Sunday, December 27, 2009

Frank Schaeffer's Baby Jack--Reading This Novel with a University Class

This fall semester 2009 I had a wonderful experience reading Frank Schaeffer's novel Baby Jack with a class of international students working on their reading and writing skills in English to matriculate at a U.S. university. It is important that the international students in this university-preparation class read a full-length novel. For many, it is their first experience reading a full novel in English.

Baby Jack by Frank Schaeffer is about a young man, Jack Ogden, who enlists in the Marine Corps upon high school graduation, over the objections of his family, especially his father. After boot camp, Jack is deployed to Iraq and is killed within weeks of arrival. Jack's family then has to cope with the grief of Jack's death, and in the case of Todd Ogden, Jack's father, with the terrible regret of having refused to communicate with his son after Jack's departure for boot camp.

I chose Baby Jack to read with my class of university-preparation international students for these reasons.

  • Timely themes. Baby Jack deals with family, love, service, the military, life, death, sex, God, art, conflict, grief, and other relevant themes.
  • Multiple perspectives. We see the events in Baby Jack from multiple perspectives. Each chapter is written in a different "I" voice. We hear from Jack, his father Todd, his mother Sarah, his sister Amanda, and his girlfriend Jessica.
  • Multiple genres. Within the novel, we find personal narratives, journal entries, poems, emails, letters, newspaper and magazine articles, and flyers.
  • Reading aloud. International students enjoy this, and the multiple voices in the novel make it excellent for judicious use of read-alouds.
  • Breathing room. The novel has what I would call breathing room. The text is not crowded onto the page. There is an inviting sense of space. This is important for international students who could be intimidated by a dense-looking text.
  • Connection with Frank Schaeffer. I have read all of Frank Schaeffer's books and could set Baby Jack within the context of Frank's life and work for the students. I have also corresponded by email with Frank and know that he likes to interact with his readers.

The class was enthusiastic about Baby Jack. I was able to talk with them about Frank Schaeffer's background, Frank's connection with the military through his son John who enlisted in the Marine Corps right after high school, and Frank's other books. We spent a month reading, discussing, and responding in writing to Baby Jack. We also watched the Marine Corps documentary Making Marines, about boot camp training and the philosophy behind it.

The highlight of our work with Baby Jack was a telephone conversation by speaker phone with Frank Schaeffer after we had finished reading the novel. I set up the speaker phone in my office on a table that my nine students and I could just fit around. Each student had prepared a question to ask Frank. Frank was delightful to speak with. He gave an in-depth, interesting answer to each question, and he asked each student about his or her studies and plans and encouraged each one to email him. As a result, although I had planned to email one thank-you to Frank with contributions from the various students, we instead agreed that each student would email Frank individually.

Reading and discussing Baby Jack together and then talking about the novel with the author was a great experience for the class--both for the students and for me, the teacher. Thank you, Frank, for writing Baby Jack and for generously taking the time to talk with us about your novel.

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