Revisiting my High School English Books

Raisin in the SunI’m taking two grad school courses this summer. One is Writing & Critiquing Fiction and its interesting being asked to write a short story without a premise or anthology theme. It was kind of freeing and also kind of scary as I not only wrote something from scratch, on deadline, but then submitted it to the professor and my eight peers for critiquing. I put my editor hat on and made some useful comments on the stories I read and in return got some nice feedback, better than I expected. On the other hand, the professor, liked it well enough but is pushing me to totally revise it in a different direction and that’s on this week’s agenda.

But that’s not what I came to tell you about. I came to talk about the draft.

Okay, not that either. Actually, I want to talk about the books we read as students in high school. For the other course, Writing and Critiquing Drama, I was asked to read Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, which I recall reading in 10th or 11th grade. I liked it well enough back then but reading it today, it’s a whole other story and I got it.

TheGreatGatsby_1925jacketI couldn’t get it back then, I lacked the tools, context, and experience to really appreciate what she was saying her story about the family and racism in America.

This all began when I began online classes and had to reread My Antonia. I recall feeling little for it in 10th grade, possibly because of Mr. Tobin’s monotone approach. Still, I adored it as an adult and opened my eyes.

Similarly, when I began student teaching and then teaching, I found myself rereading other books from my own school days. The Great Gatsby I liked when I read it for AP English but reintroducing myself to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dripping distaste for high society was revelatory.

If anything, I feel as a teacher pre-teaching context is vital so students approach the work with some understanding of what to look for when they tackle it. Gatsby works if the students understand the American mindset of the 1920s and look for the author’s voice.

FencesIn fact, I sometimes wonder if a deep dive into fewer works would be more beneficial than skimming through some poetry, some essays, and book excerpts to rush through a period. For example, when we got to the 4th Unit – modern American literature — it was May and we barely had six weeks before finals. Why? We did a deeper exploration of 19th century literature, going beyond the county curriculum in the belief that the students needed some exposure to the writers that gave America its distinctive voice. There was no way to properly do the era justice and this year, I found we had to skip Gatsby entirely to fit in the mandated August Wilson play Fences. I ended the year feeling we had short-changed the students.

It’s had me interested in rereading some of the other works from those halcyon days, or at least ones I remember like Jane Eyre and yes, A Catcher in the Rye, which I detested on first reading. On the other hand, I think it’s a safe bet you won’t catch me near Silas Marner or Ethan Fromme. Sometimes you just have to admit life is short.

I’ve been struggling to remember all the books we read in high school and may need to compare notes in October when I attend my 40th reunion.

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