Essays

The Fictional Lives of High School Teachers

By posted at 9:56 am on February 5, 2014 8

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covercoverIn a recent Bookforum essay, Natasha Vargas-Cooper argues that we should stop teaching novels to teenagers because she hated reading novels as a teenager. Her first example is The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. It took her a decade to understand Jake Barnes’s condition because she, “like most high school sophomores, had no frame of reference to tap into the heady though subtle emotions that course through Hemingway’s novels.” She found Jake and company boring. She was a “hungry” teenager “starving for stimuli,” so “trout fishing in Spain did not cut it.” Hemingway wasn’t the only snore. Add F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with the “damnable Brontë sisters [who] were shoved down my throat.” She traded Bless Me, Ultima for mediums that were more “vital and urgent,” like “movies, musicals, and plays.” Those visual narratives “gave me large and instant rewards for spending time with them.”

covercoverThe real villains were not stodgy novels, but her public school teachers. “Brutally inept teaching of The Pearl” almost soured her on Steinbeck. Most of her teachers “were as inspiring and provocative as the Great Expectations Word Search they handout out the first day we started Dickens.” Those teachers were “largely well-intentioned adults who don’t have the resources, or sometimes even the intellectual vigor, to make emotional landscapes of the western front, nineteenth-century London, or Pamplona very real to sixteen-year-olds.” In the hands of these insipid instructors, novels weren’t “the best device for transmitting ideas, grand themes, to hormonal, boisterous, easily distracted, immature teenagers.” Her proposed solution: students should read non-fiction.

Her potential reading list includes memoirs, creative non-fiction essays, meditations on language, and journalism. It’s a good list, but the problem is that Vargas-Cooper thinks she’s discovered the groundbreaking secret “to spark a love of reading, engage a young mind, and maybe even teach them how to write in a coherent manner.” Non-educators who write about education often make breathless suggestions that have already been used in the classroom for decades. Many of the writers and works who appear on Vargas-Cooper’s list are commonly taught in high school classrooms, and are suggested as independent reading selections for summer work: David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, George Orwell, Jon Krakauer, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and others. Here’s a small sample of non-fiction from my own classroom: Wallace’s “Shipping Out,” “The Essay Vanishes” by Ander Monson, “Listening for Silence” by Mark Slouka, “How to Make Collard Greens” by Megan Mayhew Bergman, excerpts from The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr, and essays from Brevity.

coverLike many sweeping proclamations about high school education by those who have never done the actual work of guiding and caring for a classroom of students, Vargas-Cooper’s essay doesn’t pass scrutiny at the line-level. She wants the same supposedly banal educators she attacks earlier in the essay to now teach Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” and Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion. She then follows with a confounding sentence tandem: “Maybe the classroom is not the best setting for children to have profound literary experiences. Give the kids something they can relate to, immerse themselves in, and even copy!” I assume this means that teachers should give students non-fiction, but this transfer and experience must not happen within a classroom. Even parodic prose needs clarity.

Although I remain befuddled by her unawareness of high school reading lists, I am not surprised that Vargas-Cooper chose to begin her complaint with Hemingway, a writer often reduced to his myths. The Sun Also Rises is particularly well suited to misreading because of its unreliable, love-drunk narrator, Jake Barnes. Many of my own students have enjoyed Hemingway’s novel. I don’t say all, because no one other than a first-day teacher — or writers of thin commentaries on education — expects all students to enjoy every assignment, or even to read every book. But if Vargas-Cooper is looking for a “thought-provoking excursion into themes of empathy, human responsibility, and folly,” Hemingway delivers. I’m fairly certain that a novel about a man in love with a woman who would rather just be friends might connect with a teenage audience.

coverStudents also enjoy The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, a literary thriller suffused with theological complexities. An unnamed “whiskey priest” is on the run in 1930s Mexico after a regime based on the real-life governance of Tomás Garrido Canabal has outlawed Catholicism. Priests can either forsake their religion, or die. The whiskey priest chooses faith, but that faith is tempered by pride. He is no exemplary priest; in fact, he is a terrible man. He has abandoned the daughter he fathered out of wedlock. Anyone in his presence is in danger of arrest or execution. Another unnamed character, the lieutenant, considers the whiskey priest a symbol of all that is evil within the Church: gluttony and hypocrisy. The lieutenant wants to eradicate all vestiges of Catholicism, and he will use all means necessary.

covercovercoverI teach at a public school, not a parochial school. Most of my students have a vague cultural knowledge of Catholicism, but they are a world away from the Mexican province of Tabasco. Some students miss the double meaning of “father.” Others don’t understand why the villagers would risk death to receive the sacrament of confession. And others still will not read the book at all, either because of disinterest, or because they are overwhelmed with other classes and commitments. But I do not want to live or teach in a country that asks students to only engage experiences similar to their own. I look to create comfortable dissonance in the classroom. I want my students to recognize that they are geographically and culturally different than the characters in Greene’s novel, and then to consider their shared humanity with these fictional characters. I ask them to do the same with the Bundrens in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or with Oedipa Maas in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. They spend a season with the brilliant, maniacal football team at Logos College in Don DeLillo’s End Zone. And I pray that they will never know pain equal to the men and women in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but they benefit from seeing the world through such scarred eyes.

