A Pattern for Learning: Johnny Tremain

November 28, 2014

Every kid who is lucky gets one or two teachers in their childhood who seem to understand them, teachers they respond to.   All of my grade-school teachers were nice people and a few actually seems to care about me but my sixth grade teacher gave me the extra guidance I needed at that uncertain age.  She had an intuitive understanding of all the “outsider” kids in her room and found activities that made us valued members of the class.  During discussions, she treated us like we were reasonable adults and we responded in kind.  And she brought a great book into our lives, reading it aloud after lunch.  I will always be grateful for her introduction to Johnny Tremain.

Johnny is the story of a developing nation but more than that, it’s the story of a developing man, Jonathan Lyte Tremain.  In the beginning, Johnny is an apprentice in pre-revolutionary Boston, Massachusetts, a silversmith in training and one of those talented people you want to slap.   Yes, he is gifted and smart, probably the mainstay of his employer’s business but he’s also sarcastic, arrogant and an intellectual bully.  Some of this behavior comes from an over-inflated ego but part of it is a coverup for this isolation he feels as an orphan who has never made friends easily.  Two things cause Johnny to revise his character: first, a life-altering injury ruins his career and sense of identity; he’s cast away from the community that once valued his abilities.  Then, he finds that teacher we all need; the mentor who, by example, teaches us to value character more than talent and the worth of others as well as well one’s self.  This teacher gives Johnny the opportunity to overcome his injury and a front-row seat to history: the first blows of the American Revolution.

Johnny Tremain‘s author, Esther Forbes, was a historian who researched the lives of American colonists and she included real people as supporting characters in this book.  Well known figures such as Paul Revere,  Sam Adams and  John Hancock. and lesser known ones like Joseph Warren and James Otis walk across the pages as well as the fictional characters and the patriots bring Johnny into the Revolutionary War. Johnny’s struggle to develop his new life and identity parallels Boston’s and the colonies’ fight to reinvent themselves as parts of an independent country.    Both Johnny and the community face hardship and sacrifice in the battle for self-determination and it’s that battle that gives Johnny the purpose and community he’s needs to continue, not as the star apprentice in a small shop but as an American in a group of fellow Americans.  It’s an incredibly powerful lesson.

Teachers give lessons and homework and tests to get ideas and information into their students until the students begin to teach themselves.   A good teacher, like a good book, can take you into yourself but the best ones take you into the world.  At the beginning of this holiday season, let me wish you a lifetime of great teachers and great books.  Books like Johnny Tremain.

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