I spend so much time talking about serious (grown up) books that I sometimes forget that books had a completely different hold on me when I was a little fella. These days I like to read something that will challenge me, and I seek people out who will discuss a particular book with me. We turn the book around in our heads poking it and prodding it, making this or that judgment, and then we set the book carefully aside and rush onward to the next one. It really doesn’t bear much resemblance to the way my five year old self felt about books. Back then it was the purest escape. I could open a book and be utterly immersed within its confines. Such is the boundlessness of the young imagination that I could dwell in the same book almost endlessly. I gave no thought to picking up the same book day after day for weeks on end. As we grow older, our imaginations atrophy and it becomes difficult to immerse ourselves in a story and pictures in the same way. There are, however, a special handful of books that are powerful enough to remind you of what it was like to be five again. The Olivia series by Ian Falconer is able to do this. Something about the dreamy illustrations and the antics of a stubborn pig can make you forget yourself for a few minutes. The third Olivia book comes out today. It’s called Olivia . . . and the Missing Toy, and if you are at a bookstore today and you want a bit of merriment, take a look, you won’t be disappointed.
You can’t swing your arms around in a general interest bookstore without hitting three or four “theme” cookbooks, which collect recipes related to a certain motif. This trend explains books like The Book Lover’s Cookbook, Dinner Dates: A Cookbook for Couples Cooking Together, and The Sopranos Family Cookbook. These are books you buy as gifts for people you don’t know that well.But as with every rule there is an exception, which brings me to I Like Food, Food Tastes Good: In the Kitchen with Your Favorite Bands, which collects recipes culled from bands like Death Cab for Cutie, They Might Be Giants, and Belle & Sebastian. My old friends The Walkmen are in it too, which is fitting because they used to have recipe section on their web site. That’s where I first learned about their “Foreign Chicken Dinner,” the recipe they’ve contributed to the book. They don’t have the recipe on their site any more, and I can’t remember exactly what was in it, but I seem to recall it involved tomato sauce.
I discovered the other day that an ambitious project to publish the complete run of Charles Shulz’s seminal comic, Peanuts, has begun. The books are very attractive and they have rounded up some notable folks to pen the introductions. The first volume, which covers 1950-1952, includes an introduction by Garrison Keillor and is already in book stores. Volume two (1953-1954) will be released this fall with an introduction by Walter Cronkite. According to the publisher, Fantagraphics, the 25 book series will span the full 50 year run of the comic and the books will be released at a rate of two books per year. When it is all said and done, the collection (along with the introductions within) should provide an interesting look into the second half of the twentieth century in America.
Do you remember your last English teacher? Did he use colored chalk to diagram William Faulkner’s periodic sentences? Did she stand in the back of the room and read a poem from Denise Levertov, most of the words pushing past your ears, but a few, like “Aren’t there annunciations / of one sort or another / in most lives?” remaining like a refrain? Or was he forgettable, distributing misspelled study guides for The Merchant of Venice before playing a tired cassette recording?
Think about your last year in a high school English classroom. The uneven rows. The loud radiator. The re-used posters, corners double-taped. You were 17, 18. Your mind and your heart were elsewhere. That tension between distraction and focus is healthy. If we do not wish that we were somewhere else, doing something else, the collective, focused breath on a single line of a poem would not be so sweet. Back then, you were full of cynicism and hope. What a mixture: your wounds and joys felt so sharp.
I tell my seniors that I will likely be their last English teacher. They are enrolled in AP Literature and Composition, a difficult course that builds toward a three-hour exam. When I began teaching the course a decade ago, my classes were nearly half the size. Most students were hoping to major in English or philosophy. Now, out of two class sections of 55 students, it is a surprise to have three future English majors. I am lucky that they are no less talented and driven. They are ready to work.
I realize that my situation is unique. My students often attend the most competitive colleges in the country. In order to do so, their high school schedules are strained. They are expected to perform highly in several intellectual disciplines a day, with only six minutes to move between classrooms within an enormous outdoor campus, and 40 minutes to be teenagers at lunch. Still, they are very fortunate. They have the support of the community and district. They are good kids. Curious kids, who stay with me when we examine the difference between mimetic and textual voice in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or parse Wallace Stevens’s “A Comment on Meaning in Poetry.”
