Classics are books which, the more we think we
know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative
we find them when we actually read them.
I recently met several of my reading friends for
brunch. We talked as we always do--rambunctiously and
enthusiastically, with our words coming rapidly and spilling over one
another. We are always so excited when
we get together--we love to talk about what books we have read, podcasts we have
enjoyed, and texts are helping us grow as teachers.
When it was my turn, I told my friends how my current
reading has been an inadvertent re-visitation of classics. It all started when I read The Mockingbird Next Door, a story of an
unlikely friendship with elusive author Harper Lee. That had led me to reread To Kill a Mockingbird. Which led me to seek out other classics from
my reading past. Buoyed by a holiday
break at school, I worked my way through many of the books I remembered as
important to me as a student, from Where
the Red Fern Grows to Anna Karenina
to Light in August.
I told my friends over our omelets, "It's fascinating how my reaction to these
books now, as an educator in my forties, is so different from how I remember my
reaction the first time I read them."
"How?" someone asked.
"Well, for example, The
Great Gatsby," I said. "I read it
when I was 16. And then again at 20,
maybe? At the time, I thought the
characters lived such exotic, complicated, dramatic, difficult, wonderful lives. I envied their sophistication. I thought it was high-class to drink cocktails
for breakfast. To throw elaborate
parties. To gaze longingly over Long
Island's north shore in hopes of seeing someone you loved deeply. To travel into the city to carry out an
elaborate extramarital affair."
"What do you
think about the book now?" one of my friends prompted.
I struggled to find the right words. "Now, I see the characters as
deeply unhappy. They are people with insurmountable
and alcoholism mostly, but other stuff too. They hurt one another, over
over, for selfish and meaningless reasons."
My friend Gretchen, a high school English teacher, made a
sound that mixed a squeal and a wail. "I just had this conversation with my
students!" she said. "They drive me crazy
with their reactions to Gatsby. They
think--especially the girls!--that Gatsby is the ultimate romantic
character. They swoon at all the things he
does to get Daisy back. They think it's sweet."
She paused a moment. "But in
reality, his behavior is delusional."
Those girls aren't wrong. They love how Gatsby loves Daisy. They love the lengths he goes to in his quest
to show his love. It's genuine and real
for them. Just because we (older readers
who have seen too much to admire Gatsby's efforts) may not agree, we have to
respect where our students are when they read a text.
Our brunch conversation reminded me how a reaction to a book
we read changes depending on where we are in life--what we are experiencing,
what we are managing, who we are spending time with. It's a pendulum, really--our connections to a
character or a story swing gently back and forth over time.
That's why it's a good exercise for teachers to go back and
reread classics that made an impact on us when we were students--even if they are
not texts we will actually teach. It
gives us a simple reminder how our thinking about texts is never set in
stone. Our reactions will be fluid and
dynamic. Keeping that perspective will give
us a broader net to cast when helping our students analyze texts.
This week we look at student research. Plus more as always -- enjoy!
Contributor, Choice Literacy
JenniferSchwanke is a principal in Dublin, Ohio.
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