Monday, April 11, 2016

Silver Linings

You came back to me. I am touched. Thank you for bearing with me through last week's long whine. 

I can't say I regret it, nor do I regret the time I spent doing as little as possible over Spring Break because there aren't going to be many unstructured, slothful moments in April. Last week Reagan & I returned to our respective schools, & I reentered the real world in a sobering way on Wednesday. 

Last Wednesday, I sat down with two of my future coworkers & discussed summer reading assignments. A few months ago I was given a list of novels (& poems & short stories) that have been the staples of the courses I'll be teaching beginning this fall. Many items on the list thrilled me, a few were added to my "To Be Read" list, & a few made me curl my lip & begin secretly plotting their removal.

I'm going to be teaching three different English courses, in theory, though there is considerable overlap between two of them. I'll be teaching Eleventh Grade Honors English, Senior English, & Senior AP (Advanced Placement) English. The Eleventh Honors students & the seniors read many of the same novels, thankfully, however their summer reading assignments are different . . . so what this all boils down to is my May 1 deadline to assemble summer reading assignments for five different works. Ah, but there is a silver lining. Actually, there are multiple silver linings.

I didn't want to change the seniors' summer read (Lord of the Flies) or the two works assigned to the Honors Eleven students over the summer (Pride and Prejudice & Pygmalion). I read Lord of the Flies & Pygmalion as a high school student & enjoyed them. In fact, for twenty years, I have held on to my high school English notes. I could write a book about how deeply I revere my high school English teachers (that I am about to (figuratively) step in their shoes, teach in the rooms once filled with their voices, is humbling, to say the least). My high school English notes are in a box in the top of my closet, though they will soon be coming down. I feel so vindicated for having saved them so long, moved them from apartment to apartment, house to house, enduring Trey's derisive scorn & haughty laughs.

So, Lord of the Flies & Pygmalion are a go, as is Pride and Prejudice. I mean, you all walked that path with me. You held my hand as I read Elizabeth & Darcy's story for the first time, so you can only imagine how eager I am to teach this novel. I finally have a legit reason to purchase a Colin Firth poster & a public place where it is acceptable to display it.  

All that decided, I was perusing the list of novels the AP Seniors read & feeling considerable trepidation. Let me put it this way: TOLKIEN. I looked at my two future colleagues & I said, "I cannot teach Tolkien." I figure it is best to begin our working relationship with total honesty.

One day, maybe I can teach Tolkien, but that day is not going to come in August of this year. Not only do I not feel I am prepared to teach Tolkien, I certainly don't want Tolkien to be the very first thing I cover with my AP Seniors because my (in)ability to enthusiastically & confidently teach Tolkien would no doubt negatively skew their opinion of me. 

I was an Honors English student in high school; I remember AP Senior English. We were not ready to launch a space shuttle or anything, but we were, collectively, a reasonably sharp (& witty & charming) bunch, & we'd have certainly known if our teacher was floundering. I want to start with something I love, something that excites me so much I can't wait to get up in the morning & race to school to cover it, & so the AP Seniors are going to read the Twilight series over the summer.

No, no, they're not. My future colleagues commiserated with me re: my Tolkien aversion & said I should sit down with the list of AP works & just pick something.

Cue my reaction:

They were, in fact, serious.

Advanced Placement English works like this: upon entering high school, students are admitted based on their past performance as English students & their general nerd tendencies. For four years, they read a lot - novels, poems, short stories, etc. They write a lot. They analyze a lot of poems. At the end of their senior year, they take the AP English Exam, which has three sections: multiple choice questions, a poem to analyze, & a longer writing portion that presents them with two lists of literary works. They're asked to choose one work from each list & apply the given prompt, which is something like, "Compare & contrast such & such . . . " College credit can potentially be earned based on their score on the exam. 

No one knows exactly which works will show up on the AP Exam each year, & there is no way, even in four years of high school, every possible work can be covered. So, the goal is to cover as many as possible, hoping two or three that are familiar to the student will appear in each list from which they're asked to select one work for analysis on the AP Exam. 

