I’ve recently been on a reading rampage. One of my resolutions for this year was to watch less television, so with this free time I’ve been diving into books on my reading list. Most of it is young adult lit right now because that’s what my students talk about most and it’s the easiest to consume while balancing lunch duty, track practice, musical practice and you know…the whole teaching thing.
For the past two years I’ve heard so much about Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. I even remember hearing about it when I was in high school. It was recently made into a film so I thought it was about time I understood what all the fuss was about. The letter format and simplistic writing style, as well as the mysterious main character, made this a 24hr adventure. I kept trying to view it from my students’ perspective to figure out what would make this dark and depressing story resonate so much with them.
And unfortunately the answer is because with every description of substance abuse, verbal assaults, and physical molestations, I realized my students were able to come to terms with some of their deepest fears and horrific memories in the comfort of a book. They could read their pain and know they were not alone. Hopefully, some could even bring themselves to seek help to mend the brokenness caused by the dark selfishness of human nature.
Daily, I interact with kids struggling to keep it together, to hide, to blend in. Some are better at hiding it than others who wear it right on their sleeve. I’m overwhelmed by my inability to help them. I’m so thankful for the power of literature and the power it has to step where no one else can. This is why I make it part of my mission in the classroom to expose students to literature that may not contain an unlikely teenage protagonist with the very specific talent that can undo the dystopian society no one else can seem to topple. I’m not hating on that- trust me, I eat that stuff up. I want them to read books that burst their bubble of self-centeredness. I want them to know so much more than what adults think they can handle.
Currently, there’s a popular video floating around on the Internet of an angry father being arrested at a school board meeting. I was obviously intrigued and watched it. The video was not at all interesting, the man said nothing profound and was not removed for what he was saying but merely that he had broken protocol. Not nearly as scandalous as the description made it seem. However, the reading passage in question is definitely a brow raiser. I’m not going to get into the debate about whether or not this material should be taught in schools. There is an appropriate way of going about handling inappropriate material in the classroom, and there is a way that doesn’t address it at all. I’m sure the teachers involved had no intention of creating parent outrage- trust me, we don’t try to poke the bears.
But for all of you aghast at this small passage in a much bigger book with a much bigger story, do you think this is the first time 9th graders have heard a description like this? Do you think they haven’t seen sex in a much more graphic nature on television or in a movie? Heck, that scene was detailed in a much better way than what their buddy in the locker room is explaining. Why not have them experience this in a safe setting where they can ask questions and even question the author’s choice to include it in the book? Why not allow them to take control of things like that as opposed to letting them be controlled by it? There is a great opportunity to learn through fiction invaluable lessons about the imperfections of life.
I want to teach them Junot Diaz, Margaret Atwood, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison and Ian McEwan, along with many others. These writers though are considered too mature for high school juniors and seniors.Young men and women struggling with identity. Trying desperately to find their place in the world with too many voices shouting too many directions at them. So instead they self medicate with drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping, gossip, self-harm, and isolation. Diaz writes about the realities of the urban latin american teenage experience in a mesmerizing way that could entrance students and open the narrow scope that white rural suburbia has to offer. However, explicit language, drug use, and typical teenage sexuality outlaws the use of this incredible writer and his magical stories. DeLillo’s White Noise confronts the issue of how we obtain knowledge and how media affects our views on death. He questions how we know information and how the source of information skews the very material. He highlights the slow creeping influence of media and how we become mindless consumer machines.
I could easily get carried away with explaining the influence contemporary literature has had on me and what it could do for my students. I do what I can to point them in those directions but there are so many things I’m not allowed to say or can’t say for fear of retribution. But what I do tell them in as many ways as possible is this:
Knowledge is powerful.
Whoever controls the information and the distribution of information has the most power and so they must always beware of why they think what they think. I urge them to seek out information from many sources and not to believe everything they read online. I try to pull my seniors away from young adult lit and help them put their toes in the pool of award winning authors.This is usually where they look at me like I’m some crazy conspiracy theorist. But hopefully, in a place they won’t admit to because it’s not socially acceptable to agree with the teacher, they hold on to this warning and begin to look at the world around them differently. Hopefully, they begin to seek out challenging texts. Hopefully, they find themselves in the most unlikely of stories relating to the most unlikely of characters feeling at home.
Reading has the power to swaddle us in the comfort of relatable characters but it also has the ability to thrust us into uncomfortable and challenging situations. It teaches us about ourselves and the world around us. We must continually seek to learn more and read more or allows ourselves to be led like a donkey chasing after a carrot on a string, creating tunnel vision about only satisfying our self-indulgent nature.
Grab a book and pass it on.
*Previously posted on Debunking Debacles on 5/9/2014