our right-now normal exists in a strange and unsettling world, but this too shall pass.

And there IS a way to be good again.

Now go read chapters 1-4 so we can chat about how next week.

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