Me and the March Family by Padmini Jambulapati
My only friends in sixth grade were Jo, Meg, Beth, and sometimes, Amy. Okay, truthfully, never Amy, but she came with the March family, so she became my friend by default.
In 1994 my family and I had left suburban Boston for Whigham, Georgia—a town with 650 people and one stoplight. Before my mother and I left Boston to reunite with my father and younger siblings in south Georgia, an auntie (not really an aunt, but your parents’ friends are always called uncles and aunties in Indian families) handed me a Barnes and Nobles hardcover edition of Little Women. It was blue and big. Someone told this woman that I loved books, but she knew nothing about my interests. Unwittingly, this auntie gave me an emotional anchor that grounded me for the next year.
Let alone the culture shock of moving to rural Georgia, our family was in constant emotional and financial upheaval and chaos. And with that weighing on me, I started my first day of sixth grade. Everyone mispronounced my name. There were only 40 kids in the entire grade. When it was clear that my name was too weird, being from the North was too foreign, and my glasses were too thick, the students basically abandoned me by 8:30 AM. At lunch, I went to the bathroom and cried because I didn’t know what to do. I then proceeded to eat my sandwich in the stall while girls flitted in and out. I tried to put my sandwich away and look at the paper napkins until lunch was over.
It was too much. The fighting at home. The loneliness at school. I came home that day and started reading Little Women, from start to finish, in one sitting. I was drawn into the world of the March family—where it felt so safe even when things weren’t always so certain. But I wouldn’t say that it rocked my world or brought me solace in that first reading.
Initially, there’s not much an 11-year-old stranded in the rural South would have in common with four girls in New England during the Civil War. But with each reread, I found new connections, new insights, and much-needed life advice. I felt so frustrated with school, home, and myself. I pored over Mrs. March’s advice to Jo around anger. Early in the book, Amy burned Jo’s book of writings. Despite Amy’s apologies, Jo didn’t want to forgive her. Jo got her revenge by ignoring Amy when Amy tries to follow Jo and her friend, Laurie, to the icy river. Amy then falls into a river and nearly drowns. Jo cried to her mother when recounting her anger towards Amy.
“It’s my dreadful temper! I try to cure it; I think I have, and then it breaks out worse than ever. O mother, what shall I do? What shall I do?” cried poor Jo, in despair.
“Watch and pray, dear; never get tired of trying; and never think it is impossible to conquer your fault,” said Mrs. March, drawing the blowzy head to her shoulder, and kissing the wet cheek so tenderly that Jo cried harder than ever.
Mrs. March then revealed that she also struggled with her temper, just like Jo. Her advice? “I go away a minute and give myself a little a little shake, for being so weak and wicked.” She crossed reality, centuries, and pages to mentor my rage and helplessness.
From that day forward, it didn’t matter that I sat alone on the bus or had to endure the angry shouts of my father. I reread Little Women from beginning to end, every single day, until the end of sixth grade. I tried to be invisible for the rest of the year. I call this my year of silence, because kids didn’t talk to me except to ask me about where I was from or if I spoke English. I ate lunch every day by myself and just prayed that I would get through the day. I stood out so much, but at the same time, was ignored completely. A few teachers noticed my solitary days at school, but this was rural Georgia, and most teachers were just as unfamiliar with Indian Yankees or having new students as much as the kids were. 1994 was simply a different time in social and emotional well-being in students. At least, I had the March family to get me through it.
It’s been many years since I’ve read Little Women. I still have my worn copy with its stains, collapsed binding, and pages that are literally hanging on by a thread. Rereading can take us to an emotionally safe place until we’re ready to return to the real world. We, as teachers, should dig into our own reading history to build more empathy and awareness for our students. Sometimes, we should just let kids read books as long as they want to-because sometimes they might need to.
Students and teachers often tangle over rereading books. From a teacher’s point of view, students look lazy, or aren’t challenging themselves to constantly read new books. More often than not, when I ask my sixth grade students about why they are rereading, I hear “But I really like this book…”. Before I come up with hasty response of my own, I think back to when I was in sixth grade. I couldn’t have possibly articulated that living in Little Women felt safe and therapeutic. I could process an entire generation of problems and ideas through the March family. I felt sad, but I couldn’t express that to an adult. I don’t know why I chose my auntie’s copy of Little Women, but I think I survived my year of silence because of this book. So when my students tell me they’re returning to old favorites, I smile and remind them to let me know when they’re ready for a recommendation.
Padmini Jambulapati teaches sixth grade reading at KIPP Summit Academy in San Lorenzo, California. The happiest moment of her day happens when she sees her students sink into a comfy pillow and enter the reading zone.