Reading in High School
By Alison Balaskovits
In May, which in internet time is practically decades ago, education secretary for the UK, Michael Gove, decided to remove To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men and The Crucible from the GCSE curriculum. Allegedly, the reason for this is to study texts that would be more reflective of British Literature, not American. While many Americans were miffed and some folks sniffed the proverbial book-burning, Paul Dodd explained it quite simply: Michael Gove doesn’t like those books. Fair enough, I suppose.
There is a lot to be said about those choices – is simply disliking a book the reason why we should not expose future generations to it? I didn’t particularly like Frankenstein the first time I read it with those long, endless descriptions of scenery followed by a declaration from the doctor that he didn’t notice any of it because he was too depressed about all the madness he had caused. I love the novel now, after having it assigned three more times in various literature classes, but I also know that I wouldn’t have a grasp of so much of contemporary culture that borrows or was inspired from this text.
Still, this made me consider the choices that my own high-school deemed appropriate, or rather canonical, or at least thought would best serve me when I took the AP exam*, which is a whole other issue right there. What were those choices, and which of those texts have stuck with me?
I went to a very white, lower-to-upper middle class high school. Some of the students could possibly have been considered affluent. A few of us went on to Ivy’s, and we had about a 98% graduation – to -college “success” rate. The other 2 percent presumably went off to the military or to work. Another indication of the class expectationswass that my school did not require the ASVAB, which you will see taken alongside SAT’s/ACT’s in poorer, rural communities. But fear not, that’s totally not targeting a specific class of people. It’s just a coincidence.
Because of this mostly white population, the texts we read did represent our experiences. I only stayed in regular English my first year and then bumped up to accelerated and then AP. We read endless Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, Midsummer Nights Dream, King Lear, Love Labour’s Lost). We read Catcher in the Rye, Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird.
I do remember, my first year, reading The Lord of the Flies. My teacher, in an effort to make the book … I don’t know, more real to us? … decided to use an eraser as the magic conch that we would hold to talk. Rather than keep any form of order, we proved the thesis of the book by fighting tooth and nail over the conch and arbitrarily making up rules about who could hold it for so long, and if we could vote others into silence. There were lots of raised voices. Possibly tears. My teacher never commented that we were becoming the damn book, but there you go. Perhaps she realized there would be that ah-hah moment later in our lives. Maybe it is just me.
I can only remember four instances where we read books by non-white authors: two of which were in my AP class, one in my freshman year, and the last was in a Chicago Literature elective. Spread out, that’s one non-white book a year. At least they tried, I suppose. It probably did not help that we read Things Fall Apart during a time in our lives where, because of some very poor history and geography classes, a few too many of us were confused if Africa was a country or a continent.
I read Beloved and The House on Mango Street in AP, which also meant that we were finally reading women. I believe we read Bronte and Austen, whose lives were so distant from our own, we swooned over Darcy and Heathcliff and we focused on them. What makes these men tick? Why are they so desirable to these intelligent women? Catherine and Lizzy were dynamic, and even if they were far away, at least, we could see our own passions reflected in them, even a little.
I know who we did not read: Woolf, Sexton, Plath, Le Guin, Walker, Brooks, Oates, Elliot, Angelou, Wharton, Lessing, Cather.
In Chicago Lit, we read Native Son, which I remember really hating at the time because the concept of feeling sympathy for a character who behaved badly was totally bizarre to me. It has since been one of the books I return to, and one of my favorites, as it has informed my understanding of class/race politics, as well as the whole concept of the monstrous, and if we treat people like monsters long enough, should we be surprised if they act in the nature we prescribe to them? That novel constantly worries me, a voice in the back of my head: don’t forget this.
Even if Gove and others want to cut texts that they don’t like, or the author does not match the national identity of the country they are reading, reading in your teenage years seem to be incredibly foundational, and creates an implicit message of the sort of lives that are acceptable, the actions that are acceptable, and the plots that should be told and disseminated. I hope he picks with care.
So, what were you required to read? What do you remember? What did you love, what did you hate?
*Turns out, according to whoever makes that test, I would have been better served reading Beowulf in Old English than reading any contemporary literature.