Sunday, March 1, 2020

WHAT THE HELL, SAM?



Nothing really surprises me anymore as a teacher. I tell my high school students that I have heard about every "story" or "reason" for homework not being completed, for projects remaining incomplete weeks removed from a due date. Nothing surprises me. I have learned to roll with the explanations students offer me as they hope that something will stick.

"Having said that," I explain to those empty-handed teenagers in front of me, "I would still like to see this finished. How much more time do you need? How can I help you?" Inevitably, that which is incomplete is completed; those that are lost find their way.

The past month has been different in my English IV classes. I have been incredibly surprised, and I am at loss for words. That's a new one for me. Nothing bad is happening in Room 304; life is actually the opposite for this teacher and his students.

I met Sam Hill over Christmas break this year. My Kindle offered his story as a free download for a short time, and I wanted a good read over break. I needed a book to take me somewhere beyond the daily grind of reading analysis papers and poorly written vocabulary sentences. I needed a book destined to remind me that despite the precarious nature of life, I can still experience something extraordinary if my vision is clear.


Robert Dugoni's novel The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell is the story of Sam Hill, a man who was born with ocular albinism, a condition that affects the pigment of the eyes. Imagine going through school in the 1960's with red eyes and having classmates rename you as "Sam Hell." Throughout his novel Dugoni transports the reader from the present day to the past and back again as Sam relives life experiences in order to understand the person he has become. Sam's life is at times a spiritual struggle as he explores his purpose in life. Robert Dugoni has created a thoughtful novel which at times is a reflection on morality, kindness, faith, and God.

Soooooo...

Over several weeks after Christmas break I nonchalantly showed individual seniors in my English IV class the paperback copy of the book, all 428 glorious pages of it, until everyone in my classes had a chance to read the compelling back cover then leaf through the book. 

"Oh, yeah. I think this will be good." 

"Ugh." 

"It is awfully long, but this sounds like it will be interesting."

"It's huge. How are we going to read all of this?"

"That cover is so cool. Is his name really Sam Hell?"

"Is there a movie about this?

As I said earlier, I have heard just about everything in my thirty years of teaching, so none of this surprised me at all. I was hesitant to even begin ordering The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell out of fear that my students would absolutely hate it, and I would be shackled with tediously dragging a bunch of teenagers through 428 pages of the book. This could become a nightmare for all of us. 

However, I had faith that my students would find the character of Sam Hill and his friends Mickie and Ernie as compelling as I did. I had faith that Sam's story, as full of eye-opening reality as a teacher can take in a classroom, would connect with young people who may have experienced the same issues of acceptance, relationships, isolation, bullying, faith, and death as Sam does throughout this novel. I had faith that they would understand the messages that Dugoni is expressing through the lives of his characters.

A month later the teacher in me has been experiencing truly "extraordinary" moments as I have attempted to pace the reading of the book as I normally do every other novel I have ever "taught." I have always enjoyed reading to students in class to help them become acclimated to the novel, the characters, the plot, themes, and the author's writing style; I did so throughout the first two parts of the book, but then I began encountering these types of excuses:

"Mr. Bucon, I hope you aren't mad, but I have been reading ahead."

"Sorry but I read the next three chapters. Am I in trouble?"

"Quiet, Mr. Bucon. It is Sustained Silent Reading!"

"I have finished Part Three already. I cannot put this down."

"This may be my favorite book ever."

"Are you sure there isn't a movie about this?"

We just finished a "test" of sorts on Friday about Part Five of the book and only have two parts remaining this week. As a teacher, the experience of a class becoming so enraptured by a novel like this is one which I will not soon forget.  They are a wonderful group enjoying a truly wonderful novel.

At the girls basketball game last Friday night, JB and Michael, two students in my eighth period, ventured over to sit beside me at halftime and never left. Guess what. The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell came up. "So, Mr. Bucon," JB began, "What is going to happen with Sam and David Bateman?"

"Do you really want me to tell you? I don't mind."

"No. No. Don't tell me. I want to be surprised. Is it good though?"

I smiled, shrugged my shoulders, then looked at Michael who sat silently beside JB and me. He is probably one of those kids who read ahead and does not want to tell me. He doesn't like to get into trouble. 

Twitter post and a comment from Robert Dugoni.








6 comments:

  1. I love that our loving of this book brings you joy Mr. Bucon! Thank you for introducing me to this amazing novel! I laughed when the student says: "Are you sure there isn't a movie about this?". Thank You.

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    1. Thank you, Nate. I am glad you have enjoyed the book.

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  2. Replies
    1. Thanks, Justus. It has been great hearing your thoughts about the book.

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  3. You can't go wrong with a good book and teacher! It might be good for my book club.

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