Students will have completed a graphic organizer answering the question, “
does the protagonist change during the course of “Little Things are Big?” They will have made observations about his character “At First,” as he appears in the story; they will have observed “But then” how he begins to change; and “Finally,” they will have observed his attitude and thoughts near the end of the story. For each of these observations, they will find and copy evidence on their graphic organizer to support their findings.
Objective: Then, on another graphic organizer, more or less superimposed over the first one, or lying next to it, students working together as a group, will attempt to answer the question, “
does the protagonist change? The answer to this question requires close and multiple readings. I will facilitate this activity on an overhead projector while each student completes his or her graphic organizer. It is here that students will look for what the protagonist tells them about his culture, his empathy, his fear, and race, and his awareness and anxiety about being a black man in New York City, half a century ago. Students will be practicing the skill of discerning
a character changes from the beginning of a story to the end, what about that character’s identity brings about the change, and, to the extent possible, how the
has crafted the character’s identity.
Of course, in order to take on this challenge, students must have a clear understanding of the character “At first,” that is, why he is thinking and acting the way he is in the beginning of the story. Students will see that he is immediately concerned with the physical struggle of the woman trying to make her way onto the subway train with children and baggage, “managing to push herself in with a baby on her right arm, a valise in her left hand and two children, a boy and girl about thee and five years old, trailing after her.” (Au, 113) Because they will be familiar with the story at this point, they will be aware that he remarks no fewer than four times about her struggle with the baby, valise and children, in the course of the story. Students might consider what his observations about the woman’s struggle indicate about
; he certainly has an eye for the details of her plight, even the ages of the children. He notes in the very next sentence that she is a “nice looking young white lady.” (Au, 113) They might consider why he mentions that she is white. Would a white man remark that a woman on the train is white? What clue is the author sharing with the reader here?
In the next paragraph the protagonist notes that she is preparing to get off at the next stop which is also
stop, and he anticipates that it will be as much a problem for her to get off as it was to get on. Here he repeats his description of her with the baby in arms, the valise, and the two children in tow, etc. What insight might this repetition give the reader about his identity?
He remarks in the very next paragraph that he has no packages, not even his customary book tucked under his arm, disclosing that there is nothing, really, to prevent him from helping her, disclosing also that he is well-read. He notes that a white man helps her out of the train and onto the platform. As he did with the woman, he is noting the man’s race.
Up to this point, it might appear that, of course, he will help the white woman with the baby on her arm . . ., because clearly he empathizes with her, and he is a very observant man, noting every detail of her struggle, noting, however, that she is a
But “then” the protagonist lets the reader in on his dilemma: “Should I offer my help as the American white man did at the subway door placing the two children outside the subway car? Should I take care of the girl and the boy, take them by their hands until they reached . . .?” “Courtesy,” he says, “is a characteristic of the Puerto Rican. And here I wasa Puerto Ricanhours past midnight, a valise, two white children and a white lady with a baby on her arm palpably needing somebody to help her . . .” (Au, 114) It is important to note that again, in this paragraph, the protagonist repeats “white” in his reference to the American man, the children, and the woman.
He immediately answers his own question with a question, “But how could I, a Negro and a Puerto Rican approach this white lady who very likely might have preconceived prejudices against Negroes and everybody with foreign accents, in a deserted subway station very late at night?” (Au, 114) This is followed with a brief litany of everything he knows and has experienced about prejudice against blacks, and, as he says, “everybody with foreign accents.” Then he wonders, “. . . would she say, ‘Yes, of course . . .’ or would she let out a scream as I went toward her to offer my help?” (Au, 114) He recalls slanders written every day in the newspapers about Negroes and Puerto Ricans. He anticipates how he may be perceived by this white woman.
Admitting, that “ancestral manners” were struggling inside him, as he stood face to face with a situation that could explode into a racial confrontation, he paused and then brushed on by her as if he did not see her. “Like a rude animal walking on two legs, I just moved on half running on the long subway platform, leaving the children and the valise and her with the baby on her arm.” (Au, 115) Students might consider what this repetition confirms about the identity of the protagonist. They might also get some insight into his identity by his use of the phrase “ancestral manners.”
“This is what racism and prejudice and chauvinism and official artificial divisions can do to people and to a nation!” (Au, 115) he declares almost in his next breath. I will ask students to consider how this declaration lends insight into why he abandoned his courtesy and the white woman and children there on the platform. We will consider what we have learned from him, and about him, that explains how he decides to deal with the “other,” and what’s more, what this poignant observation about racism and prejudice that expands from the individual to a whole nation further reveals about his identity.
Not only does the outcome leave the woman stranded on the platform, it leaves the protagonist humiliated as a result of his choice. Finally he admits, “If you were not prejudiced, I failed you, dear lady. I failed you, children. I failed myself to myself.” (Au, 115) He admits that he buried his courtesy on that Memorial Day. But he makes “a promise to himself here and now; if I am ever faced with an occasion like that again, I am going to offer to help regardless of how the offer is going to be received.” (Au, 115) He says that this will restore his buried courtesy. Students will need to consider why he chastised himself for his inaction. What do they learn about his identity from his reflections? Is his most powerful form of identity that of a victim of racism, or that of a Puerto Rican?
Once students have completed this second graphic organizer with their observations and evidence as to
the protagonist made his decisions and interacted with the woman as he did, and in this case, gained something positive from his negligent interaction with her, they will embark on their creative writing activity.