Each summer, I look forward to tackling the pile of books I’ve acquired and stacked throughout the teaching year– those I want to read but simply don’t have the time. I call it my Summer’s Promise. It invites me, each summer, to choose what I’m in the mood for and when. Inevitably, some in the pile have literary merit, books that make me think about life and appreciate writing styles, some are mindless and transportable, taking me to another place for a time, and each summer, one seems to stand out above the rest– one that lives long in my reading memory. I try to predict which ONE it will be, but I’m always pleasantly surprised.
Before Women Had Wings (1997),a novel written by Connie May Fowler, is one I end the year of American Literature with. Avocet, a.k.a. Bird, Jackson’s narrative grips the reader before the end of page one. She’s an innocent girl trying to understand life– what’s fair/ what isn’t. She endures pain, often issued from her parents, sometimes her sister, too, but she loves them and searches for understanding. A spiritual journey provides her with hope, an unlikely friend, and finally salvation. Although her family defines dysfunctional, it begs the reader to understand the flaws in human nature and the power of forgiveness.
I find this unit, more so than others, is connectable for students. I’m not sure if it’s the arc of the unit. We begin with women’s poetry (Maya Angelou, Marge Piercy, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath, Anne Bradstreet, and even Ann Sexton) because I want to create an image of what it means to be a women– HER whole story: the good, the bad, the ugly. When we read the novel, which I approach more like a book club than instruction, I allow the conversation to become fluid and completely directed by the students in the class. Next, I ask students to interview a prominent female figure in their lives to reach an understanding of what being a woman has meant to her.
The students borrow from a part of the book in creating a “Devil’s Teardrop Box,” a keepsake Bird’s father made for her which holds all that she cherishes, for each chosen woman. In it should be 5 objects (or more), authentic or recreated, that help the student tell her story.
Finally, a reflection is written on the whole process. What I find most endearing is what students say about learning her (often a mom, older sister or aunt) story, something each student appreciates in unanticipated ways. For the girls, it’s often a sense of pride that emerges. Suddenly, this woman who has been more concerned the mundane, because after all she’s often just mom, emerges as a woman, a being that existed before the birth of the interviewer. For the boys, empathy comes through the most; they are the ones most surprised by the outcome. But, overall, all students regardless of gender come away with a newfound knowledge, and, I believe, real understanding. It’s such a positive way to end the year.
The elusive canon that all of us literary types know exist but is difficult to define. Sure, there are lists of canonical literature while the contents vary dependent upon the source. Some classics, more than others, may find themselves on most lists. In truth, I believe the canon is and should be evolving. If the canon represents the exemplars of literature from a given time, timeless in their nature, it should indeed be a fluid body of work depicting culture and humanity.
Students should have in their back pockets a representative array of canonical literature which they acquire over the spans of their educational careers. I am asked by my students, more so than any other single question, “Why am I reading this?” “It’s old and out-dated,” they often quip. “It’s irrelevant,” some will say.
My job isn’t to take the easy way out and comply by giving them what they’re interested in as a way of pacifying them, bribing them, as such, to engage. My job is to get them to understand the relevance of these great works, why they are considered great, what makes them relatable, still today, thus, why we are still teaching this “old stuff” anyway.
It wasn’t until college that I understood, as a student, why such works were important. Somehow, it all fell into place with these words stated by a college professor who shared that her summer reading list included canonical works she hadn’t yet read.: “Reading literature from the canon makes one literate.” Further, it struck me that my literature professor, who I would still argue is one of the most brilliant people I know, had yet to finish all the works in the canon. For me, this awakened the realization that we are all lifelong learners and will never get to a place of “all knowing,” but that’s the point, isn’t it, appreciating the journey of learning as we go, knowing a little more every day, every year?
Reading literature from the canon makes one literate. I have pondered this statement a great deal. For I had been one of those students in high school who questioned why I was reading The Awakening or Macbeth or The Canterbury Tales or The Catcher in the Rye. After all, people don’t even say the word “phony” anymore, I thought then.
Her statement resonated with me; it surfaced on many occasions. Through hindsight, I’d recalled the messages, characters, motifs, symbolism, allusions of such literature I’d read in the past and her words began to fall in place. As I moved through college, I became enlightened by the connections to life and literature and the whole world around me I was making. Classic literature makes us literate. It provides us with a common history, understanding and language.
I once had a discussion with my son about a SouthPark episode. We watched the same show together, yet laughed at different lines. I questioned him, afterwards, on why he laughed when he did and why he didn’t when I did. I realized some of the jokes were above his head, in that he hadn’t lived through some of the allusions made or hadn’t read widely enough to understand them. While I’d previously dismissed SouthPark, as a crude show doing no more than poking fun at society, I gained a new-found appreciation for its sophistication.
This is the same sophistication, though often subconsciously so, people experience when they are well-read. Life becomes richer when we’re privy to the experiences that come before us; we see things with widened eyes. We make connections innately from our prior knowledge.
That’s what my professor meant about the classics making us literate. Not in a literal sense of the word. Sure, I can read. I’m a strong reader, in fact, but armed with host of classical literature, I can read into life more effectively, efficiently and insightfully. I can reach an understanding that I couldn’t have without experiences which have lead to my own literacy.
So, what do I tell my students who ask me that question? I tell them about the canon: what it is, why it is. I promise them that works like Harry Potter will end up in the canon which I firmly believe. Moreover, it’s important for them to know that their culture will be represented in the canon one day. But more importantly than telling my students anything, I find ways to show them how the classic literature we read in class is relevant. I model for them and provide them with opportunities to see the connections from one work to another or from same piece to a contemporary novel they might have read, or a movie they’ve seen or a personal experience. I don’t expect them to fully “get it” in high school, in much the same way I didn’t. In time, they will understand the importance of reading this “old stuff” and I hope to make their engagement with the classics, now, as dynamic as possible so they do.
Life is about making connections, thinking critically about our world, finding our place in it. I believe literary classics are a vehicle to learning such lessons. So, yes, the literary canon matters.
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