Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Crucial Classics for the High School Reader

I thought I'd keep riding this Catcher in the Rye wave and re-post something I wrote for the Hartford Courant's (now defunct) Sunday supplement, Northeast Magazine, back on Sept 12, 2004.

The piece, which also ran under the "Crucial Classics for the High School Reader" title, weighs in on a debate among us English-teacher folk: Should we continue to have kids read works of "classic" literature (even if they don't like them), or should we offer more contemporary texts that are written specifically for a teen audience?

I've actually changed my feelings on this topic in the almost-four years since this piece ran. Now, I'm warming up to "young adult" literature, and I can how counter-productive it is to have kids read "classic" works that only serve to turn them off reading.
On the other hand, I still feel that some great works of literature should never leave the curriculum-- not only because they're great, but also because they have a certain cultural cachet.
In the piece, I name Catcher in the Rye as one of those keepers. In fact, I go one step further-- proposing that schools and Registries of Motor Vehicles "team up and issue teens a complimentary copy of Catcher in the Rye along with their driver's licenses." That's how fundamental I think the book is.
Anyway, here's the piece:

"You're still reading this?" a father may ask his daughter's English teacher on the night of Open House, after scanning the reading list. "Man, we were reading that when I was in high school ... " Implicit in this observation, of course, is the question: Do you mean to tell me no one has written anything decent in the past 20, 50, 100 years?

Many educators actually share this sentiment and have recommended purging the "classics" from high school curricula, for a host of legitimate reasons: kids don't really like these books; many of these texts don't have a great deal of relevance in today's world; and forcing kids to read irrelevant books that they despise turns them completely off the reading process -- which contradicts what we're supposed to accomplish as English teachers.

So, in place of the classics, many believe we should substitute "young adult" literature -- contemporary books written expressly for teenagers and dealing with teen issues. In many ways, this argument makes sense to me. And yet, I can't help but wonder if similar conversations take place in other disciplines.

Do math teachers say, "You know, the kids just aren't jazzed about addition. Maybe we should just skip it?"

Or chemistry teachers: "Must everything come back to the Periodic Table of Elements? Let's move on, people!"

English teachers don't assign the classics because we couldn't find anything else on the shelf. We assign these books because, like the Periodic Table, they are foundational. And just what are these "must-read" texts, ones that should never be removed from a high school curriculum? While many probably qualify, space limits me to the following five:

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee: Remember Robert Fulghum's "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten"? Someday, I'd like to counter with a book of my own: "All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Atticus Finch."

Never show off. Respect other people's privacy. Protect the things and people that work to make our lives better. Never give up. These are just a few of the life lessons that Atticus Finch, the lawyer-hero of Harper Lee's near-flawless novel, teaches us.

And Atticus' most memorable bit of advice -- "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it" -- may have more relevance today than ever.

Young adults still benefit from Atticus' wisdom, and for that reason alone, Mockingbird needs to stay. (And guess what? Students don't mind reading it, either.)

Death of a Salesman (1949) or The Crucible (1953), both by Arthur Miller: Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Arthur Miller's dramatic tag-team also teaches life lessons, this time by giving students examples of what not to do. Salesman's Willy Loman, the "hard-working drummer" who had "all the wrong dreams," is sort of an anti-Atticus, who teaches his sons that bragging about imagined accomplishments means more than pursuing your real talents.

And The Crucible's town fathers apparently didn't read Atticus' memo on "respecting others' privacy," so obsessed are they with exorcising Salem of witches that they become agents of evil themselves.

And, like Mockingbird, the fundamental issues fueling these two plays pack just as much punch today as they did 50 years ago. Willy Loman serves as a cautionary tale for teens that working so hard and so long at a job that you hate could literally drive you mad. Moreover, today's jaded students can definitely relate to The Crucible's take on hysteria, censorship and the "Big Lie" (the idea that "the bigger the lie, the more people will believe it").

