In Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, the main characters are trying to figure out how to act when they find themselves in situations where the skills they possess do not help them succeed and it feels futile. Ally, now a 6th grader who struggles with reading, bluntly tells her teacher, “No one can help me.”
As a teacher reading this book, I connected more to the secondary characters who work with Ally and her classmates. Though all the teachers are depicted as flawed, they do strive to help the students as best as they can succeed in a place that instead makes them feel like a “fish in a tree”. This metaphor is explained when Mr. Daniel’s tells Ally, “Everyone is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking that it is stupid.”
At the beginning, Mrs. Hall and Principal Silver are introduced. Both are clearly too busy to see Ally and her struggles. But I’d argue that teachers are busy. They are real people with real lives, some having babies, some running a school. So in haste, they shout things like, “Ally, why would you do such a thing.” I know I have been that teacher. I’ve blurted out a stupid statement to a little one in my charge, occasionally in a voice louder than necessary. As I ended chapter three with Mrs. Hall leaving to go on maternity leave, I thought to myself, “No wonder our schools struggle. They are run by Mrs. Hall/Principal Silver-types.”
Then in walked Mr. Daniels and he epitomized what all teachers strive to be. A teacher who builds community, who gets to know the interests of his students. He really looks to notice students’ strengths. He watches as students struggle. By watching Ally, he sees her shine when given an auditory task like “guess what’s in the sealed box?” and orally defines the words lonely and alone. But struggles with all things written. Then after all that looking, he brilliantly introduces Ally to the game of chess to build on her nonverbal skills.
As the story continues, Mr. Daniels is knocked off the high horse I mounted him on. He draws the wrong conclusion about Albert’s family and he isn’t able to connect yet with Shay who is allowed to be a terror to others. And he stupidly leaves unclear directions for a substitute teacher who ends up humiliating Ally. Yet Hunt’s portrayal of Mr. Daniels is spot on. All teachers are trying. Sometimes we get it right and can help our “school of fish”. Other times, we are overwhelmed by all the “fish” that we can’t see the forest for the trees.
The story ends a bit happily ever after for Ally. But the teacher in me is still wondering about mean-girl Shay and hungry Albert and the three bullies who used him as a punching bag. All the characters, the students and the teachers, will stay with me as I begin a new school year. This year I hope to show grit as it was explained in this book by allowing myself to fail and by pushing through even when it is hard.
As a teacher, I am given the gift of working with students whose minds work differently. After reading Fish in a Tree I now see that teaching is a whole lot like playing chess. I need to see the whole board. I need to know each piece. I need to strategically plan each move. And I must humbly remember that I’ll win some and I’ll lose some. But I will keep playing! I recommend that other teachers read this YA novel and I hope we all vow to play the best game I can for our students.