Novels and plays populate my mind, rolling by in a continuous cycle, thanks to my being a literature teacher… All these words marinate, year after year as I teach the same texts, yet are born anew while I share them with my students. Through the years I have come to appreciate how these well-told tales sustain me and feed my passions and lead me to question life’s tribulations. As my students face these texts for the first time it only deepens my experience of them.
My sophomores first read Homer’s Odyssey. This epic poem fills their summer: meeting the Cyclops, the Sirens, and Calypso, and experience one man’s journey to return home to his family and his rightful place. Come September they step back into our school and read about what Elle Wiesel has called the most important event of the 20th century, the Holocaust, but seen through the symbolism of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. We ponder the unanswerable question with this short yet powerful novel: is man inherently evil? As innocent citizens became casualties of WWII, Golding reminds us of how easily one can forget one’s humanity. Macbeth is next. Once again, the broad startling faults of mankind, of ambition gone too far, of the false face, unravel in our central character and all those within his reach. This frightening look into a man’s soul is not lessened by Shakespeare’s use of his supernatural witches. From this rather dismal vantage, we go forward in time to Victor Hugo’s redemptive Les Miserables where the sweeping triumphs and sacrifice needed for a successful revolution are made personal through the tender and short lives of Gavroche, Eponine and Fantine. Hugo shows us that through love alone will we find fulfillment. Not a bad place to end your 10th grade semester in Literature.
My seniors’ literary journey is similar in questioning the inner workings of mankind. Summer: Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. This foray into magical realism jolts them to question everything as they navigate their individual path and venture out on their own. Nothing is solid with Marquez: time travels in a circular motion, personality traits are born anew in each generation confusing identity, the innocent ascend to Heaven while others simply fade into ghosts: Marquez moves students to ask where do we fit into this wider version of reality? Continuing on this shifting ground, we journey to the equally questionable world of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Stream of consciousness forces us between splintered time periods, between character’s inner angst and placid demeanor, into the emotional destruction war brings to family and country alike. At her novel’s end, Woolf brings us the satisfaction of completion, just as my seniors finalize their college essays. As they continue along to finish applications, collect transcripts and letters of recommendation, we begin Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment. As tangible and graphic as crime is, this author delves into the deepest recesses of mind within the grime and poverty of a city on the verge of monumental change. Russia is painted with a dirty blackness that covers the windows, mirroring my students’ anxiety as they await spring letters of admission.
What better place to go now than straight into Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “To Be or Not To Be” could not resonate with a better audience as they wait and wait along with this anguished Prince. Every scene forces them to see the insufferable agony of inactivity, yet they also respond to his contemplation, and understand being between a rock and a hard place. As we leave the stage peopled with victims of their own making, we pick up Ellison’s Invisible Man. The search for identity, the young man striking out on his own to find that illusive piece of himself, the trickery used multiple times trapping him until finally he has only himself to rely on, here is where we pause, exactly when letters arrive. Decision time for all. Seniors begin to come to school dressed in their new identity, wearing the garb of their chosen college. Spring. Hope. Ellison brings us there, quite cautiously, but standing on two feet.
Each year I pepper these classics with a few new titles, poetry and essays too. Each provocative and challenging text allows us to glimpse the Heavens and return with a deeper understanding of the possibilities…