With all this in mind, I sat down Wednesday afternoon & began perusing the list of works that have made a somewhat regular appearance on the AP English Exam. Assignments for summer reading are due May 1, as I've mentioned, & so before I can assemble a coherent, useful assignment, obviously the works the students are going to read have to be selected.

The sweet spot for which I was searching was the intersection of something I love & feel I can teach with confidence & fervor, & something that is not already covered in the first three years of Honors English. Sadly, that last criteria knocked out a few that more than meet the first criteria, like A Farewell to Arms & The Great Gatsby. However, however, my eyes landed on The Sun Also Rises. My heart began to beat rapidly. I checked the list of novels covered in their freshman year. Not there. I checked the reads for sophomore year . . . and junior year . . . & The Sun Also Rises appears on none of those lists.   

If you haven't guessed, AP Seniors will be reading The Sun Also Rises over the summer. They'll also be reading A Streetcar Named Desire because I think it's important for young people to know that Marlon Brando once rocked a wife-beater. 

I read A Streetcar Named Desire in high school & I loved it. I think it's something every Louisiana high school English student should read before escaping high school English. I still have the paperback copy I used in high school & I'll be using it to teach the play in the fall because I am a high school English teacher & I live for circular moments such as this.

In addition to The Sun Also Rises & A Streetcar Named Desire, here are a few other AP approved works that are currently not covered by my colleagues, make frequent appearances on the AP Exam, & make my heart go pitter-patter. 

The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton)
Emma (Jane Austen)
Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
To the Lighthouse & Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)
1984 (George Orwell)

I don't want to overdramatize this, but I feel that my entire life has been preparing me for this moment. In addition to all the reading I did in high school, one of the first novels I read as a college English major was Frankenstein, which is a novel that is currently on (& will definitely remain on) the Eleventh Honors list.

I took a British literature class in college. My professor was a Virginia Woolf fan, otherwise I'd never have read (or appreciated) Mrs. Dalloway. I have never read To the Lighthouse, but I want to & now have an excellent reason for doing so.  I had never read The Age of Innocence until I decided, based on its premise, it needed to be one of the novels my fictional Dr. Foster covers in his American Novel class. If you want fictional characters to have a conversation about a novel, you have to read (at least most of) the novel, you know? 

Over the last few years, thanks to my devotion to my book club, I read, for the first time, Pride and Prejudice & 1984. In December of last year, I reread Jane Eyre with the book club. I reread it, but in many ways it was my first read as I initially read it in high school & I was, well, dense. Another book club reread: The Awakening, which I'll be covering with the AP Seniors. 

In December of this year, the book club is planning to read Emma, which I've never read. I'm tempted to cover Emma with my AP Seniors when they return from Christmas Break in January because it will be so fresh on my mind. I believe that's what they refer to as killing two birds with one stone. I wonder how interested high school seniors would be in attending a book club meeting? Hmmmm

So, now that the five works with which I'll begin the school year have been decided, the accompanying assignments are being assembled. That's why I am thinking about the Camus quote. I am in the thick of closing out my last semester at Delta, & reading All the Light We Cannot See (book club's April book), &, as always, taking care of my kids. However, as is so often the case in life, I cannot be so mired in the present that I neglect the future. 

If I don't spend adequate time & devote honest energy to these summer reading assignments, I am going to just hate myself come fall. I want these assignments to not only force students to actually read & reflect on what they've read, I want these assignments to say, Hey, hey, English student! Your English teacher loves literature. She is going to force you to read & dig, not skim & Google & regurgitate. Read! Be prepared! It's going to be SO MUCH FUN! 

It's harder than you might think to construct a summer reading assignment that carefully walks the line between, "She means business," & "She is crazy."    

Here are all the silver linings. And they are many.

I am so much braver now than I used to be. I attribute that to a few things, such as birthing babies & surviving their infancy & dealing with college students & generally growing older, however, I attribute a great deal of my bravery to facing Reagan's diabetes. The terror I felt when she was diagnosed has put everything else in perspective. Facing her disease, because I had & have no choice but to face it, has emboldened me considerably. I've done a handful of things I'd perhaps not have had the courage to do otherwise, like continued to pester people about publishing my book & taking this new teaching position.

