Do you remember your favorite book in high school? Was it The Old Man and the Sea? Perhaps you had a fondness for The Great Gatsby. No? Oh, you’re a Shakespeare person. Let me guess, Macbeth. Wait, King Lear. While you think about it let me mention my favorite book in high school – it was Stephen King’s, It.
I must admit something, and I am a little ashamed to say this. I never read ANY of my high school assignments. I bought the Cliff Notes. It’s not that I didn’t read. It’s just that I was reading a lot of horror, mostly King. And my biggest reasoning, or excuse if you prefer, I just didn’t find any of the classics relatable. The two books that caused me the greatest angst in high school were The Grapes of Wrath and Moby Dick.
This post is not about hating on the classics. This is about a confession and about a sort of revelation I had, but mostly about a challenge I’m presenting you.
First, the confession. For this I need an actual teacher, so I introduce you to Laurean D. Robinson, an English teacher in the Miami-Dade County Public School system. She teaches 12th Grade Advanced Placement English Literature. Robinson understood my reasoning, though I’m not sure she bought it completely. At least she didn’t say, ‘Now go and read some Thoreau and some Twain and finish with a little Fitzgerald for penance.’
Robinson understands that the classics can be a tough sell. Her students are tackling Othello, “The week before, we went through anthologies and background information. We did a tutorial for note taking. Before they even read the play, they’re already taking notes.” Robinson likes to take her students to the era a story takes place to better understand the nuances of the political and social issues of the time. “They then gain an interest because they have a lot background (information). Understanding the politics of the time is key in understanding the play.”
I am not disparaging my former teachers when I say this, but that sort of approach was never part any curriculum I lived through. Maybe it would have helped me to better appreciate something like Moby Dick if I understood the importance of the whaling industry in that part of American history. Perhaps I would have gotten into The Grapes of Wrath had I known more about the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, maybe. Then again, maybe not.
I challenged Ms. Robinson and asked why we should still study the classics in school. She says, “Things like Shakespeare set the standard for a lot of what we read today. The past sets the tone.” I can’t disagree. Understanding the history of something makes the appreciation so much more enjoyable.
“Before they even read the play, they’re already taking notes.”
OK, so that was the confession. Now, here’s the revelation. I recently came across one of those lists – you know those lists – books you should read before you die. It’s the sort of thing I usually skipped past. For some reason, maybe guilt, maybe curiosity, likely both, I had to read through it. There in front of me were all the books I never read in high school. Suddenly, I wanted to read them all right then.
I didn’t read them because I was a restless teenager. I didn’t read them because they seemed boring to me at the time. I didn’t read them because I figured I’ll never need this later in life. I don’t regret any of this even though I would try my damnedest to convince my younger self to read them if I could. That’s OK though. Because reading them now as an older man may actually be more enjoyable than I expected. That’s what’s led me to the challenge – the Classics Challenge.
Remember, I told you that Steinbeck’s novel gave me fits in high school. Why? Tom Joad’s story, that of him and his family traveling across the desert plains of the American west, just didn’t do much for me. I came back and read the book as part of my challenge. I could spend pages describing how the book has now become one of my all time favorites. I could go on and on about what I’ve seen in my life that makes Tom’s story so relatable for me. I told Ms. Robinson, the story now resonates for me in an emotional way, not just intellectually. The biggest reason – I have more life experiences. At 16 I didn’t relate to Tom Joad, or many of the characters in numerous classics. As a 43-year-old, I actually have quite a few experiences that puts me into the novel unlike anything I had ever known as a teen. I have to believe that maybe there were some people who got the story in high school, though I would more easily believe that it was on an intellectual level more so than an emotional one.
You may argue with that premise. That’s fine. I’m not making a definitive statement. I’m just pointing something out. Age equals experience, which equals a deeper appreciation for the classics. If you don’t believe me, go back and reread some those books. Reread The Grapes of Wrath and tell me that you don’t see it and feel it differently, perhaps more intensely, than when you were a teen. Try me.
By the way, if you get an opportunity, please check out Ms. Robinsons blog, LBoogies Pop World. Then you’ll see why I wish I had her as a teacher back in my day.