Friday, September 12, 2008

For the Love!

You know you are seriously a nerd when you are previewing the curriculum for a high school English class you will be teaching and you find yourself having a really enjoyable time doing so. Great literature has always been like that for me; it's my idea of a good time. I suppose that is why it more than a hobby for me; I have made it my sustenance. Trite, huh?
During my teaching experience, I have learned a couple of truths about what makes literature great, great. The first, I heard about from my senior high school English teacher, Mrs. Peterson . Our class was just finishing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when "Ms. P" told us that we should read that book at least 3 times at different stages in our lives (presumably during our youth, middle-age, and old age) and that, each time, it would take on not only greater significance, but that it would be a different novel.

Later, when I landed my first teaching contract and taught Huck Finn to my students, I remember loving it more than ever. It was suddenly the funniest book I had ever read. How had I missed the irony in its tone, before? How had I overlooked the hilarity of the King and the Duke? More importantly, I had just graduated from college and had learned how to approach a book in a whole new way. As I was trying to come up with a gimick for engaging my junior Honors English class in Huck's misadventures down the Mississippi, the book fell into astounding clarity and I realized that Twain had written an epic and that Huck, like Odysseus, was on the hero's adventure. Nerd that I am, I was so excited about my discovery that I lost sleep over it that night. My junior class, as it turns out, was not nearly as taken with my approach to Huck Finn as I was and it is possible that they are still sniggering at my unfettered enthusiasm.

The next truth I learned about great literature also comes from my experience with teaching. Simply put, to teach literature is to become enamoured with literature. To this day, my favorite Shakespeare play is Romeo and Juliet. I know that isn't the most erudite selection from Shakespeare's canon, but I love it the most because I probably taught that play 15 times during my career as a Sophomore English teacher. It feels familiar, yet I am still amazed to discover each time just how eloquent and flawless the language is. It has, on me, the effect that all timeless literature does. Instead of getting fatigued with R and J, my enthusiasm for it increases with each new reading and, in turn, with each new teaching.

Just this week, I read a Browning sonnet. Sonnets have never been exactly my favorite poetry. They are so structured and so preoccupied with unrequited love that I suppose I have found them to be a bit um. . .well. . . corny. However, I gained new appreciation for Elizabeth Barrett Browning as, her Sonnet XLII, took on shape and focus when, after a couple of readings, her words became more than pretty fluff. Oh, don't get me wrong, it was STILL all about true love, but I feel better for figuring that out and I feel like myself again, having read it.

Ahhh, won't it be great to be 55 and reading Huckleberry Finn all over again for the first time?

7 comments:

A said...

I agree whole heartedly! When my daughter was reading Fareheit 451 last year, I decided to re-read it again and I found that the story took on a whole new meaning for me. I just went to back to school night and my son's junior high LA teacher was absolutely passionate about her calling. She loves books and I could tell she really wanted her students to feel that joy that comes from reading a good book. She was preaching to the choir for me. I am sure there was one student who felt your love for books and went home to open one up, so sniggering aside, that makes it worth it!

Marie said...

Actually, my favorite student ever came up to me to tell me that he thought Huck Finn was the funniest thing he had ever read. It totally made my day and I was really impressed by the fact that a 16-year-old boy would pick up on the subtleties of the humor.

I love Bradbury, too. I read Fahrenheit 451 for the first time just a couple of years ago. I could not believe how almost prophetic it was in some ways. Bradbury's prose is definately something you can sink your teeth into.

Aston said...

I completely agree about reading certain books at different points in our lives. I have one that my Grandma gave me when I was 14yrs old titled Tender Time. I read it again as a young adult, then engaged and recently. I feel the same way about Pride and Prejudice. Now if I could only be this enthusiastic about reading the BOM. At least we try ... right?

antigone-spit said...

You also know you're a nerd when you're heartbroken at the prospect of English class being cancelled.

Also, I agree entirely about reading books again after you've read them once. I had to read The Giver in eighth grade. I absolutely hated it and was ready to declare it the worst book ever written. Then I went back and read it again during senior year and had a newfound appreciation for it.

I, personally, look forward to reading To Kill A Mockingbird when I'm fifty. =)

Marie said...

You are so right! I will definately put that at the top of my Things-To-Do-When-I'm-50 list. Ahhh, so many things to look forward to.

Jen K said...

Hi Marie! It's Jen. I am painfully aware as I began my summer by re-reading Howards End (my all time favorite) and found that I am no longer an idealistic, socialist Helen and am now the more moderate and mature Margaret. I at least understand that the political polarities need each other. What a difference a decade makes!

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