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 Lesson, The Awakening, I 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?