STUDY GUIDE FOR “BR'ER POSSUM'S DILEMMA"
This story has many variations - "The Tiger and the Brahmin" or "The Indian and the Rattlesnake". It comes from many countries. There are perhaps ten or eleven variants. The version I tell came from Jackie Torrence who graciously gave permission for all to tell. This version is one of the many stories that the slaves told in the pre-Civil War days. One reason for its popularity is its universal message - leave things alone that are known to hurt you, even though they may seem friendly at first. I've told this story for everything from drug abuse to teenage pregnancy. I've found it works its magic when the teller does not tell the audience what the story means, but rather leads them in a guided question and answer period.
Synopsis - Possum is known to be kind, but also for being nosey. One day he sees a hole in the ground and looks inside. There is his archenemy Br'er Snake with a brick on his back. First, the snake asks him to take off the brick, (possum takes a stick and gets it off), then get him out of the hole (possum uses stick again to flip him out), then put him in possum's pocket. Possum puts him in his pocket. After snake regains his strength, he turns on possum and has him for dinner. They key line of the story is:
"You knew I was a snake when you put me in your pocket."
The moral is "When you're walkin' down the street, mindin' your own business, don't go troublin' trouble lessen' trouble troubles...you!" However, there are other endings to this story. In one version Br'er Rabbit comes along and tricks Br'er Snake back into the hole, thereby saving possum. Challenge your students to come up with more endings.
READING - Critical thinking - Stop the story after Br'er Snake says he's going to bite possum. Discuss what could happen next. Some very interesting conclusions will evolve.
Vocabulary: Opossum, nocturnal, marsupial, adaptations, persimmon tree, folk tale, archenemy, dialect.
SCIENCE - Opossum is mainly a nocturnal marsupial. Do a report on possums and other night creatures. What special adaptations do they have for living in trees and seeing out at night. Australia has a possum. Compare it to the American species.
Possum's are known to have many teeth - as many as 50! Look at this website to get some ideas on developing a lesson on mammal teeth - http://www.earthlife.net/mammals/teeth.html
SOCIAL STUDIES - Find other versions of the same story from other cultures. Discuss the animals chosen and what the evil and the good animals all have in common. What character traits do both animals possess and what traits are they missing? What kinds of people represent these animals?
LANGUAGE – Compare the Br'er Rabbit stories of Joel Chandler Harris with Julius Lester. Chandler wrote in heavy dialect while Lester uses modern phrases and words. Try taking a Harris story and rewriting it like Lester did to make it more appealing to today's ear.
(Picture of Marilyn telling Br'er Possum courtesy of the Belleville News Democrat - Derik Holtman)