Even beyond the “Big Lie,” Miller's knack for the "Big Speech" earns him a place on this list. If John Proctor's "Because it's my name!" soliloquy at the end of The Crucible doesn't move you ... well, be glad you weren't alive in Salem in the 1690s. They might have suspected a witch had possessed your soul.

The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger. Here's how important I believe this book is for adolescents: I propose that schools and the Registry of Motor Vehicles team up and issue teens a complimentary copy of The Catcher in the Rye along with their driver's licenses.

Teenagers have to face many hard truths: Good guys don't always prevail; the Tooth Fairy doesn't exist; and, despite what the envelope says, you may not have already won. No book, for my money, depicts this "let me get this straight" angst more accurately than Catcher.

Holden Caulfield, Salinger's "often imitated, never duplicated" teenage narrator, has fallen into adulthood, and he desperately wants to keep children from doing the same. Holden can't handle the flux of life; he wants to be able to preserve things, just as museums freeze time in those big glass cases. "Certain things they should stay the way they are," Holden laments. "You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that's impossible, but it's too bad anyway."

(While this may sound all doom-and-gloom, Holden keeps his teen audience looped in with some great observations, such as this gem from Chapter 2: "You don't have to think too hard when you talk to a teacher.")

Romeo and Juliet (1595-1596) by William Shakespeare: I have a favorite moment that always happens whenever I assign Romeo and Juliet to ninth-graders, and it actually happens before I even pass out the books. The students walk in, they see the books on the bookcart, and at least one student and I have the following exchange:

Student: "Romeo and Juliet?! Aw, man ... I hate Shakespeare!"

Me: "Well, how many Shakespeare plays have you read?"

Student: "None!"

And that, my friends, is why we need to keep reading Romeo and Juliet, if only to show students that a text isn't icky just because it includes the term "thou." Really, any Shakespeare play will do, but the "tale of star-crossed lovers" works with teenage students for several reasons:

(1) Teenagers themselves, Romeo and Juliet act recklessly, resent their parents and pledge their undying love for each other after only one conversation -- does this sound at all familiar?;

(2) The Leonardo DiCaprio version still carries with it some street cred; and

(3) Unlike Catcher in the Rye, a seemingly humorous book with a hauntingly sad core, Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy sprinkled with some darn funny moments. For example, Mr. Capulet wants his daughter Juliet to get married on Wednesday; realizing he's acting hastily, he postpones the affair until Thursday. (Now, come on: That's at least a little funny!)

Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison: "What could this book teach me about slavery that I don't already know?" students may ask about Morrison's modern masterpiece, and in many ways, I see their point.

After all, students get their fill of slavery in U.S. history classes. Besides, many students I've taught (and I am referring mostly to the white students here) regard discrimination as something that happened "back then," in the past. I wouldn't call these students naive -- just accepting, colorblind and optimistic that everyone else feels the same way.

Does Beloved dwell on regrettable parts of our history? Does it depict acts of inhuman brutality? Is it just a hard book for teenagers to read, both in terms of its content and style? Yes, on all counts. Does that mean we shouldn't read it? No. That means we should read it.

We need to keep reading books about slavery -- just as we need to keep reading books about the Holocaust, or Vietnam, or the marginalization of Native Americans -- because these texts remind us that we need to keep working to make things better. Like the ghost in Beloved, slavery is a memory that refuses to die, and rightfully so. As a testament to our American nightmare, Beloved is (despite what the last gasps of the novel may suggest) a "story to pass on."

ltimately, we shouldn't keep reading these texts just because they are brilliantly written and have engaging plots -- because, really, many books are brilliantly written and have engaging plots. No, we should keep reading these books because when we're done with them, we are better for it -- better readers, better thinkers, better human beings. We need to preserve these books, but not by putting them in glass cases, as Holden Caulfield might suggest. We preserve by reading.

(Originally published in the Hartford Courant, Northeast Magazine, September 12, 2004)

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