Confessions of a High School English Teacher: “I Don’t Read”

Though this statement will sound blasphemous coming from someone who dreams of clinching a publishing contract, I must confess:  for twelve years I have struggled to commit to reading books, to immersing myself in a novel from its first line to its last.

Allow me to explain.

My early years of teaching required that I fill every spare minute trying to stay one chapter ahead of my students in canonized novels that I had never cracked open in my own against-the-mainstream high school.  I distinctly recall one of the freshmen in the first class I ever taught asking, “What is The Catcher in the Rye about, anyway?” as I held up the white paperback with no cover image except for a collection of thin rainbow stripes straddling the upper lefthand corner.  I had just instructed the class to purchase a copy by the following Friday.  At the boy’s confrontation, I looked furtively at the back of the book for a blurb, but more blank white canvas stared at me as if to say, “This novel is a classic.  If you need a summary of it on the back cover, you dolt, you shouldn’t be allowed to teach English.”  So, casually thumbing through the pages as though they were old friends of mine and glancing down to catch a word or two that might give me a clue, I stuttered, “Well…it’s pretty intense…a novel about a boy…he’s going through a lot of changes, some really big dilemmas…I mean, I don’t want to give away too much.  I know how you guys like suspense, heh heh.”

This experience confirmed my understanding that I had an insurmountable amount of work ahead of me in this rewarding but relentless career I had chosen, and thus, signaled the demise of my romance with pure pleasure reading.

Teaching has intensified my connection to some of the most historically and culturally impactful tales in the world—Romeo and JulietThe Scarlet LetterThe Great Gatsby. This vocation has also honed my ability to hear the most subtle of intentions in imagery and characterization. I know how to affirm the literary discoveries of my students while gently guiding them to see what I see.  When I am not facilitating discussions about literature, I am sitting at a seminar table as a graduate student, absorbing the wisdom of published professors and listening to my classmates express fresh angles on ground-breaking works by Ferber, Larsen, Van Vechten and Ellison.  Both of these roles have allowed me to evolve into a reader that can deconstruct a text like nobody’s business.  And I enjoy doing so.

Ironically, though, while I luxuriate in this rewardingly close connection to language on a daily basis, I worry that I have sacrificed the sensation that drove me to the teaching profession in the first place: a primal love for a good story.  This breed of love is uncluttered by the pressure to analyze, to find (as my mystified students say it) the “hidden meaning,” to hunt down the curve of a thematic spine.  I miss the experience of capitulating to a fully emotional integration with the text in my hands, an intimate synthesis built on my specific beliefs, motives, prejudices, memories, and history.  This Reader Response Theory, first articulated by literary critic Louise Rosenblatt in the late 1930s, drives my pedagogy in the classroom.  But rarely do I value books these days for what they give specifically to me, because I have trained myself to measure their teachability.  Do these books feature external obstacles that identify the ethics of particular time periods?  And in response to those suffocating ethics, feature revolutionary protagonists?  Do they contain a plentiful ration of metaphors, symbols, and motifs that will puzzle my students just enough to challenge their critical thinking, but not so obscure as to undermine their attempts to write decent papers?  Do these books lend themselves to imaginative writing activities that defy the lure of online study aids?  Will teenagers who find the act of reading isolating and boring want to read these novels?  And if they don’t, do these novels offer long-lasting life lessons that eventually these teenagers will recognize, revelations that will inspire them to take trips back to their alma mater to thank me for my mentorship through literature?

To add insult to the injury of my deficiency, I serve as the black hole for borrowed books in my department.  Numerous colleagues have handed to me their copies of literary fiction bestsellers, insisting that I keep them as long as I’d like.  As a $24.00 hardcover slides into my grip, I hear myself saying, “Oh—thank you—yes; all right.  Sounds great,” all the while thinking, “You’ll never see this again.”  I start these novels eagerly on vacations (Christmas, February, April, summer), then abandon them when the all-consuming teaching routine whirs up again—and fail to return them.  Right now, I could select a minimum of four novels from my home stash that wait in quiet hurt for me to pick them up and uncrease their dog-eared pages, including The Kite Runner and The Help.  Each day as I iron clothes, I look at The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks attracting dust atop my crammed bookshelf in the study.  I think I have twenty pages to go in that one.  A quintuple-decker pile of texts that I used in developing a curriculum unit on black women authors for my English Masters final project casts a shadow of clout over Henrietta.  Scattered throughout the house, on shelves that support hundreds and hundreds of trade paperbacks from my past, brand new bindings stand staunchly, unbent, to remind me that I owe attention to countless books that I have bought and never touched.  “Remember,” they taunt, “remember the titillating shivers that ran through you as you smelled the sweet, dry elixir of my untouched leaves, that fateful day at the New Fiction table in Barnes and Noble?”  I have abandoned them; it’s true.  And in the process of continually running from commitment in these relationships with books, I have abandoned a large part of myself.

These days, as I attempt to find niches in multiple writing communities—on Twitter, at Boston’s Grub Street, in Emerson College’s MFA program—so that I can begin my climb toward a new professional and personal goal, I want to repossess what it means to invest myself entirely in a story from start to finish, to feel that need-to-read-under-the-covers-with-a-flashlight-after-my-mom-makes-me-go-to-bed bond with a book, and to not feel one mite guilty about it.  This venture demands that I give myself permission to reclaim time for my own emotional stimulation and enrichment.  In order to grow into a writer worthy of a rapt audience, I need to study the craft of those who have gained ground before me and who are gaining ground alongside me.  Certainly, I have been taking pointers from the traditional masters for a long time.  But I have also been restricting my engagement with the ongoing, active, vibrant culture of storywriting out there that has evolved as I have married, had two children, and achieved a second Masters degree.  Perhaps my perfectionism has prevented me from keeping up with this culture: if I don’t have all the time in the world to dedicate to reading a novel and to drawing satisfaction from it, then why bother?  Or, perhaps I once believed that teaching and seeking higher education that would improve my teaching would prove more spiritually and intellectually lucrative than indulging a “hobby.”  Or, perhaps nurturing two small children left me, as a working mom, exhausted at the end of every day, and steered me to the couch in front of the t.v. at night instead of leading me back to books.

I think we read stories to assure ourselves that we are not alone in the crises we endure and the joys we celebrate, as well as to transport ourselves into personas and worlds of which we would remain tragically ignorant otherwise.  In any case, we tell stories to amplify life so that we may investigate it up close. I wonder, how much self-discovery have I neglected because I have not allowed myself to continue a consistent love affair with the kind of literature that nourished me from an early age?  How many adventures have I missed, and how many voices have I discounted?  How much wisdom have I rejected?  From how many vigorous discussions between family members, friends, and colleagues have I felt excluded, because I have underestimated the power of reading a novel—not because I feel compelled to become an authority on it, but just because?

I’ve decided that it’s time for me to join the human race… and read because I love to.  To document my progress and to enter into a conversation from which I have felt achingly withdrawn for a long time, I plan to compose book reviews.  (We’ll see what happens when my full-time graduate program begins in the fall, but I’m stoked as of now.)

Hold me accountable, and stay tuned.

Categories: Teaching

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