Last Stop on Market Street
By Matt de la Peña
Every Sunday after church, CJ and his Nana take the bus to its last stop on Market Street. This Sunday, CJ begins to wonder why... why they have to wait in the rain, why they always take this trip when his friends don’t have to, why his friends’ parents have cars while Nana takes the bus. Nana responds by giving him different ways of look at his surroundings, turning what he saw as lesser into something even more beautiful than the things he wished for. Along the way Nana shows CJ the joy in helping and appreciating the people around them, and readers discover an unexpected purpose to their journey.
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
By Felicity Carroll and Samuel McHugh
Last Stop on Market Street is a book with purpose yet nuance, addressing such topics as the nature of difference, well being, and justice. The issues explored in the story blend together, which gives the advantage of promoting conversations that easily flow from one topic to another. However this could make it difficult to keep a discussion focused on your chosen issues. Though we have geared our discussion towards first graders, many of the topics could fruitfully be directed at older kids, particularly focusing on issues of justice and inequity.
One of the goals for this discussion is to identify how we classify and perceive differences. Why are certain differences seen as more desirable than others? Are some lifestyles and situations really inferior, or do they simply have their own unique advantages and disadvantages? The book certainly suggests the latter, but you may want to push students to think deeply about how much they agree. The blind man in the book seems to be able to do things which people with sight cannot do as well, such as smell Nana’s perfume. If there are truly an equal number of advantages and disadvantages we may not expect a person with sight to resist being blind, or vice versa, expect a blind person to hope to be able to see one day. Yet most people would be sad if they lost their vision, and many blind people might take the opportunity to see if they could. You may choose to bring up other specific examples such as how the students feel about people requiring the use of a wheel chair, etc. You are likely to find that the kids take varying positions, and if they come too quickly to a consensus, try to give examples supporting the opposing viewpoint (ie. asking “How would you feel if you lost your sight?” to kids supporting equality in differences, or “What can the blind man do that we can’t?” for those supporting varying desirability in differences).
We can also question whether difference itself is positive or negative. The previous paragraph focuses on ability vs. disability but there are also divisions based on race, gender, income, age, and culture. What are some of the positive aspects of having different kinds of people in a society? Are there some negative aspects? Furthermore, we can question whether the existence of benefits and drawbacks would even be the primary reason for deciding to allow or even encourage difference. If someone wants to be different why should we let them? Could we make people be the same if we wanted to? How?
You may also choose to have the kids discuss how we should approach accommodation for difference in our society. For example, the blind man is a member of society who qualifies as handicapped and so has a reserved seat towards the front of the bus. Why should we accommodate his difference? How do we define the distinction between what deserves accommodation and what does not? Does that distinction relate to whether the difference is a choice? Maybe it relates to the size of the group affected, or maybe the level of disadvantage the person experiences. There are many open questions here.
Different levels of affluence are portrayed throughout the book. We see people in suits, people with cars, people with phones. On the other hand we also see people who have to ride the bus, homeless people, and people in rundown neighborhoods. A good place to start is to ask the kids about what different things people have in the book. Once you have a good list of items you can ask if it is fair that some people have these things and others don’t, then why or why not. These ideas connect directly to children’s daily experiences such as having to share toys or snacks in the class room. During this discussion, you might consider what makes an unequal distribution of goods fair (or why it may never be fair): is it that some people have worked harder than others? Is it that some people are the best at the work they do? Or is it that the people that have more stuff need it more? As part of this discussion, you can invite the children to reflect on the relative importance of the things that are shared unequally: is not having an iPod the same as not having a car? Food? Why or why not?
Next, we have questions on moral obligation. In the book Nana points out that CJ is, in some ways, lucky to be going to the soup kitchen. She suggests that it is enjoyable to see all their friends, like the Sunglass man and Bobo. As a reader we’re left to wonder whether this enjoyment Nana seems to get from volunteering is her primary motivation for volunteering. It is then natural to wonder whether Nana’s enjoyment increases, lessens , or has no bearing at all on the moral value of her actions. The same questions go for CJ who has little to no choice in volunteering with Nana. The students can be asked: if you helped someone but didn’t know you were helping them, did you do a good thing? What if you helped someone but didn’t like helping them? Did you do a good thing? What if you hurt someone but thought you were helping them, did you do a bad thing? You can ask students more generally if doing the right thing matters more or less than wanting to do the right thing. You may also choose to ask whether all people are equally obliged to do moral acts, or if the most capable people are more responsible to act morally than the least capable. Should everyone help others the same amount for should you help more if you can help more?
Our fourth set of questions approach happiness. In the book we see some frowning people depicted wearing suits or carrying phones, and we also see smiling people without those things. Do we derive happiness from material goods, from having healthy social interactions, or perhaps from having a positive mindset? To what degree are we capable of choosing to be happy? Nana seems to always push CJ to have a positive outlook towards the situations of others. However we are unsure what she would say to people actually living in those situations. She says that seeing the dirt makes her a better witness for what is beautiful but what about the people who live in the ‘dirt’ every day? Are their lives enriched by this in some way? You may ask the kids to think about which conditions are necessary and which are sufficient for our own happiness. Even if we accept that material goods can make us happy for a moment, how long can they keep doing so? The book gives a modern context to the idea of isolation with the prominence of characters absorbed in their phones. People become quickly used to having objects in their lives. The short attention spans of kids further amplify this idea. You can ask the kids to reflect on the sorts of things they have that have made them happy for a long time and which they quickly became bored with.
The final set of questions deal with metaphor. The colorful and vibrant accounts of everyday events, such as rain or taking the bus, benefit from the use of metaphor. Metaphor highlights the effect that our language has on our perception and understanding of the world. The goal of this discussion is to begin to understand and use metaphors, and to talk about what allows someone to speak of one concept or object in terms of a very different concept/object. How can saying something that is objectively false become true or meaningful? Even though a bus does not actually breathe fire like a dragon would, both do have smoke come out of them. Explaining the bus in this way makes it fun and exciting. Saying the air smelled like freedom isn’t a verifiable fact but it helps us understand CJ’s feelings in the moment he exits the doors. Depending on the age of the children you may include advanced ideas on why or why not metaphor and, more generally, thinking through analogy, are legitimate ways of classifying the world.
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
There are a lot of different people and lifestyles in this book.
When the blind man gets on the bus, CJ gives up his seat for him.
Fairness & Justice/Needs vs Wants
When waiting on the bus CJ sees the two boys listening to the ipod and wishes he had one. CJ also wishes that he and Nana had a car.
Nana says she feels sorry for CJ’s friends who don’t get to see Bobo and the Sunglass Man, as though helping people gives CJ some benefit.
CJ wonders how Nana always finds beauty where he never thought to look.
Is the tree Nana sees really drinking through a straw? Is the bus really breathing fire?