Re-reading the classics that we studied in high school is something that many of us mean to get around to, yet can't always follow through with. But for some people, the classics are an inescapable part of their everyday routine.
We were curious how impressions of the texts we remember fondly — and not so fondly — from high school change as we get older. (After all, we should finally be able to give them the attention they deserve now that we're able to stop thinking about how to get a date every five seconds.) To find out, we asked a few high school English teachers about the books they studied growing up and how kids today approach literature differently.
“I actually got a little frustrated teaching English,” said one 36-year-old English teacher outside Boston who just made the change to teaching math after 11 years (and who asked for his name not to be used for professional reasons). “It was hard to do lessons where kids weren't reading and every lesson depended on whether or not they read the books. If you assigned chapters of reading and they didn't read, what the hell are you going to do in class?”
Luke O’Neil: What are some of the books still being taught that you remember?
Former English Teacher: The first one I thought of was Emerson's Nature. I remember that when I was in high school, it was an excerpt from a textbook, an American lit anthology … it was the part about being a transparent eyeball. I remember thinking my teacher really sold it to my class. My buddies and I really all liked it and thought it was inspiring and cool.
I never read it all through college, then I had to teach it for the first year I taught American lit to juniors. I had my same book that I had in high school, and I brought it in. I remembered how much I liked it and now I found it so uninspiring. My students didn't get it, and I didn't really see what was so great about it all along, after having put it down. As an adult, I found it kind of boring.
What's the takeaway from that piece?
It was part of the transcendental movement. The idea was, basically, you can go into nature, and if you succumb and lose yourself in nature, there's a new consciousness that opens up and becomes aware to you — you sort of blend into your surroundings. It's freeing and enlightening and all sorts of things that did not ring true to me as an adult nor did it ring true to middle-class suburban kids.
What's another one?
A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen. I read it as a freshman. I remember my teacher, she made us read two or three Ibsen plays. I think she took us on a field trip to go watch the play somewhere.
I was sort of forced by circumstance to teach this my first couple years. Basically, I had to teach whatever books they had in the book room. I was bottom of the barrel as a sophomore teacher — all the junior and senior teachers would claim the good ones: Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies … things that would seem interesting. The sophomore curriculum was whatever was leftover. A Doll's House and Ethan Frome were two of my choices. ... I tried my best to make it relevant to the kids, but 15-year-olds trying to figure out why a woman is brave for leaving her husband — it was like a total disaster. Again, I don't think it's a bad play, necessarily; it's just such a tough sell.
What's another book you remember?
The last one I thought was more positive. I remember in high school very, very vividly reading The Great Gatsby. We had a really good teacher. A lot of my friends were really into it, we loved the romanticism of it and the love story. We all thought that was really magical. We thought Gatsby was sort of a hero. My students by and large have pretty much read it. It's a short book, the language is flowery, but the sentences don't drag on for a paragraph. In general, that's the one book I could get almost everybody to buy into and read it, and got tons of positive feedback from students on it. They were going to see the movie and all rushing in the day after to talk to me about. It's the one text that for some reason was always able to sustain interest, and they were able to find stuff about it that they related to. The interesting part for me: When I teach it, I definitely empathize with the parts about Nick being 30 and old and uninspired and the corruption of the people. Gatsby is kind of creepy now.
Michael Gonzales is a 35-year-old 9th and 10th grade English teacher at Waltham High in Massachusetts.
What are the books that come to mind when you think about being a student?
Michael Gonzales: The books that I remember being taught that really stood out were stuff like Brave New World, The Sun Also Rises, The Cather in the Rye and a lot of Shakespeare. Basically any book that sort of had a sad male protagonist, I ate it up. I just read everything that was sent my way whether it was trash or literary. When you get to high school, things get more literary, and that stuff really spoke to me as as student and is partly why I wanted to teach. You fall in love with a book, and you want to keep reading it over and over again. I've been kind of surprised at how many shrugs of the shoulders I've got as a teacher for books like that.
Do you teach any of those?
I teach, right now, Catcher in the Rye and a whole bunch of Shakespeare: Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet — even as a kid, I thought that was a great play and still do. For whatever reason, whether it's the culture mythologizing it, for the kids Shakespeare still holds up. Books like The Cather in the Rye and The Sun Also Rises — I haven’t really found the kids digging those books as much. Shakespeare holds up even for kids that are struggling readers or English class bores them.
Think there's anything about our particular moment that makes it resonate?
