Saturday, October 19, 2013
ADVENTURES IN READING (1958-1959): Conclusion
It's been fun for me, looking over the literature anthology we used in English 9 at Hiram High School, 1958-1959. Fun for you? Not likely. But there are few people more self-centered than a blogger, so there you go.
The other day, I heard from a former 9th grade classmate who told me he didn't really remember anything about that book. I probably would not have done so, either, had I not, about eight years down the road, become an English teacher myself--though I'm fairly confident that I never had the, uh, varied "effects" that Mrs. Browning had on her class!
I remember several embarrassing episodes from her class. Here's one. One day I was, sotto voce, telling a naughty joke to friend in a seat nearby. The joke had a manual component (I had to do something with my hands). When I reached that part of the joke, Mrs. Browning looked right at me and said, "I hope that's not the same joke I know!"
The temperature in the room immediately spiked, principally because my face had somehow transformed into a space-heater. And then I had to restrain myself because my joke-receiving friend muttered: "I bet it is!" He, by the say, would later write a short story for her class, a story that featured a sexual encounter by the college tennis courts. I thought he was wildly crazy to write about that. (My own story? Can't remember, but it was probably about baseball, which is all I knew anything at all about in those days.)
But when my friend Paul got that story back, he had an A on it--and a great comment about how he had a future as a writer. That was a message Mrs. Browning never wrote on any of my contributions. I resolved to write about sex the next time.
But didn't. (1) I knew nothing about it (I was a very young 14.) (2) I was chicken. (3) My family would not have understood. Mom, especially, would have felt right at home in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (would she have jeered Hester on the scaffold? wouldn't be surprised). Had I written about sex (ignorant or no), she would have erected stocks in our front yard and locked me in them for, oh, a decade or so. Maybe longer.
So ... based on what the editors of Adventures in Reading had in mind, why do we read at all? The editors focuses on several things--general vocabulary development (it is a better way to learn words, by the way, than from lists [says the hypocrite, who gave out lists]); specific vocabulary development (literary terms); cultural literacy (there were famous names and texts in that anthology); enjoyment (some of the pieces were just pure fun); genre education (the editors introduced us to short story, varieties of poems and plays, some types of nonfiction, the novel); literary history and biography (there were sections about the lives of the writers, about the historical contexts of the writers); general reading improvement (different texts demanded different skills of us).
Noticeably missing are "lessons" that more contemporary anthologies teach us--principally that's it's not just Dead White Men who can write well. That is a lesson that did not occur to the me of 1958-1959, though I can't speak for the girls in the class, who surely were sick of reading pieces that came almost entirely from the pens of long-dead men. And Hiram High School was entirely White during my four years. Almost entirely Protestant, as well. And Adventures in Reading didn't really do anything to show me the vast cultural and racial and religious galaxies out there that I knew absolutely nothing about. (I may have thought that George Washington Carver was the only Black of note in U. S. history!)
During my own 45-year teaching career, I shared some of the objectives of the editors of Adventures in Reading. After all, when I began, I didn't really know much else. Literature was a discipline, an art. And I believed it was my task to help kids know the vocabulary of that discipline, to understand the dimensions and varieties of that art. But what I neglected early on was something both simple and difficult: the human heart.
I don't read all the books I do because I admire the technique (though it can be wonderful) or am in awe of the artistry (ditto). I read to learn things, sure, but I also read to be moved. To learn things about the lives of others, to explore the vastness of the heart.
I wasn't always too good about communicating that to my students, especially early in my career. But, later on, I worked to make it part of our discussions. (Didn't always succeed.) Remember the scene in Hamlet when Laertes, about to return to university, has a "big-brother" chat with his sister, Ophelia? The advice he gave her? We talked in my classes at Western Reserve Academy about that encounter--and many (especially the boarding students) saw, I think, the relevance of that Shakespearean exchange.
At WRA, I also loved the moment when Hester Prynne tells the dissolving Arthur Dimmesdale in the woods (near the end of the book), "Thou shalt not go alone." That situation--that line--gave me goose-flesh every time I read it or discussed it in class for the decade I taught The Scarlet Letter.
At Hiram's Weekend College, when I taught Othello to adults (many were in the 30s, 40s, and older), I used to begin with this: Did any of you ever feel you were passed over for a promotion? Have any of you ever felt betrayed by your lover? Oh, my! They were "into" Othello before we read a word.
At Harmon School in Aurora it was not too hard to get the 8th graders to relate to Anne Frank, who was, in some very fundamental ways, a classmate. Or to Buck, the dog in The Call of the Wild, who was struggling to make his way in a hostile world. Or to the "merry war" between the sexes in Much Ado about Nothing and The Taming of the Shrew. Or even to Frankenstein's creature--an outsider, abandoned, rejected (feelings that, oh, a few middle school kids have had in their lives!).
The great questions of life--birth, family, identity, purpose, education, love, labor, friendship, betrayal, success, failure, sickness, death--all of these (and more) lie--and sometimes seethe--in the pages of our enduring literature. To the extent that I ignored--or diminished--these topics early, and even late, in my career: shame on me. To the extent that the current standardized testing maniacs ignore them, double shame. (Hey, they're hard to measure; much easier to determine if a kid knows what a simile is.)
Great literature flows from the heart--and offers us a vessel of words. Invites us aboard. Dares us to explore. I am happy--fortunate--to still be aboard that vessel, sailing in search of brave new worlds, exhilarated by my adventures in reading.