Growing up in New England, I missed hearing about the murder of the Clutter family in 1959. When people talked about “In Cold Blood” several years later, in college, I was repulsed by what I heard, both by the murderers and by Truman Capote, who rang my “creepy” bell.
Years later I moved to Kansas and lived next door to Norman and Roxy Callison, who became my teachers of most things Kansas.
One thing I learned — to my shock — was that Norman, a teacher at Winfield High School, taught “In Cold Blood” every year.
I reacted with horror — how could he teach kids something so wretched? Of course he challenged me: Had I read it? Despite my huffing, I had to admit I had not. He suggested I read it before I passed any more judgments.
I did read it, but I don’t remember it very well. I remember the terror Capote elicits as the two killers are making their way across Kansas to the Clutter home. And I remember how Capote made the killers surprisingly human, not monstrous.
What I remember most clearly about it is how well the book was written. Capote was an amazing prose stylist, and he used that ability to make us care not only about the Clutters and the people from Holcomb and Garden City but about the killers and their fates.
But why did Norman Callison teach the book to students who typically had a hard time in English classes?
Norman had taught those classes for years. On one level he resented not being able to teach the top English students. But according to his peers, he was terrific at teaching the more challenged students, and one of his tools was “In Cold Blood.”
Roxy remembered that when Norman was living in Emporia and doing graduate work, the place he lived was just blocks away from where the killers were when they went through the town. That coincidence was one way in which Norman himself became connected with the book.
“It was a life connection,” said his daughter Amanda Porter, English and drama teacher at WHS. Norman used the book as one of the tools for teaching kids about how to prepare for life. Because the events happened in Kansas, the students felt a connection with them and with the book, even as Norman did.
“In Cold Blood” is not an easy read. But because the students were so interested in the story, they took it on. By the end of it, some were reading above grade level and just about all had improved their reading skills. Norman had told me that and Amanda confirmed it.
The kids Norman taught were “tough,” Amanda said, and they knew about the seamy side of the world pictured in the book. The book is a visual aid that showed what can happen to boys who think they’re smarter than everyone else.
What they didn’t understand at the beginning of the book as well as they did at the end was the role of community in the story — the community that supported the Clutters, the wider U.S. community that looked at Kansans as rubes, the artistic community that saw the story as an apt subject for an artist’s creative license.
The book also presents lots of questions about the readers’ responsibilities to community, whether one perceives oneself as an insider or outside, and much of Norman’s teaching was about helping students find their places in community.
I shared Norman’s focus on community with Carl Martin, whom I’d interviewed about the Clutter famly’s connection with Southwestern College. Carl, who has never read “In Cold Blood,” spoke of the violence and lack of community that he perceives in contemporary society reaching back to the time of the events that inspired “In Cold Blood.”
Carl could only shake his head at hearing how Norman had approached the book as a means to learn about community and one’s place in it. But Carl also took away something to think about.
I wonder if he’ll decide to read “In Cold Blood.”