I’ve been seeing a lot of back-to-school photos on social media the past few weeks, and most of the time the kids are at least feigning happiness and excitement.
There they are, all shining and bright, standing at bus stops or in front of trees in the front yard, just gleaming with new backpacks and lunchboxes and pencil cases and all the other (expensive) accouterments that go with a new school year.
The first day of school is a day when school doesn’t really begin. It’s a day of endless possibility: it’s the day before Algebra starts, or chemistry, or political science. It’s the day before English class begins.
Yes, English. The class where hopefully kids still diagram and learn what a subjunctive is and that a gerund is not a verb but rather a noun, and that yes, there is a distinct difference between who and whom.
It’s the class where kids will be reading.
That first day, kids don’t yet know the nearly inhumane tedium of Cotton Mather’s Puritan sermons, which even his personal involvement in the Salem Witch Trials can’t alleviate. (believe me, after a few days of Mather, kids will be practically begging for “The Scarlet Letter.”) They don’t yet know just exactly how long “Grapes of Wrath” actually is (464 pages in the original version). They just don’t know yet.
English class: there’s only one first day.
Am I the only one who fell asleep in class to the droning of Mather, or wished William Cullen Bryant would just lighten up a little? Am I alone in being pretty peeved that Anne Bradstreet was the only female author I encountered for nearly the entirety of my high school career?
Last month I wrote about giving kids the freedom to read what they want, but now we come face-to-face with English class and kids reading what they must. There’s no escaping it. But don’t panic. This is where it gets good, if only we can take the long view.
Do you remember who came on the heels of Cotton Mather in the trajectory of American literature? A little more than a century after Mather celebrated the witch trials, Edgar Allan Poe, whose work surely is required reading, became a household name overnight with his still incredibly popular poem “The Raven.” Imagine, a horror poem about a man’s descent into madness, stuck in the craw of a witch trial-loving Puritan? Ha! (Not that the poem pleased everybody. That other bastion of required reading and Poe contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said of “The Raven,” “I see nothing in it.”)
“The Giver.” “Night.” “The House on Mango Street.” “Lord of the Flies.” “The Women of Brewster Place.” “1984.” “Speak.”
Kids have to read Hawthorne, and Longfellow; they have to read Chaucer, and probably a bit of John Bunyan. (My husband says if they are lucky, kids can avoid Charlotte Brönte, but I disagree.) Kids have to slog through centuries of words that seem opaque, boring and at times useless, no doubt about it, and then …
“The Outsiders.” “Slaughterhouse Five.” “Frankenstein.” “Native Son.” “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” “Catcher in the Rye.” “Beloved.” “The Bell Jar.” “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
They are coming, the books that will change kids’ lives; they are coming, and you guessed it, they will be required reading.
What makes required reading absolutely essential is that it involves thinking, criticizing and discussing, all to lead to one final point: understanding. Required reading is the stone upon which kids sharpen themselves, hone their thinking skills and elevate their minds. It’s work, and reading, like anything that is done well, requires work.
There is no way to see how astounding and transformative Ernest Hemingway’s spare and journalistic prose is without having spent hours unpacking the almost endless pages of Melville’s “Moby Dick.” And what about the mind-blowing realization that “The Age of Innocence,” Edith Wharton’s novel about Gilded-Age aristocracy, won the Pulitzer Prize just 19 years before “The Grapes of Wrath” was published? There would be no “Hunger Games” without Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” “The Waste Land” could not exist without “Song of Myself.”
The long months spread out in front of us, like a patient etherized upon a table (I had to get that in!), months of heads drooping over the kitchen table, essays that need revising, “why do I even have to read this” arguments. Months of poems, and sermons, and short stories, and books your kids will never want to read again and probably wish they never had to read in the first place (you may wish that too). Those months are there, and they are a gift.
On the first day of school, your kids don’t know the books that will change their lives are coming, and they may not know it for a while. But they ARE coming, and when they come, your kids will be ready. They just don’t know it yet.
Juanita Giles, a Randolph-Macon Woman’s College graduate, is the executive director and co-founder of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival. Her column runs on the third Sunday of every month.