A little bit. On our curriculum, we have Macbeth — the only one provided by the curriculum. I found myself with extra time in planning and wanted to throw in Othello. I loved it as a kid. Iago is just such an ass and so evil, and the lines were great. As a kid, me and my nerdy friends would go around calling each other “impudent strumpets.”
I was like, “I'm going to teach that to kids.” They didn't get off on the lines like I thought they would, but I overheard a kid talking and he was like, “We read Macbeth and Othello. We're wicked advanced.' Its place as a difficult book — if you can conquer it, you've climbed some sort of mountain, like an achievement unlock.
Shakespeare — Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth in particular — had a lasting impact on Mark Kowgier as well. He’s a 30-year-old who recently taught English for three years in Ontario.
Mark Kowigier: In 10th grade, we read Romeo and Juliet. It was probably the best high school teacher I ever had, the typical inspiring English teacher. We enjoyed it so much the class volunteered to read A Midsummer Night's Dream for fun. We got to act it out in class. After each scene, we would watch both the older Italian version, as well as the Baz Luhrmann film.
Do you remember connecting to the text? Or was it because of movies?
It was variety of things. I would say it was the way the teacher first brought out the text. One thing she did really well was pulling out all the jokes in the first scene, especially showing us that there was some really lewd stuff in there, which, as teenagers, you can't help but enjoy. A lot of teachers I worked with would all gloss over that.
In my class, I took my cues back from when I was a student. I would work with students, asking, “What does this mean?” They'd say, “Nah, it can't mean that,” and I'd say, “I didn't say it — it's Shakespeare!” It's a good hook to start off that play.
Beyond that, once we were hooked, thing like movies helped build interest. Plus there's the social element, reading the play out loud in class. We all had different roles, and she'd assign characters to personalities that fit. Getting to hear and act out the play made it come alive, which is always more enjoyable than just “Read this play,” struggling by yourself with the language.
You brought that back to your students?
Yeah, when it came to my time to teach, it was really not difficult. It's still up there in my favorite texts to teach. I'm still in contact with that teacher; we discuss things that students learn from Romeo and Juliet. I still do a lot of the stuff that she did. We would have the students act out scenes, especially the beginning. Having students act out a big brawl with foam swords is always fun. It gets them physically engaged with the text. Then you can start on themes and more abstract stuff. It's tons and tons of fun.
What about Macbeth? That didn't go as well?
In contrast, I had to study Macbeth in grade 11, and it was a very, very dry and overall not an enjoyable experience as a student. We were just given the text and told to read it. I remember hating it with a burning passion. All I can really remember was that teacher going on and on about the symbolism of blood. “What does blood mean?” I was like, “Blood is blood.” I couldn't get past that and couldn't follow the rest of her teaching. It left me with a bad taste for Macbeth. I always thought I hated it.
Two years ago came time I had teach it myself, and naturally, I was hesitant about what I would do. One of the first things I did do was share the story with students about how I as a student really struggled with the text. But through my teaching, one thing I found is it's just as enjoyable if not more than Romeo and Juliet.
Do you think young people now are more or less interested in reading literature than people your age were?
I always have the attitude that young people are always going to be hesitant about things like literature because they don't give an immediate impact. In my generation, it was things like PlayStation and now it's things like YouTube that offer that immediate impact. But it's still the same challenge of showing them that, yeah, those thing are great, but Shakespeare tried to put some of that impact in his plays that doesn't immediately resonate today — we're just not as excited about iambic pentameter. ... But there's also something to be said for delayed reward for any sort of literature. It's a book: holding it in your hands is not going to blow you away. It takes a commitment of time. With all youth, once you sort of push them past that initial hesitation of “This is boring,” “This is lame” — if you can get them past that, give them a little taste of the payoff that comes from investing, it can work out.
This coverage of the literary classics is brought to you by Clementine Classics: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, the first installment in the Clementine Classics e-book series from Black Balloon Publishing.
Sometimes reading the classics is a chore, but not so with the snarky annotations by Clementine the Hedgehog. Having made her debut as a weekly book reviewer of note on Tumblr in 2012, Clem now takes on Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. On each page, she inserts her keen insights, dark sense of humor and cut-the-crap commentary.
Clementine Classics is a new series from Black Balloon Publishing that gives classic works of literature the contemporary annotations they deserve. Obsessed, possessed and thoroughly distressed by the originals, today's writers riff, rant, praise and flay these old books, giving them new life. The series' beautifully designed e-books are both an act of sincere literary criticism and a new, composite form of humor writing.