Donna Webster, a white woman, has just completed a degree in English education from Florida State University. She returns to her hometown of Jacksonville to begin her teaching career, and she is assigned to Paul Lawrence Dunbar Senior High School, a primarily black high school in the north side of town.
Anxious, scared, nauseous the first day of school, she is comforted by a colleague
who advises her, when meeting her students, to "save the smiles until after
Christmas," but as soon as Donna smiles at a student who immediately smiles
back, she forgets that advice. Thus begins her year of challenge, as she works
diligently, with her heart as her guide, to teach her students literature and
grammar, while helping them face emotional issues of young life.
The Cruelest Months, though a work of fiction, is based on the actual experiences
of the author, Dorothy K. Fletcher. Beginning with her first day of school,
she relates her experiences month by month, as the school year progresses. Each
month consists of several lessons, or stories. Fletcher begins each story with
a literary quote, often from the text from which her lesson is taken, but sometimes
the quotes reflect an idea or concept important to her anecdote. For example,
Fletcher uses the poem To an Athlete Dying Young by A.E. Houseman to introduce
her narration of a shooting that occurred in the parking lot after a football
Fletcher's character, Donna Webster, wants to share her love of literature,
and she tries to reach her students by making connections they can understand.
When teaching Beowulf, Donna tries to relate the literary character to the school's
mascot, the Viking, as well as to Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator in
a bear skin coat. In a lesson on Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven, she asks a student
to drum a rap rhythm on a cabinet and then reads the poem aloud to the beat
of the rhythm. Soon other students, and eventually the entire class, join her
in rapping The Raven. Through perseverance, creativity and love, Webster inspires
many of her students. However, not all her experiences end well, and she must
face rebellious students as she struggles to keep her classes focused.
One very angry student, Rochelle, is especially a challenge. She enters school
a week late, disheveled and unclean. She picks fights with other students and
is the object of their teasing. One day Donna asks her to read aloud a passage
from Sojourner Truth, a slave woman whose life was full of adversity and suffering.
While reading, Rochelle becomes transformed, and Donna sees her smile for the
first time. Donna asks Rochelle to join the weekly student poetry session, and
through poetry, her own as well as that of others, Rochelle loses her anger
and starts to love herself and the world. Unfortunately, however, Rochelle ultimately
becomes a victim, and Donna must endure sadness and loss.
At one point, Donna is encouraged by another teacher who tells her why teaching
is so important: "We teachers rarely get to see the fruits of our labors.
School years pass so quickly, and the kids are out the door before we know it.
I guess that's why I call teaching a 'leap of faith profession.' You just have
to believe you planted a positive seed of some kind; and even though you're
not the one who will get to see it grow, you have to believe it WILL grow."
"Sometimes," she continued, "I feel like I haven't made the
slightest difference at all. Then, years later, in the grocery store or at the
K-Mart, a stranger will come up to me and go on and on about how I touched him
so deeply or I was there when she needed me the most. Some have even told me
I have made all the difference in their lives."
As the year ends, Donna reflects, "The lessons I taught, I would file
alphabetically in metal cabinets, and the lessons I learned I would tuck neatly
in some corner of my heart, ready to remember and use every time I need to remember
what is good and most meaningful about life the children."
After reading The Cruelest Months, one feels a bit of the emotional and physical
tiredness of this first-year teacher. From the physical stamina needed to prepare
lessons and grade papers, to the joys of seeing students relate a poem to their
own lives and to the heartbreak of finding out a young life has been ended,
The Cruelest Months shows the dedication and love of a teacher.