Before Women Had Wings (1997),a novel written by Connie May Fowler, is one I end the year of American Literature with. Avocet, a.k.a. Bird, Jackson’s narrative grips the reader before the end of page one. She’s an innocent girl trying to understand life– what’s fair/ what isn’t. She endures pain, often issued from her parents, sometimes her sister, too, but she loves them and searches for understanding. A spiritual journey provides her with hope, an unlikely friend, and finally salvation. Although her family defines dysfunctional, it begs the reader to understand the flaws in human nature and the power of forgiveness.
I find this unit, more so than others, is connectable for students. I’m not sure if it’s the arc of the unit. We begin with women’s poetry (Maya Angelou, Marge Piercy, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath, Anne Bradstreet, and even Ann Sexton) because I want to create an image of what it means to be a women– HER whole story: the good, the bad, the ugly. When we read the novel, which I approach more like a book club than instruction, I allow the conversation to become fluid and completely directed by the students in the class. Next, I ask students to interview a prominent female figure in their lives to reach an understanding of what being a woman has meant to her.
The students borrow from a part of the book in creating a “Devil’s Teardrop Box,” a keepsake Bird’s father made for her which holds all that she cherishes, for each chosen woman. In it should be 5 objects (or more), authentic or recreated, that help the student tell her story.
Finally, a reflection is written on the whole process. What I find most endearing is what students say about learning her (often a mom, older sister or aunt) story, something each student appreciates in unanticipated ways. For the girls, it’s often a sense of pride that emerges. Suddenly, this woman who has been more concerned the mundane, because after all she’s often just mom, emerges as a woman, a being that existed before the birth of the interviewer. For the boys, empathy comes through the most; they are the ones most surprised by the outcome. But, overall, all students regardless of gender come away with a newfound knowledge, and, I believe, real understanding. It’s such a positive way to end the year.