28 May 2012


I am reposting this from May 2011, because it gives me hope that I will get through the last two weeks of school. And then I can read.
I have loved this "Year of Reading" with my Junior BritLit classes. We finished our PechaKucha presos on their independent reading last week (more to come on that in a later post), and many of them feel the same way. It reminded them what they liked about reading, and gave them permission to  enjoy school, at least  little bit. It did the same for me!  I do love my books: not only their beauty and power, but also how they have painted the world in living color for me, always. I have not traveled much, to my great regret. Many of the reasons have been beyond my control. But books always filled in the blanks for me, helped me never to lose that desire to know more, to meet others, to ask questions, to thrill at the unfamiliar.  So it is still a mystery to me that some of my seniors 1) no longer enjoy reading and 2) don't believe me, the avid reader whom they respect, when I say "try it, you'll like it."
   And maybe my mystification comes from being educated in the latter half of the 20th century. During my school days, teachers knew "it" and they gave "it" to us. We did what we were told, because our teachers knew. We worked alone. Studying paid off. If you got an "A," it meant you were smart. Everything was measurable. Working hard had its rewards. Owning a book or learning facts was achievement.  Reading the book, living the unknown secrets the author hid between its leaves, ploughing through the book even when it was hard,  have become the foundation for my fondest memories of school and childhood.
And then all of a sudden it is the 21st century, and knowing where to find information has become achievement instead. Reading about Jane Eyre is enough. Knowing the story will get you what you need.  Information. Not the tingle of love, epiphany of self-discovery, the thrill of not knowing, hate that you could taste in your throat, grief for which there (still) are no words, edge of the seat suspense,  madness that made you step back in fear: that is why Jane Eyre is still one of my favorite books. I suppose that I read it at the moment I needed it, when I felt the female looming in me, but did not know yet what it was. If you tell someone the plot of Jane Eyre, their eyes glaze over. They have heard it before (I know, it is THIS plot that has been copied, but they do not know that). I still yearn for every moment stolen in a story read late at night with a flashlight under my covers.
   Jump to the present: we finished our final lit project in my World Lit classes: world poet wikis. I am reading their finals now (and don't worry, guys, you did fine) and am struck by the resistance of some to let go and just tell me
what they truly think about that poet they just spent a solid week reading as they built the wiki page.  I pick the poets carefully, because I want to tap into the limitless possibilities that seniors can feel at this point in their lives. The world is theirs, all they can see is the blue sky and endless road ahead. I remember feeling that way, and my heart still jumps at the joy of it. It is how I manage my middle aged sadness every year when I lose them to their futures. Magical thinking is the last thing I can give them. They leave with their heads full of women with stars in their eyes and men who live forever. They never forget Federico Garcia Lorca or Charles Baudelaire. Students always return later to visit, wiser, and tell me they understand "Get Drunk" now--seriously, Healigan, I do.

   I do not want to get lost here. I can imagine comments sternly reminding me that they discover these joys themselves now, that the new ways of teaching are better for their needs, and I get it. I really do. And I teach accordingly. But the reality is, they are just learning facts, listing plot points when they choose to read sparknotes and wikipedia, just like I did when I memorized the names of all the Victorian authors. But what I remember most about English in high school is deciding on a Trollope summer after my 11th grade English teacher went nuts about him (who? we all thought)  in one of her numerous digressions while we read Great Expectations. It was exhilarating and wild. I still remember feeling as if reading all that Trollope changed me. It did. I laughed out loud more than once, and it was my secret. I still recommend him to anyone who will listen.
   My students, who know so much, are not often internalizing the experience of reading--poetry, novels, essays. So much of our learning throughout life is unconscious, experiential, random. Every time they wrote an essay this year, I found myself naturally sorting the essays by who read and who didn't, because there was sometimes a paucity, an emptiness in the writing of the non-readers as they struggled to express their often superior intellect and adult emotion without the tools. Those who did not read were starving for the experience of reading; of easy, sure expression of one soul communicating across centuries, genders, lands, races, languages, to touch one other soul. Reading is personal, intense, thrilling and creative. It informs your thoughts, feelings, relationships, values, clothes, music, tastes, and decisions. Literature is the final and most critical character education (am I using the PC term?) that we have at our disposal........and building that wiki page or posting 140 characters on Twitter (follow me, I'm @1healigan) is just not doing the same job.

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