The Poetry Question

Discovering the Relevance of Words

QOTD – June 7 – Favorite Novels from High School?

I entered high school as the fairly typical high-school wanna-be punk. I was “angry” and didn’t feel like I fit in with anyone. In reality, I was a book-nerd, poser-goth, who just wanted to pretend to be pissy to get friends, and maybe a girl. I got the friends, but girls thought I was pretty awful, and looking back at photos, I don’t disagree. Yikes.

My freshman English teacher, Ms. Wood, noticed something in me, and she made sure that I was aware of it. She pulled me aside a couple of weeks into the school year, and handed me her own copy of Catcher in the Rye. She didn’t say much, just that I “needed it.” So, I took it without scoffing, thanked her for giving me something the rest of the class wouldn’t be reading – in a very sincere way – and read it straight through the rest of the day until I had finished. My life was forever changed. I was – as is every 15-year-old boy – Holden Caulfield. I had never been able to relate so heavily to a character, and I’ve read that book at least twice a year since that day.

I don’t remember much about novels during my sophomore year. My teacher was on the cusp of retirement, and didn’t seem to interested in talking to us. We read eleven books that year, and the only one I remember is Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. It was always read a book, write an essay, take a test, read a book, write an essay, take a test. We never discussed anything, never read aloud, and never did anything that would allow any of those books to stick in our mind.

American Lit was a life changer. That was the year I was introduced to the works of Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, Kate Chopin, Ken Kesey, and the authors that would set me up for the rest of my life.

And then I became a teacher. 

Now, I often struggle with finding the right books to work into my curriculum. For the last few years I’ve been teaching junior English, which has typically been labeled as American Literature. Unfortunately, it’s a fairly male-centric area of study, as early American lit didn’t truly involve the female perspective, the female romantics were British, Transcendentalism didn’t feature any prominent women, and from the mid-1800’s to the mid-1900’s, most popular American lit came from male authors. I’ve been able to work in some strong female short stories, but I seem to lose a lot of the girls in my class, as they are definitely left out of the mix – it’s not like Jack London, Ken Kesey, Ernest Hemingway, or JD Salinger really cared about the female perspective (even Franny and Zooey dealt much more with the male point of view than that of either of the main characters).

We had a recent discussion in our department about books that we could open up for the junior year, and I’m pretty excited to widen the curriculum base. Next year I’ll have the option to teach The Piano LessonThe AwakeningI know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and sections of The Joy Luck Club. With the exception of Angelou’s woe-is-me tale (I’ve never enjoyed Maya Angelou’s work), I’m very excited by the options. Chopin has always been one of my favorite authors, so The Awakening will be a definite. I think my year will have a lot more balance, and the connections will be much more wide-spread.

My question to you is this:

What were your favorite novels to read in high school, and why? 

About Christopher Margolin

Chris Margolin spent more than a decade in Education as a high school English teacher, and is now an Instructional Coach for the Longview School District. He is also the founder of The Poetry Question, an online journal which focuses on reviews of small press poetry publications, and runs a regular series called "The Power of Poetry," where notable poets share their personal stories of how poetry has affected their lives. Margolin resides in Vancouver, Washington with his wife, and daughter.

3 comments on “QOTD – June 7 – Favorite Novels from High School?

  1. Amy Fitzpatrick
    June 7, 2013

    My brother was terminally ill and developmentally disabled. I spent most of my high school experience loaded. Home time was spent being my mother’s assistant, and class time was spent hiding in alleyways trying to cope. Just before turning 16 I learned how fun it was to do heroin and train hop. I got arrested a lot. My step dad was a former English professor at UNR. He’d “grade” my letters home from juvenile hall with a red pen and send them back to me. Unfortunately jail school didn’t give a shit about books. There was no time for reading. They pushed trades on us heavily. We were each given a course on how to fill out job applications, small engine repair, and hotel management.
    I was released just before my 18th birthday and decided to be a better person. I had plans to make something of myself, so Portland became my home at age 22. Less than a year later I was the passenger in a brutal car accident. After a lengthy hospital stay the scar tissue in my carotid artery closed up and I had a stroke. Some of my language and writing skills died with my brain cells that day. I took to guitar to rebuild my fine motor skills, but couldn’t find much to rebuild what I was now lacking upstairs. Reading was too hard. My eyes would dart around the page.
    Several years ago I was having a normal conversation with Jackson but got stuck trying to find a word. I kept saying, “The weapons in the garage.” My vocabulary had somehow lost the word ‘tools,’ and was trying to replace it with anything it could. Nearly in tears I explained to him the frustration of knowing my brain is fucked up but not being able to fix it. I knew when I was saying the wrong thing but was powerless against it.
    Jackson said, “Hold on, I’ll be right back.” About 10 minutes later he reappeared with Flowers for Algernon. It took some time but I eventually read the whole thing. Alcohol, sex, and brain issues. I’ve never been able to relate to something so heavily in my life. I wish my brother would have read it at some point, and I wish I could go back and hand a copy to everyone who’s ever judged me or my brother in the midst of a brain glitch.
    I realize this was a long and roundabout way of NOT answering your question, but it’s the only honest response I have.

    *Any errors in spelling, grammar, or punctuation are a result of transmission. The original author is not at fault.

  2. Allie Taylor
    June 7, 2013

    Many of my favorite novels from various high school reading lists didn’t become my favorites until after high school. I enjoyed reading on my own time, but when I was forced to read something it ruined the whole experience for me. I was a bit of a slacker when it came to reading novels in high school for this very reason. I think I made it through only a few, and cliff noted my way through the rest. I did however find one book during my high school years that I really enjoyed: Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Watching the removal of societal restrictions and the use of primitive justice fascinated me; I was amazed at how quickly social order deteriorated when this group of boys was removed from “polite” society.

    As an adult, I have gone back and read some of the classics that were on those reading lists, and I’ve fell in love with quite a few. I still have many, many more novels to read, but some of my most favorites include The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. The rhetoric used by these authors to mirror the injustices and the fears present in their respective societies still captivates me to this day.

  3. John R.
    June 7, 2013

    I have several that immediately stand out: Tao of Pooh and A Collection of Short Stories and Essays by Mark Twain.

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