Mountain Connection, November 7, 2023

By: Jed Donnel

He sat down to sift through the essays, his characteristic briefcase hanging on the hook behind him. Its weather-beaten leather, combined with the slants of light piercing the slats of the Venetian blinds, told the accurate history of his face. He sipped his coffee with one raised eyebrow, took a second to ponder the incessant rain beating on the roof, and returned to the stack of papers at his elbows. The pile was thick – too thick – and he scratched the back of his neck with his pen, wondering what had inspired him to require the assignment in the first place. That was a stumper, especially on a cold, windy morning like today….

I’m quite enjoying my 10th Grade English course. Centered on the noir genre, it’s a text-to-film comparison of novels and film adaptations (at least per its central curriculum), and therefore focused on close reading as a method toward comprehension of complex subject matter and persuasive analysis. Really, though, the course is about the 10th Graders themselves, since, in the process of figuring out clues within detective stories while critiquing the character tendencies and tropes of the genre, they’re also experimenting with solutions for their own mysteries: note-taking, time management, collaboration, and civil discourse. The entire course is open-note, so they also need to devise (and revise) their own methods for using the various resources at their disposal. I enjoy seeing them discuss the annotations they’ve taken in their novels, flesh out their notes as they listen to each other’s insights, and make thoughtful predictions as they decipher nuanced hints, whether on the page or in film. 

We started with samples of the ‘classical’ noir – Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, specifically – in part to get a handle on the central characters’ typical features, among them a propensity for observing intricate details, testing all other characters with due skepticism, and an ironic ability to somehow think more clearly while consuming alcohol and cigarettes. Plus, we’ve flipped the coin to examine the equally shady features of Marlowe and Spade, including their unhealthy relationships, inability to love, and the nastiness of their misogyny and homophobia as indicative of the poisonous worlds they occupy. Students have therefore enjoyed being active readers; as all good noir literature invites, they’ve adopted and even refined the qualities of the detective while critiquing him, made deductions of future plotlines before they unfold, located and dismissed red herrings, and critiqued specific tendencies of all the characters they’ve encountered. In addressing film, they’re likewise learning how to see through the eye of a director. As culmination of their study of The Maltese Falcon, for instance, they’ll complete a detailed, written explanation of how they would translate a small sample of the novel – one they selected individually and that contains their best notes in visual detail – to the screen, complete with their decisions for camera placement, angle, shot type, and lighting. It doesn’t matter whether I agree with their artistic decisions; what matters is that they’re clear and deliberate in expressing how their intentions would affect an audience. Hence, I enjoy the mystery of what they’ll produce (even though, as all English teachers can relate, I need to then sit down and do the hard labor of grading the pile of work I assigned, myself). Their effort is worthwhile, which warrants my reciprocal effort for them. They are not mysteries to be solved, and certainly not with my singular solutions. Rather, they are detectives, and they’re figuring out not only how to see the world for what it is but to make it better. 

…. Looking down at his desk, he nodded almost imperceptibly. He picked up his pen and read each word, carefully.