I had phenomenal English teachers. Truly. Particularly in high school, all four of my English/literature teachers fascinated me, challenged me, inspired me, and grew me up in different ways. They taught me Shakespeare and Hemingway, they taught me grammar, they taught me word choice, they taught me critical thinking.
There was Mrs. Gregg who reminded me of my mom except with blonde hair that curled in instead of dark hair that flipped out. I would have never admitted this at the time, but she was a motherly comfort to me during the awkward transition that is freshman year of high school. I felt a little less scared having Mrs. Gregg as part of my daily routine. She exposed me to Romeo and Juliet and The Odyssey.
Ms. Moore was my sophomore English teacher. The moment the news of 9/11 hit our high school, I was just finishing up 1st period with Ms. Moore. That minute was flash-frozen on my brain and I can relive it like it was yesterday. Ms. Moore had a lazy eye and she very well could have been looking at you when it appeared that she was looking at someone else, so you were wise to just assume she was always watching. She was a fierce feminist and planted seeds in me that blossomed years later. I remember reading A Tale of Two Cities and Their Eyes Were Watching God in her class.
Then there was Mr. Mendelson. Unfortunately, Mr. Mendelson made some grave moral decisions a few years after I graduated high school and his teaching days came to a swift end when the facts surfaced. It taints how I remember Mr. Mendelson but it would be dishonest of me to say that he wasn’t a brilliant teacher. He taught me how to write a paper, like a really good one whereas before I felt like I was just bumbling around. We read A Farewell to Arms and The Jungle and Catcher in the Rye. Literature was combined with U.S. history in a block course and the melding of the two gave me the realization that history could be interesting. Mr. Mendelson demanded our absolute best work and I was transformed in his classroom.
Finally for senior year I had Mrs. Walters for British literature. We read Beowulf and Wuthering Heights. Every single morning we had a “Grrrr…” that we had to solve: Mrs. Walters would put a grammatically incorrect sentence on the blackboard and we had to spot and correct all of the errors. (To this day “off of” drives me nuts — you just say off, people!). Mrs. Walters had a reputation amongst seventeen-year-olds as boring and stuffy, but she was anything but. She was elegant and gentle and clearly loved both English and students. Mrs. Walters was very helpful to me with the college admissions process, and helpful to me in general as a human being. She was a crown jewel on my high school experience.
Now, I have a confession for my teachers before I go on: I know you thought I was a model student and all, but I didn’t actually read any of the books that you assigned me to read. Except for Pride and Prejudice — Jane Austen won me over. Oh, and To Kill a Mockingbird too. But I totally Spark-noted and Pink-monkeyed the crap out of those other books. I mean, Red Badge of Courage?! Whose bright idea was that? No sixteen-year-old wants to read that!
You know what I did want to read? Harry Potter. I think those are the only books I read for pleasure in high school, because my love for reading had been severely squelched by then — a real testimony to the genius that is J.K. Rowling. (And I devoured those 500, 700, 800 page books in days immediately upon publication). But while I was a dutiful and accomplished student, I didn’t care about the books you wanted me to care about. I cared about whether or not Hermione and Ron were ever going to get together and whether or not Severus Snape was a good guy.
I was a bookworm as a kid. My sisters roamed the neighborhood, but I typically tired of that quickly and went home to bury my head in a book. I loved spelling bees as a kid (lost on bananas, dang it, too many na-‘s) and vocab words as a teenager (looking up words I don’t know and using them in sentences?! Love! Don’t you just love words like effervescent and irascible?). But middle school and high school completely zapped my love of reading. The joy was stolen from me. Suddenly it was a chore, and they were two parts that were really depressing to me: I didn’t get to pick which books I wanted to read, and after being forced to read a book I didn’t want to read, I was forced to write a paper other than the one I wanted to write.
Isn’t it sad that I can’t remember more of the books I “read” (ahem, cheated on) in high school? I guess it serves me right for cheating. (But, and this is a soapbox for another day, research shows that homework is mostly without benefit, and also that teenagers need more sleep than school typically allows them to get. So, just saying, I may have had more time to really read if I hadn’t been doing excessive homework, and more motivation to really read if I wasn’t exhausted. Also — and this is more of an explanation than an excuse — I was far more interested in cheerleading than I was in old dead guys). But I firmly believe I WOULD HAVE remembered the reading in high school (and that I would have actually completed it) if I had been given the choice as to what I read. But kids need to read the classics! Some will argue this. And I say, fine! Give students a list of ten, twenty, or fifty and say TAKE YOUR PICK! This doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Boundaries and freedoms can harmoniously coexist.
And after I injected my brain with Sparknotes synopsis after Sparknotes synopsis, and I had finally “finished” the book, then the real hell began: write a paper about the book. But did they want to know what I thought of the book? No, not really (let’s be honest). “Write a paper demonstrating how The Great Gatsby has this motif.” Well, what if I don’t give a rip about the approved motif? What if it meant something different to me? What if I have a divergent opinion? I would have NEVER done this because I was way too much of a brown-noser, goody-two-shoes, world-class-kiss-ass, but in retrospect I would love to break into my adolescent mind and turn in a paper that said in effect: “I didn’t get The Great Gatsby (or The Scarlet Letter, or whatever torturous novel it was for you). It bored me to tears. I would have rather stabbed myself in the eye with a dull dusty pencil than to keep turning its pages. And forget your motif — I am of the opinion that that wretched book had another meaning, not that anyone cares. (Also, what if I wanted to write a spy novel instead of this paper in the first place?) I used to love reading but now I don’t and that sucks. I used to love writing, but that’s been ruined too. I know the government has mandates, and the district controls some things too, so I don’t blame you personally. But I am a cog in a seriously flawed machine and you are participating in the destruction of my creative soul. I want to transfer to Hogwarts.”
I know, so much anger. But it does make me angry and I think it should make us collectively angry too. It’s criminal that children who organically love reading and writing have their loves undermined by our education system. I have had to relearn how to love reading and writing as an adult, and it’s taken a long time. It’s been a journey to find the joy again; it was so shoved down by expectations and rules and grades and right and wrong. Wouldn’t it be preferable if more adults enjoyed reading? Wouldn’t that be great for society and for individuals as well? Sure seems that way to me. Now that I’m in my thirties and slightly more mature than I was at seventeen, I would love to really read Their Eyes Were Watching God. I think I would love it. And I’m sorry, Zora Neale Hurston, that I did not appreciate your art when I was a sophomore in high school. Now I think about this remarkable contribution you made to black literature and women’s literature, and I want to know everything you wrote about race and gender roles and women in relationships, and I want to read it again which will really be for the first time.
I don’t have an easy fix or strategic solution to keep bookworms like me from being turned off to reading and writing in the most ironic of places, English class. I know teachers are under infuriating constraints and I believe our education system is deeply broken. And I bet my fabulous, dedicated English teachers were banging their heads on their desks half the time about how they wanted to do some things differently but weren’t permitted to. In fact I’d put good money on it — because I know every one of those teachers loved books and language and words, and cared about teenagers too. My teachers suffered the same ailment I did I think — I didn’t have their permission; they didn’t have their superior’s. And our souls were burdened together as dead creatives rolled in their graves.
Photo credit: http://www.listchallenges.com/top-100-most-popular-books-on-goodread-members