We should continue to teach novels in the high school classroom. Fiction has a home there. But we should stop writing fiction about high school teachers within essays about education. Vargas-Cooper’s ribbing is playful compared to the stereotypes cast by politicians who hope to siphon funding from education. Teachers don’t enter this profession to relax. Teachers are women and men who work themselves exhausted.

Let me be clear: we public school teachers are not martyrs. We get paid for what we do. Whether that pay is acceptable or not is for another discussion. In America, teachers are either seen as angelic or caustic, saviors or sycophants. These stereotypes enable politicians to convince the public to support the latest education fad or slash needed budgets. The reality is we teach because we love to help kids, and we think literature is a way to examine and understand our complex lives. We do our best to help students inhabit the world of novels. The worlds of those texts might be imagined, but the emotions are palpable and authentic. We do real work in public schools. That, I can assure you, is not fiction.

Image via Thomas Favre-Bulle/Flickr





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8 Responses to “The Fictional Lives of High School Teachers”

  1. CP
    at 12:50 pm on February 5, 2014

    Thank you.

    As a teacher, I was also made quite uncomfortable by the NO NOVELS FOR KIDS article. Glad I’m not alone.

  2. ZK
    at 3:16 pm on February 5, 2014

    Well done, sir. Sums up just about every argument I’ve had in the last ten years about teaching English in a public school. Less fiction? I’d prefer not to.

    Why do most teachers quit in the first five years of teaching? Dead Poets Society and Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers deserve more of the blame than any public policy.

  3. I.
    at 3:30 pm on February 5, 2014

    Really great perspective in this article. Especially considering the brutally short shrift teachers get in Vargas-Cooper’s piece. Or anyone besides Vargas-Cooper herself, really. Writers don’t always have the last say in the way their pieces are titled — at least, not in places like Slate, though I’d imagine Bookforum’s different — so it might be a bit unfair of me to feel as though that piece’s title promised something the piece itself absolutely did not deliver. But what irritated me about “Why We Should Stop Teaching Novels to High School Students” is that it should have read “Why I Wish I’d Been Taught Nonfiction as a High School Student,” or “Why Teachers Shouldn’t Have Taught Novels to Natasha Vargas-Cooper When She Was a High School Student.”

  4. Meira Eliot
    at 9:14 am on February 6, 2014

    If it`s any consolation, teachers in the US are not alone in being subjected to skewed and even hostile expectations! It`s much the same in the UK, where even government officials speak to and about teachers with a breathtaking disrespect and open hostility that would never be tolerated if they were addressing any other professional group. What this all tells us about ourselves as a culture or as a society really needs to be faced and examined. In the urge to become vocationally relevant we have allowed the baby to be thrown out with the bathwater. The alleged “uselessness” of literature is a symptom of the malaise. Of course the curriculum needs to be relevant – why NOT teach TUPAK`s songs as an intro to Rhythm and Poetry? But for heaven`s sake let`s teach our kids a respect for words, whether written or spoken, and give them the tools of intelligent thought. There is no better way to do this than to show them the best examples we already have.

  5. Sean H
    at 8:11 pm on February 7, 2014

    Well-written stuff. A highly cogent defense that doesn’t bully Vargas-Cooper but takes righteous umbrage at the callowness of her ideas and the lack of sophistication with which she unfortunately presented them. She’s basically just a kid but one who has gotten spotlighted for one reason or another and, like a lot of members of her generation, she seems almost painfully unaware of her own entitlements and self-centeredness, and exists more in a pop culture construct duplicate of life as opposed to the real world. Young writers get into print too early sometimes, and aren’t allowed to mature or to develop their skills. She deserves skewering, but I think the larger take-home here is about perspective, and how Ripatrazone’s experiences inform his writings and make for a more adult level of writing that should serve as an example to younger aspirants that they should be honing their craft instead of rushing to build a superficial if impressive list of publication credentials and cultural commentaries.

  6. Francis Mickus
    at 12:08 pm on February 24, 2014

    I couldn’t agree more. Of course I haven’t read the non fiction only essay, but I suspect it falls in line with an idea that only reality should be taught. That reality which can be measured, weighed and bound in the physical universe.

    Fiction, let alone the humanities, has no place in such a world view and its apllicable curriculum. Yet, I feel it in my bones that what ails us as a society is the innability to think beyond the physical universe. To know what we live for rather what we live by.

    Schools are meant to help our children function in the society that they will inherit. Not only as consumers and employees but as thinking participating people. They need to know how to think. – how to look beyond the surface of things.

    I know no better way than to get get to look at where they come from – Latin, Greek, Philosophy, Art, Music, History. All that we knew all that we were all that we have hoped to become.

    And there is no better starting point than literature.

  7. Don Strong
    at 2:27 pm on June 12, 2014

    I couldn’t disagree more with the comments. Rather, lit teachers ought to begin by teaching with Vargas-Cooper’s essay. Then a week discussing it and its implications. Then move on to O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find. After a few days of discussion and student essays on the reading, read aloud to the class. Then then move on to something a bit longer. Longer stuff toward the end of the class, with a week of discussion and student essays about what they have read between each assignment.

  8. Kirk Calma
    at 11:37 am on June 14, 2014

    We should, of course continue teaching novels of fiction but there are libraries and bookstores full of novels that, in my opinion would be more stimulating to a high school student than The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby. I read the former a few months ago and was bored stiff, the latter just does not engage them.

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