I have a lot of feelings about stepping in the high school classroom come fall, but the dominant feeling is excitement. I am nervous, yes. It's going to be a major adjustment for our entire family, yes. The mornings will be early, the coffee consumption will be considerable, & many of the days will be long. I tend to thrive in a structured environment, & I think (& hope & pray) the highly, highly structured weeks that will commence in August will be overwhelmingly positive for all of us. I am going to drive my kids to & from school every day, & I will be there, very near, if they need anything, & that is sort of the point of all this. That I get to sit & discuss literature with young people is the cherry on top . . . the chocolate-covered, gigantic cherry on top.

As I read All the Light We Cannot See & work my way through composing these summer reading study guides, I am reminded of the far-reaching consequences of war. I thought about titling today's post, "The Upside of World War & Diabetes." No, really.

Do you have any idea of the literature that would not exist had WWI & WWII never been fought? Begin with nearly everything Hemingway wrote. As I figure out how I'm going to approach The Sun Also Rises, I'm grappling with how much WWI to throw in, how much of Hemingway's own war experiences to cover. These students read A Farewell to Arms as sophomores, so obviously some comparing & contrasting is going to be happening. It's going to be awesome. They will also come to my classroom having already read The Great Gatsby, which is, along with The Sun Also Rises, considered to be one of the greatest products of the infamous "lost generation," & so again, the comparing & contrasting fun will know no bounds. 

Half of what the book club has read traces its roots to one world war or another, including All the Light We Cannot See

War, what is it good for? One possible answer: fiction! If war is humanity at its worst, the literature to which war so often gives rise is, I posit, humanity doing her dead level best to redeem herself.   

I am learning a lot. The best way to learn is to teach.  For example, I've learned that Jane Austen began writing Pride and Prejudice at age twenty-one. It wasn't published for over a decade. After publishing Sense and Sensibility, she returned to her drafts of Pride and Prejudice, which she'd originally titled First Impressions, & rewrote considerable portions of the novel. And it shows. The superiority of the writing in Pride and Prejudice to that in Sense and Sensibility is astounding, at least to me. Jane came back to Pride and Prejudice in her mid-thirties, bringing with her not only the experience of writing & publishing other works, but another decade's worth of knowledge of men & women & human nature that she masterfully weaves throughout what many consider to be her greatest work.

One of the things my high school English teachers did exceptionally well was lay the foundation for everything we read. We didn't read anything in isolation. We knew the author's background, the literary period into which their work most neatly fits, & the cultural norms & expectations that influenced them & their writing. If they had a weird uncle who heavily influenced their writing, we knew about him. This is one of the things I hope to emulate in the classroom. 

Though I read it in college, I guess I skipped right past the epigraph in The Sun Also Rises. The epigraph, as well as the book's title, is taken from Ecclesiastes:

Ecclesiastes 1: 4-7

I could read him the rest of my life & continually discover something new in Hemingway's works. I am sure the same is true of Ecclesiastes . . . from which Edith Wharton took her title for The House of Mirth:  

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

Ecclesiastes 7:4 

I'd be remiss not to mention that the reason I am buried in all these plays & novels at present, the reason I, at thirty-five, just discovered the Ecclesiastes passage in The Sun Also Rises, is because I decided I need to be with Reagan when she begins school, & so I guess another possible title for this post is, "How Diabetes Made Me a High School English Teacher." 

And you know (& I am going to do something I rarely do & quote myself here), "I cannot be so mired in the present that I neglect the future," is my current motto, the motivation I need to get these summer assignments done, & done right, but if there were an official diabetes motto, well, that should be it. It's also, coincidentally, my book club motto because while I love to read, I am often tired & it takes discipline to keep plugging away at some of these tomes we read, but I am always, always, glad I read the book. The moment I sit down to discuss that month's book with a small group composed of some of my favorite people in the world, that moment is the best, & it motivates me to read. Plus, you know, some of the tomes we read are suggested by yours truly, so I feel obligated to read them.

Have the discipline to do today what needs to be done, & do it well, so that you can revel in the future you've constructed for yourself. 

I should begin that last sentence with, Anna.


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