Mrs. Becham, my third grade teacher, sat in front of the class holding everyone’s attention as she read Old Yeller. My seat was in the back of the class, where she purposely had put me so I could distract the least amount of people with my antics. But she didn’t need to worry on this day. My attention was completely on her, and the kids around me were focused on her as well. My chin rested on my perched hands as I listed to the fate of Old Yeller.
And then she read it … “I stuck the muzzle of the gun against his head and pulled the trigger.”
My back stiffened as I raised my head off my hands. My heart beat quickly. Did I hear that right? This dog’s owner, a young boy like me, shot his dog. His friend. His protector. I gulped hard trying not let the other kids around me know that I was ready to cry. My head dipped as I blinked the tears away. And from the sound in the room, other kids were doing the same thing. Even Mrs. Becham had to pause to control herself. She turned the page to the next chapter to reveal what the boy was going through and I couldn’t fight it any longer. A tear rolled down my cheek. I envisioned myself as the boy, trying to move on from having to kill his dog.
Over three decades later, Old Yeller was open in my hands as my kids sat listening intently. My daughter stopped her crocheting and my son sat on the edge of his seat listening. I read down to the end of chapter 15. Before I read, I glanced up quickly to see their expression and then I read on.
“I stuck the muzzle of the gun against his head and pulled the trigger.”
We were reading Old Yeller as part of my kids’ homeschool assignment. As they study history, they read a novel that represents that time period and Old Yeller is a good representation of life on farms in the frontier days. Usually the kids read the books on their own, but I wanted to read Old Yeller to them and experience their emotions along with them.
My kids’ reaction to Old Yeller
After reading, I looked into their eyes. My daughter glanced from me then to the wall, and then back to her yarn as she gulped down emotions stirred by literary power. My son flopped back against the couch and let out an exhausted breath of air. As I turned the page, the room was quiet, much like my old third grade room.
As I read chapter 16, my son blurted out, “Stop reading, I don’t want to hear anymore.” The emotions of Yeller’s owner were too much for my son to hear. I assured my son that the end would be a littler better and my daughter exclaimed quickly, “Yeah, he’s got another dog, remember?” And then she cracked a teary-eyed smile. My son covered his face as I read on and finished the book.
We talked about the book, about what life was like during that time, and of course about loss. It was interesting to share the book with my kids. To share something from a powerful moment in my childhood. To share an experience when words written on a page moved me. I hoped that my kids would be moved as I was, and they were.
Hopefully, someday, my kids will rediscover Old Yeller with their own children and the memory of us reading together will spark some emotional memories of their own.
A version of this first appeared on One Good Dad.