- Pen or pencil
Students filter in slowly from the hall, rummage around in backpacks for pencils and journals, then do double-takes.
“What’s this textbook business about?”
“Can I go get mine? It’s at home.”
“Um… we have textbooks?”
I nod and start to pull the class set out of the cupboard, where they’ve been since we read “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” more than six weeks ago.
We open to the bricklike anthology to Hemingway’s “In Another Country.” In some ways, it is perfect for the English 11; at every turn, we encounter a thematic or technical feature I introduced in yesterday’s lecture on modernism. We point to them like kids on a zoo field trip. Look, kids, here’s a fragmentary narrative! And over there, that’s what irony looks like! Get ready, if you look really closely you can see the minimalism. It’s accessible and rich in examples. It’s also in no way Hemingway’s best work, and since it’s so unknown it won’t even count as cultural currency, to be spent later at a dinner party or job interview.
I’ve never referenced an English textbook in a terribly regular way, nor have I known any high school English teacher to work methodically through a high school anthology. We all practice Literary Canon Arithmetic to some extent, adding and subtracting from the prescribed textbook. Two years ago, when Seattle Public Schools announced that they were aligning English curriculums across the District, our worst-case scenario was a strictly-enforced anthology curriculum. We all shivered at the thought of not being able to choose what we taught.
Though all anthologies contain great literature, often the selections are limited. Many of them seem bound by length requirements, so we get excerpts from “Life on the Mississippi” instead of Huckleberry Finn, or “Winter Dreams” instead of The Great Gatsby. Some of the selections are less clear. “In Another Country” is longer and less intricate than “Hills Like White Elephants,” the Hemingway story we’ll read tomorrow. I imagine this tale being chosen in a windowless conference room in a middle floor of a New York skyscraper, by a panel of literary experts who pull the strings on the next generation of learners.
The reason might be simpler, though, and lovelier. Perhaps someone in that room loved “In Another Country” and defended it. It’s possible he’d read it himself, in a magazine somewhere, and it cleared away the hazy definitions of modernism, or maybe reminded him of his grandfather, wounded in World War II. Whatever the reason he thought it worthy of being read by all American eleventh graders.
That’s the way of English teachers, really, and the true reason that anthologies lie unopened by so many of us. Many English curriculums require students to read several novels (none of them anthologized), along with intermittent clusters of poems and short stories. I’m asked to run selections by our Department Head, but pending their approval it doesn’t matter if they are or are not part of our textbook. Though we’re granted the solemn responsibility to teach “reading, writing, speaking and thinking,” often the words that get us there are flexible. We’ve spent our lives collecting the stories and poems like interesting shells on the beach, saving them for later, waiting for the right moment to bring them out.
This has its disadvantages, of course. Students, even those taught only in Anthology World, will always arrive to college having never read a text their professor believes is critical. There are, quite simply, too many books. (After reading Othello and Hamlet back to back my senior year, I’m still putting off Macbeth. Oh, and I’ve never read 1984. I know, it’s important.) In the end, though, teachers often present the writing we love and remember. As a teacher I’ve gotten to read many new books, and some of them, like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies or Othello have become my favorites only after teaching them a dozen times or so.
Most of my favorite classes, though, have been the ones in which I brought something beautiful or curious, something another teacher once read to me, and passed it along. In this way, teaching English reminds me more of an oral than a literary tradition; the canon evolves autobiographically, with each of us teaching different stories, for different reasons, seeking always the sharpest images, the deepest themes, the most germane discussion. Sometimes these appear in anthologies, where we visit Poe’s oval portrait and Twain’s jumping frog, linking us to someone else’s passions. Sometimes we venture further afield, seeking wisdom and skill, and I’m honored by the trusted role of guide, tracing our steps by memory back to places I once found interesting, bringing with me these students I love.