Sunday, April 02, 2006

High school readings

I talked to one of our grad students the other day about teaching high school, which is what he wants to do. He's thinking about readings for a class, and talked about Hemingway and Hawthorne.

Flashback. I was a horrid high school student, not horrid in the way of doing lots of drugs or anything even minimally exciting or challenging, but horrid in the way of being a miserable teenager who was marking time. I liked few classes, mostly chemistry and biology, with a side of math. I hated English, especially.

I hated Hemingway and Hawthorne, Dickens, Shakespeare, pretty much everything we read. And especially, I absolutely thought Salinger was the pits. (No, sadly, the Shakespeare wasn't a typo.)

It wasn't that I didn't like to read, though. I don't know why I didn't like anything we read in classes. It wasn't that I was a completely enlightened young feminist, frustrated by reading in my whole high school career (to the best of my memory), exactly ONE work by a woman, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Later, I'd be frustrated by that, but at the time, I really wasn't aware.

Nor was I getting much guidance outside of school about reading. One of my neighbors gave me some books to read from her shelves (and I'm still, to this day, grateful to her), Leon Uris, Michener, books that were way more intellectually challenging than I was reading otherwise. I read several books by both, and learned a lot, even if it was mostly vague, weird, and not really good history.

I don't remember quite how I got into Solzhenitsyn, though it probably had something to do with the cold war, his critique of the USSR, and the Nobel prize a few years earlier. But Solzhenitsyn was, scarily enough, my guide to reading for several years. I read Cancer Ward. Why didn't we read stuff like that in classes? I read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. And then I started The Gulag Archipelago, expecting some novel, no doubt, but that's not what I got.

What got me about The Gulag Archipelago was that there were tons of notes (in my English translation), and it was obvious as I read along, understanding maybe a tenth of what I was reading, that there was a world of reading to do, and that Solzhenitsyn pretty much expected his readers to know about all these works. My future nerditude came out, and I started taking notes on the notes, mostly listing the books I obviously should read.

So I started reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I remember reading Norton Critical Editions from the local public library, and thinking that the essays in the back must constitute pretty much everything I should need to know about the works, because that's how little I understood anything about literature. But I knew I really loved reading those novels, trying to figure out characters and their relationships, and why Solzhenitsyn thought I should know about them.

Meanwhile, I failed the Julius Caesar quiz in my high school English class, and never did figure out why I should care what time the clock stopped in Great Expectations. (Yes, I know why it stops now, but I still don't care. I know! I should try rereading Dickens, because I hear he gets better with age.)

Flashforward. I wish I could figure out why I hated my English classes in high school even though I loved reading, because if I could, I could do a lot better job helping our education students choose texts. I'm not sure I think the primary way students should be taught to read is through identification with an author. That is, I don't think white men need to read works by white men so they can identify with the author or something. I loved reading those Russian authors, even though they were male and I had nothing in common with them or their characters, certainly far less than with Salinger's characters.

But I think it's vital that high school students get some real variety in periods, identifications, genres, approaches, attitudes, themes. I just don't know that I could predict what I would have engaged with in classes as a high schooler.

Perhaps I was just in a minimally rebellious mode, choosing things to read that were pretty alien (and frankly unwelcome) in my family and social contexts, rather than rebelling more forcefully in other ways? In which case, just having a book assigned might have prompted a rebellious rejection?

As it is, I gently (I hope) talked to the student about my frustration reading what I'd read in high school, and tried to get our grad student to include writers of color and women, different genres, and to think about using different approaches or working with different projects.


  1. Are you sure you didn't have anything in common with anyone in those Russian books? I was a female teenager living in the deep south when I first read War and Peace, but I still felt an identification with various characters in that book--Pierre, Andrei, Natasha, etc. I think that is a big reason that I loved the book so much.

    Anyway, I think that the best way to take the joy out of reading a book is to require people to read it. I, too, love to read, but I never enjoyed reading (much) for classes when I was in high school and college. I was terrible about never doing the reading assignments, though I was soaking up authors from Tolstoy to Kerouac on my own.

    As a high school English teacher, I think it's important to give kids a variety of books to read. You never know what kid might love and be inspired by Hemingway or Hawthorne (it happens!). It's also good to be aware that they will probably hate the books as much as I did--not because they're bad books, but because they're required to read them. There is a fine line to walk there.

    I also think the teacher makes a difference. I enjoyed books for some classes more than for other classes in high school and college, and I think the teacher's enthusiasm for the books had a lot to do with that. So I try to assign books that I enjoy (read: I will never teach Moby Dick if I don't have to!!).

  2. I hated English as a kid too. Surprised me to bits when I ended up an English professor. I hated English in HS though because I had horrible, horrible teachers, who picked horrible books for me to read and then couldn't for the life of them explain to me what I was meant to be doing with those books. (We read Great Expectations 3 times in HS. Not that it's a horrible book. I'm sure it's splendid. But not one of the 3 teachers I had could tell me what I was supposed to do with anything in that text. As I recall, we made collages.)

  3. Waterfall,

    You may be right about my identifications. I just don't really remember, since it's been a few years since high school. I tend to be way more a plot person than a character person, though.

    And I agree: you never know which student will love Hemingway, and he's probably worth teaching (just NOT by me!)(Moby Dick is in the same category for me. I wouldn't even know where to begin.)

    Oddly, thinking back, I can only think of two high school teachers I didn't pretty much like as teachers, even if I didn't do the work I was supposed to for them. I must have been a frustrating student.

    I wonder what percent of English profs hated high school English classes? What we do is so different in some ways, from what I remember happening in high school. I get frustrated when I talk to students to hear how many of them learned to hate Shakespeare and stuff in high school.

  4. Ooooooooooooo you hit on something that drives me crazy: the "Education" degree! How is it possible acceptable that those who need to make young minds love reading and learning and the world are people who know nothing about the subject that they are supposed to teach?

    I wonder if I will ever stop being bitter about all those wasted years of public education. It's amazing anyone gets out of there with any intelligence left at all.