English Teacher Neverland

“I mean, if you have to spend almost all of your money on something–” I begin.

“–it should probably be a book,” he cuts me off with a solemn nod. “Exactly.”

Honors American Literature, Winter 2013

I remember the war between kids and reading. It was a Genesis 3-style feud: And I shall put enmity between teenagers and books, between the un-child and the written word. The teen shall scorn the novel; the novel shall tear the teen from video games.

It shocked me, once, the first few times a ninth grader, beside himself with rage, wailed “I have to read? But I hate reading!” I remember not enjoying the process of writing words–tortuous handwriting, so hard I wrote blue-ink echoes onto every second page–but reading them? Easy, like breathing, with much more to see in each breath. Who hates reading, I’d ask them. It’s just… reading. We were a canyon apart, my students and I, mystified opposing camps with a valley of three-syllable words between us.

In that climate, any time we enjoyed a book together, it was a victory, worth celebrating for weeks. The students howled with disappointment when we had to stop The Merchant of Venice “just when it was getting good,” leaving class arguing over what would happen next. A few kids read straight through Persepolis in just a few days, finishing a book for the first time since childhood. Together we made it through Lord of the Flies every year, and every year a few surprising kids would tell me that it was “hard, but actually pretty OK, for a book.”

When we got to know one another better, my students would eventually admit that they hadn’t always hated reading–that it was school’s fault. Or, rather, chapter books for homework. It was always the chapter books, windowless prisons in black and white, that destroyed the stories forever. Like overalls, flower hats and Velcro shoes, they’d simply “grown out” of reading.

So Black Forest Academy, this is English teacher Neverland. If American teenagers are waging a guerilla War on Reading (one heavily financed by the entertainment industry), that’s one trend that our students don’t care to adopt. The children of literate parents and residents of one-TV dorms, BFA kids read.

These are the teenagers that lined up for an hour and a half before our community Book Swap a few weeks ago, eager to compile their annual libraries of paperback classics before “all the good books” were gone. They read the Hunger Games Trilogy before the movie was even announced, then went en masse and came back to compare, book to movie, the merits of both. This year, it’s trendy to read Steinbeck and Salinger, with the occasional contemporary glance at Jonathan Safran Foer or John Green. My students talk about books like vacation spots they share in common, discuss authors like celebrities they are dying to understand better.

At the end of class this morning, three eleventh grade boys, gathered around a table in the library, spend their last five minutes–time that other students use for checking Facebook surreptitiously or lurking in the doorway–weighing the relative merits of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I sit down and mention that they knew each other, these authors, that they were “actually sort of friends.” They’re riveted by this information, even more so by the anecdotes about the two that I manage to remember from A Moveable Feast. I am mystified and delighted.

I know this is rare, the delicious novelty of so many students sharing a passion for the subject I teach. Many years ago, I resolved that it doesn’t matter. As much as I love books, at the end of the day I love the students more, so for many years I laughingly pursued reconciliation between ninth graders and words. And, yes, I loved it. A teacher can’t expect automatic affinity for a subject; our job is to excite curiosity and care for students’ wellbeing.

I suppose what I learn most from this literary cadre of students is the power of words to unite, inspire and transform. I can’t claim credit for their passion–they got here on their own, wading deep into whatever worlds of fiction they could find in the library or Book Swap. I’m just thankful to join the conversation, bringing my own knowledge to the table and reading to keep up with them.

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