My university chum (and future teacher) Miss Randell has been thinking about what she would make high-schoolers read if the curriculum were up to her, and has decided that she would limit the Shakespeare:
Why should students be forced to read Shakespeare every year of high school? I mean, it has to be translated for them (“OK y’all, so this is why Sampson biting his thumb was so badass…“) and as anyone who’s ever paraphrased Willy S will know, changing the language pretty much ruins the play.
You know what ruins anything? Being forced to listen to the entire class taking turns reading every line out loud. This is the required reading from high-school that stuck with me:
Grade 6: Hatchet – Awesome. Only downside? That it made us all secretly wish we were lucky enough to be in plane crash in which the pilot is tragically killed. Also, I drew a sweet hatchet on my book report cover.
Grade 7: Nada – I was busy hating everyone and wishing I had cooler jeans.
Grade 8: I think we just read short stories arranged around themes like “family” and “courage.” Then we’d talk about these themes in “literature circles,” my worst memory of high-school English. We pushed our desks into clumps and asked pre-set questions like, “Do you think a family has to have two parents to be a real family?”
Grade 9: Of Mice and Men – I always got George and Lennie mixed up, because Lennie is a smart, skinny name and George is a big, dumb name. The Pearl – I just kept hoping, over and over again, that maybe everything would turn out ok in the end. I’m not sure if we were really supposed to read two Steinbecks in a row, but I had a just-about-retired teacher that year and he probably thought, to hell with it, The Pearl is really short.
Grade 10: The Chrysalids – Humans evolve, with extra digits and telepathy. I liked it. Flowers for Algernon – Miss Randell’s right to add some funnier picks to her reading list. It’s a good story, but, at risk of being spoilery, a real downer. Macbeth – Ditto.
A-levels: (I moved to a Brit school in Warsaw). Great Expectations – I wrote essays about Miss Havisham and thought I was a genius. Macbeth again – I dusted off my old “witch voice” routine to use during all class discussions. Genius. Lots of William Blake – My friend Vic and I used cell phones to compose music for The Lamb. Genius.
More A-levels: (Moved to Worcester here in the UK). Wuthering Heights – I didn’t enjoy it, and having to read it five or six times didn’t help much. I just didn’t buy the whole dying of a broken heart thing. Antony and Cleopatra – We got to go to Stratford-upon-Avon. Before I moved, my Warsaw class was about to do A Clockwork Orange, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Death of a Salesman. I remember because I kept the books.
If it were up to me, I would add some juicier Young Adult Fiction to junior high, to ease the transition between poems about family and tomes about Society. A little Lois Lowry, perhaps? Some Mixed Up Files or Selected Works of T.S. Spivet? And why not let them go to town on The Catcher in the Rye? Hell, they might even think it’s grand, or swell, and not goddamn phony at all.
Teachers out there (or other people who think those darn kids need some good literature!) – what’s on your dream syllabus? Think about it – some of these kids may never open a book again.