For three years, I suffered through awful English classes with dull, uninspiring teachers. This was extraordinarily painful to me, because... well, duh, I was a humanities kid. I carried a novel with me everywhere. I was already a writer. I was a straight-A English student (except for that one assignment I will never forget).
The only thing positive thing to come out of those three years of awful high school English is that, to this very day, I can still recite the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech from Macbeth. Yes, forcing 15-year-olds to memorize a Shakespeare speech is definitely the right way to get them passionate about learning Shakespeare.
Did I mention that these were the honors (advanced) classes?
Finally, in 12th grade, I took Advanced Placement (AP) English.
The Advanced Placement program allows high school students to take a college-level class in high school and, at the end of the year, take a special exam. If they score sufficiently well, typically 3 or better out of 5, they can receive college credit. Taking AP English in high school enabled me to skip right to 200-level "Survey of..." English classes in college, a HUGE benefit.
My AP English teacher was a cheerful, quirky middle aged woman whom we had all known as Mrs. Goodman. A few weeks (as I recall) into the school year, she came in on a Monday morning and announced that she had gotten married over the weekend and we should call her Mrs. Paulson now. Surprise!
|Mrs. Paulson, from my yearbook|
(yes, it was all black and white)
Mrs. Paulson would lean out the window and look up at a cloudy sky to address the Roman god of rain, Jupiter Pluvius: "Jupiter Pluvius, the kids tell me there's a pep rally today. Do you think you could hold the rain off until after it's over?"
We laughed, but it didn't rain.
Mrs. Paulson taught literature like I had never been taught literature before.
The prompt this month asks about a book that changed my life, but that class changed how I read books.
We read Sophocles' "Antigone" and then Jean Anouilh's modern take on the play, written during the Nazi occupation of France. We used the two plays to examine literature's relationship to politics, and art's relationship to power. We discussed how two authors, thousands of years apart, could use the same story to respond to authoritarian forces in their society. Teenage mind blown.
We read William Faulkner and focused on the perspectives of individual characters, delving into their inner lives as though they were real people -- because they were, within the space of the work. Teenage mind blown. Again.
We read The Turn of the Screw and debated whether the ghosts were real and, in so doing, learned how an author can lead you to believe something while subverting that belief at the very same time. Could my teenage mind be blown again? Apparently, it could.
We read novels, novellas, short fiction, plays, essays, poetry, and more, so that we could uncover the richness of art. We read, thought, wrote, rewrote, talked, argued, changed our minds, convinced others. We learned.
We learned to think while we read. To pay attention not only to the story but to what the writer was doing to, and with, the story. To engage with the work, and with other readers, and with the world.
Before that class, I had been a passive reader. I loved my books, but I didn't think critically about them.
I sure do now.