It’s summertime, or so I hear. It’s 65 degrees, cloudy, and threatening to rain here in Seattle. But still, I’m sitting next to an open window and wearing my sandals, even if it’s just on moral principle. Whatever the mercurial weather, my summers have one enduring feature: summer classes. I’m a pretty introverted person, but I really do love teaching my high schoolers. Sure, I frequently field enlightened questions like “who was that guy who wrote Macbeth?” (a personal favorite from just this afternoon), but even more often I’m refreshed by my kids’ optimism, enthusiasm for their interests, and ambition. Yes, I did say ambition and high schoolers in the same paragraph!
I do find that high school sometimes has a tendency to suck the joy out of kids’ reading lives, though. Devious inventions like Sparknotes, which are amazing in their range and accessibility in the digital age, have made plenty of teachers rely on reading quizzes that test knowledge of arcane or irrelevant detail to determine which kid cheated, and which actually did the homework. (What’s didn’t Sparknotes tell kids about The Catcher in the Rye? Our enemy the online summary tells them everything from the color of Holden’s hunting hat to what he ate for dinner on parents’ weekend. You can bet that whatever some frustrated teacher puts on his test will be minute and extraneous.) And as both a teacher and a writer, online cheating and the way in which it forces educators’ hands concerns me. Are we inadvertently raising a generation of readers to grab at quick information rather than to appreciate art?
For my summer classes, I decided to do something different. The four books we read each summer are titles with no online summaries available, period. It wasn’t easy to find four non-cheatable books that were a) appropriate for teenagers, b) coherent in themes and concerns across the list of titles, c) of academic merit, and d) interesting reads. But it was worth the hours of poring over my bookcase and making crazy notes. (The looks on my students faces when I told them Shirley Jackson’s delicious and attention-commanding We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Sparknotes-free! I nearly cackled like an old crone.)
I am convinced that, when adults put good books in young readers’ hands, and those young readers have a chance–we’ll call it a chance, rather than a compulsion–to actually read literature, amazing things can happen. Last year, for example, several of my students had such a profound reaction to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road that they were in tears by the end of our discussion. A particularly laconic guy, more interested in b-boying and biology than my “b” of choice (books), declared that he intended to read the novel a second time.
So it’s with great hope that I put We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Neon Bible, Never Let Me Go, and All My Sons into the hands of a few teenaged students. I hope I’ve given them work that will change them the way I was changed by the formative books in my life. And I’m reminded of the opening lines from a long-time favorite poem of mine, “The Language Issue,” by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill:
I place my hope upon the water
in this little boat
of the language….