One of my personality flaws is the fear of being misunderstood. I say it’s a flaw because I spend too much mental energy trying to explain my meaning after the fact, and other folks are way past thinking about me or my dumb little thoughts. But that is why I write this blog; it’s my space to make sense, process, and reflect.
So: it’s early. If you want to go along on this cold coffee and stale toast mental journey with me, great. But if you need to get off at this stop, be my guest.
Loudly and clearly: I am not a high school teacher (yet). I hope to be and soon. It’s been a career goal of mine for a few years. Henceforth, I have never taught, attempted, or even imagined I would teach The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne. It meant a lot to me as a teenage reader, but that was back in the late 70s and 80s. I heard the term “dead white men” in the 1980s, in college I think, and it’s stuck with me. I took feminist studies at the University of Delaware, read all the Margaret Atwood and Alice Walker I could get my hands on, and a hefty chunk of Tom Robbins and John Irving. My limited understanding of literature has been a lifelong catch-up.
In high school, the offerings were Steinbeck, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Hawthorne. I think one of my teachers offered Richard Wright, but there was no discussion or guidance. As background to my adolescent reading life, I lived in Tehran, Iran when I was twelve, moved to Colorado during middle school, and moved to Wilmington, Delaware for my senior year of high school. Authors of other ethnicities, countries, races, etc. were not offered or discussed.
My senior year English teacher shared her love of John Irving with me, and he was one of my favorites because his work came to me at the right time. So did the Scarlet Letter: as a teenage girl I was horrified and in awe of this woman who fought the hypocrisy and repression of her times. Think about the 1970s/80s: coming of age in this time the worst thing that could happen to a girl would be to get pregnant, be thought of as a slut, have rumors spread or be seen as promiscuous. Hester Prynne knocked all that on the ground and held her Pearl close in her arms. We didn’t have to empower statements such as “no slut shaming” or “smash the patriarchy.” And it’s beautiful and wonderful that we do now.
I have no plans on teaching The Scarlet Letter. The only time I’ve mentioned the book is in a PowerPoint I made years ago addressing themes and how 8th grade ELA students can understand the purpose, their burning questions, and the themes authors explore. I am an artist first, writer, and the teacher. Many students were intrigued by the ideas in the novel. I told them maybe the books I mentioned in the presentation would be taught in high school, or they could go look for them on their own. All the while, I kept and keep a wide range of engaging texts in my classroom as possible.
Remember my collegial friends: I came to my teaching career in my early 40s. I am much older than many of my colleagues. I have the unseemly middle-age bucket of both a mortgage payment and student loans: mine and my sons’. So while I know that Jarred Amato’s passion and direct language during this tweeter exchange felt a little pointed, I knew what he was trying to do. He needed to be loud and clear to his audience that we should not treat the “dead white male authors” with any reverence or sacredness. But my social media insecurities fluttered a bit: he liked every tweet around mine. Not a single one of my responses or ideas was liked or retweeted by him. And then I have to reflect; does it matter? Isn’t the conversation the most important part of this, and who cares if I am misunderstood on Twitter? (Trying to silence the inner voice of my insecure teenage girl thinking–the girl who loves something and then someone else craps on it.)
And that is what I am afraid of for our students. And I do not know the answer to these questions: is it our responsibility to provide access to all kinds of texts? Or is it our responsibility to promote texts? I do believe, we must be very careful in showing our biases toward texts: if we hate it (as I do Ayn Rand) or love it (as I do Adichie) is it up to us to get our teacher fingers all over something before students have a chance to explore it on their own? In our book tastings and book talks, how much do we pre-chew the food for our students? (My suggestion would be as little as possible: teach them the skills and strategies on knowing when to abandon a book, not fake read or waste their own reading life line.)
First and foremost, we must be mindful to bring as many diverse books into our classrooms. And that may include, but not featured, a section of classics, and possibly media pairings, to provide all students with a contextual history of art, politics, literature, and science.
And I will attempt at zero misunderstanding: when I spend my own money on books for my classroom, (which is upwards of $5,000 to $6,000 at this point over the course of twelve years) I buy the most current, engaging titles I can: authors such as Jason Reynolds, Walter Dean Meyers, Laurie Halse Anderson, Angie Thomas, Kwame Alexander, and many more, sitting in boxes from my packed-up classroom, waiting to go to a new adventure.
Students do not need to read The Scarlet Letter (or any other “classic” text) to become successful readers & writers. Crazy how many adults think they do. #ProjectLITchat
— Jarred Amato (@jarredamato) June 21, 2018