I tell them that I am their last English teacher because many of these students will place out of composition or literature in college. They will spend the next four to eight years busy studying, and will go on to successful careers in medicine, law, and business. No one else will ever read them a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
You may think this is melodramatic talk. I admit that teachers were born to perform. We are actors without stages. In a recent interview, poet Paul Muldoon said that most students struggle with poetry because of how it is taught in high school: “What’s usually happening is that the instructor, the teacher, is at pains to show what an extraordinary instructor or teacher he or she is, and the message I think that far too many of us get in high school is that poetry may only be read if you’ve got that instructor or teacher to show you what it’s really about.” I have heard this lament before, and it is not only about poetry. High school English teachers are responsible for flattening literature. We kill books.
These constant, unfounded digs are what cause teachers to be defensive. Teaching in an American public school is an idealistic act. Politicians will have you believe we are an insufferable bunch, our chests full of blind union pride, tenure our ticket to stasis. English teachers, less than perhaps only editors, live their days surrounded with the hopes, fears, eccentricities, and failures of generations of writers. Those words, classic and contemporary, seep into our souls. Why teach Beloved if you do not close your eyes and feel 124 shaking; if you do not feel your own heart shaking? That sensitivity bleeds out of the classroom.
In the latest round of testing frenzy, English teachers are unique targets. We teach the essential skill of communication — the ability to turn students’ feelings into spoken and written words — yet English is considered a light discipline compared to the rigor of sciences. I am not sure what an English teacher is supposed to be now. (I say that out of one side of my mouth; I strive to exceed the expectations of my district and state curriculum.) I mean in terms of my identity as an English teacher. I used to be considered a mentor. During my first few years as a teacher, I kept the prayer of St. Francis in my pocket: “grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.” I was only years removed from almost entering a seminary to become a priest. You never lose that call; it simply takes another shape. My shape was a room with 28 desks and a chalkboard.
I teach every class like it is my last. It could be. When I started teaching, I thought my purpose was to create a legion of English majors. I have learned that my purpose is to pause the lives of my students for long enough that a line of poetry is the loudest sound they encounter during the day. I am uninterested in studies that assess the cognitive worth of reading poetry for future engineers. I don’t teach engineers. I teach people. My master is not a test; it is the belief that minutes reading beautiful language will stir souls. I want my students to see that words are sacraments, in the same way that Andre Dubus said each sandwich he made for his daughters was a sacrament: “physical, nutritious and pleasurable, and within it is love.” It is possible to be cold-hearted and teach, but why do so? Students experience enough private pain some days to fill a lifetime. Literature can be the salve for a weary heart. I do not mean directly; I do not think literature is a form of therapy. I mean that books enable students to experience an extraordinary range of emotions in 180 days.
Most literature we read will pass from their memory. Some works will stick. One poem might change them. It is a beautiful possibility that such an epiphany can occur in as mundane a place as a classroom. That same hope keeps me from burning out in a profession that is as exhausting as it is exhaustive. I hate how teachers are portrayed by politicians and education reformers; I hate how we are reduced to caricatures. But I keep that frustration from my students. After all, it is for them that I am here. I believe in them, and I believe in words; I better believe in both, because I might be somebody’s last English teacher.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Pulitzer winner Junot Díaz talks with his fellow “Year in Reading” contributor Meghan O’Rourke in the debut episode of the online video series Open Book, co-sponsored by Slate and my alma mater. I’m thrilled that the producers elected to keep the same zany voice-over guy who reads Slate’s audio podcasts. Future interviews, we’re told, will include John Ashbery, Charles Simic, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
It’s been a busy week, but I wanted to share a couple of things real quick. I enjoyed the Guardian story about the different psychologies of men and women based on what they read. I was not at all surprised by their conclusion that women are far more engaged in reading then men. I’d never thought about it before, but when I worked at the bookstore I was surprised to see that female customers were far more numerous than male. In fact, nearly all of our most dedicated and literary regulars were women. GalleyCat and Bookninja also commented.From Slate comes the story about how a word that is “a vulgarity for a condom” ended up being the answer for 43 Down in Monday’s New York Times crossword puzzle.