Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Blasphemy From Your Lit Teacher

For the sake of the title on this post, we'll ignore the fact that I don't actually have a job teaching. I officially received my teaching certificate in the mail, so I'm a teacher dangit!

So here are some confessions about myself as a Literature scholar. I started college with this great intention of studying all kinds of different literature, but to be honest, I could only take the classes that would fit into my time schedule between working and going to school. That's a bit of a bummer, but what are you going to do right? There were a lot of classes I wanted to take, and maybe some day I will go back and take them just for the sake of taking them, but because of the way my schedule was structured, I ended up with a heavy emphasis on American Literature. This was surprising to me, since I hated American Literature in high school and much preferred the English Lit class I took. This could have something to do with us studying Paradise Lost, Macbeth and Wuthering Heights in the English Lit class. Interesting stuff, though I think I'm the only person I've ever met who lovedWuthering Heights, and it was somewhat foreign so there was something to sink our teeth into. When I took American Lit, we studied Whitman, Thoreau, Edith Wharton and Hawthorne. SNOOZE.

That brings me to my first real confession: I HATE WHITMAN AND THOREAU. Can you say that and still teach literature? I don't know. But I hate them. Like, hate hate hate them. I think I even made a joke about peeing in Walden Pond as we drove past it on our last trip to New England. I can't explain why I hate these guys so much, but I think some of it stems from my dislike of poetry in general, and the poetic lilt that their prose tends to have. Well, Whitman is outright poetry most of the time, but Thoreau is just kind of pretentious. The man wandered off into the woods to live in a cabin by himself and write. He's like ye olde Ted Kaczynski. And he's boring. And he wrote about removing himself from society, but felt it was still approrpriate to make commentary on that which he removed himself from in the first place. Snob.

Second confession: I made it all the way through college and I've never read any Faulkner, Melleville, Emerson, and I've never taken a thorough study in Shakespeare. Yeah. I know, I suck. But, I've read more Mark Twain than most people teaching American Literature have read. And I don't understand why we don't teach more Twain in high school.

And that brings me to another point, why do we teach REALLY boring stuff in high school? I mean, not everything I read was boring, and everyone's idea of boring is different, but Ethan Fromme was BORING. I read The Great Gatsby, which in another teacher's hands might not have been so boring, but that teacher has forever ruined the novel for me. I actually read it again in college for a class and still couldn't get past my ruined experience in high school. I had a hard time finishing the book. But, I will say, the college professor did make it a lot more bearable. In fact, I read a lot of really good American Lit in college, and not all of it was written in 17-something or 18-something. Some of it was written at the turn of the century and is far more relevent to the high school student today than Ethan Frome would be.

It wasn't until college that I discovered J.D. Salinger, and my question is WHY DIDN'T I DISCOVER THIS GUY UNTIL COLLEGE?! Seriously. Holden Caulfield is entirely relateable to teens, so why didn't I read it when I was a teen? In a way, I'm glad I didn't. I don't think I could have appreciated the book the same way as a 16 year old as I did as a 26 year old. Surprisingly, one of my colleagues at Borders was surprised that I could relate to the novel being both adult and female, but I loved it. I couldn't put it down. Many of my female classmates found it unrelateable, but I'm wondering if that's because they don't spend a lot of time with adolescent males, and I was working with a whole bunch of them in the drama department at the time. But, it was still relevent. I mean, if Holden were alive and real today, he'd be surrounded by the Paris Hilton's and Lindsay Lohan's of society, and he'd go stark raving mad, because as much as he postulates in the novel that everyone is a phoney, and we are asked to take pause and wonder if that's true, in today's society it absolutely is. I don't know, the commentary on society as a whole, as seen through the eyes of one very self centered young man, it just kind of made me smile because he wasn't wrong. Flawed in his character and his thinking? Absolutely, but not wrong necessarily.

So there are a couple of confessions. I hate Whitman and Thoreau, I've never read any Faulkner, I love Mark Twain, and I don't understand why Catcher in the Rye isn't taught in more high schools. Sure, there's that sex thing, but get over it. Why do we only pick the boring stuff? There's so much great stuff out there, why the hell aren't we using it?
Also, everyone should read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides because it's fabulous.
Oh, and I've never read any Steinbeck either. Yes, I know that's bad.

1 comment:

Beth S. said...

Great post! I'm not versed in Shakespeare either and have a REALLY hard time understanding him so I shudder at the idea when one day I'm teaching high school instead of junior high and actually have to teach him. MUST take a Shakespeare class before that happens.

I did read Catcher in the Rye in high school and LOVED it. And when we read it in Baker's class last year, I really liked it, but I didn't love it as much as I did in high school. So that's strange. I guess the reason I liked it so much is because it was the first book I read that actually sounded like a real person rather than symbols and metaphors behind every sentence (even though there were still many of those things in Catcher).

I am a poetry lover, but not old school poetry. I love contemporary poets like Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, and slam poets like Taylor Mali (especially because he used to be a teacher and just about all his poems are about teaching). Have you tried giving contemporary poets a chance? I think it's much more accessible than old school poets like Whitman, Thoreau, and their ilk.

Reading contemporary poetry is akin to reading modern YA lit like Speak and The Hunger Games in class rather than unaccessible classics that no teenager could ever relate to.