Image courtesy of Abe Books
This is not a post about why schools don’t teach. It’s also not a post about why too many of the list of “approved classics” that schools make our kids read are by Dead White Men (DWM) (though too many are). There are lots of posts about that already, and you can read those, if you like. I don’t have anything new to say on that topic. Really!
Nope. This is about why kids are so often bored out their mind by those classics, and resist reading them. Or at least, why I think so, which is a slightly different thing. And I’m going to start this here little essay by talking about the Thornton Wilder Classic “Our Town”.
Our Town, boring the living crap out of Your Author
I fucking hate “Our Town”. I can’t stand it. I despise it. It bored me to tears when I was forced to read it the first time, an it bored me out of my mind when I had to watch a production of it when I was in high school. I listened to the analysis of my AP English teachers; I understood what they were saying; I got the allusions. I’m not a stupid guy. I just fucking hated it. The question is: Why? (Yes, I’m aware some of you don’t care. You can bow out now.)
There are two reasons. Well, three. The third reason is I never bought the whole “Christian rapture” thing, so spending the entirety of the afterlife waiting around in chairs in a graveyard sounded idiotic to me. The second reason is, if I had a chance to relive the highlights of my life, are you kidding? I’d grab that in a heartbeat! I totally got Wilder’s point about memory being bittersweet, and it being tough to look back, and Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, and saw that point made again in Pixar’s Inside/Out. And you know what?
To heck with that! Sign me up!
Even in high school I could think of a half-dozen times in the past I wanted to visit. The times when my grandfather was still walking before his stroke! The time my grandmother took me to Ocean Beach Park, but I was too little to really appreciate it! Or when she took me to see the live Peter Pan at the theater in Boston! I couldn’t have been more than 4 or 5 and could barely remember that; I’d definitely want to relive that, feeling bittersweet about my grandma being dead or not. It’d be a gas to see her again. Or when my dad took me to my one and only live NFL game in 1972. It was so overwhelming I could barely remember it.
I’d actually like to remember this!
And believe me, as I got older, the list of memories I would be thrilled to relive got even longer. Particularly as my body started to break down and my experiences became more—ahem—adult in nature. If you get my drift. Sit in a graveyard doing nothing waiting for the rapture? For hundreds of years? Are you serious?
But that was only the second reason. The real reason, and why I think kids have trouble with lit in general, is this:
“Our Town” is a tiny town out in the sticks of New England, and I’ve spent my whole life in Suburbia.
This isn’t new, and I am far from unique. This has in fact been the case for hundreds of millions of kids going back now to the 50s. Kids who grew up in the suburbs, with dads (and now moms) commuting to work while they went to school in the suburbs. While we’re reading books about everything else.
Now yes, you want to read books in part to experience vicariously things you can’t in real life. That’s certainly one reason I read science fiction. I’m not getting a jet pack any time soon—at least not at this rate. So it’s up to Dave Stevens and The Rocketeer. It’s up to Heinlein and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel to get me to the galaxy in Andromeda. It’s up to Samuel Delany to get me on a starship powered by Illyrion, where I can plug my nervous system directly into the control systems to hunt down a Nova. I have to depend on Frank Herbert to get me to Dune. And so on. All very well.
Still waiting, engineers
But here’s the thing: Kip, the hero from Have Spacesuit, Will Travel goes to a High School that sounds a lot like the one I went to. Cliff Secord from The Rocketeer lives in L.A., in a Craftsman house. They did wild things, but these details helped anchor them in my boring, suburban world of Safeways and freeways and commutes and lockers and school buses and newspaper deliveries and TV shows and Slurpees and comic books and going to movies and whatnot.
“Our Town” had none of this. None. And that’s what I’m getting at here. The classics we’re asking kids to read have no commonality with the kids we’re forcing to read them.
Now I know what you’re thinking, and no, I’m not suggesting we take “the classics” off the table. Not at all. That is not where I’m going with this. Quite the contrary. Because I want to point out that, despite all of this, and my hate for “Our Town,” and Tale of Two Cities, and Romeo and Juliet, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and other “classics” I was forced to read, there have been plenty of others that I have not just enjoyed but loved over the years. And the question is: How? How did a cynical, late-20th-Century GenXer from the ‘burbs get into that stuff?
Context, and presentation.
Now, this isn’t going to work with everything. As I’ve probably hammered into the ground, no amount of presentation and context is going to make me love “Our Town”. But let’s look at, say, Shakespeare. I should hate Shakespeare. The plays are long. The language is difficult. The subjects are often obscure. And yet there are many Shakespeare plays I like, and some I downright love. WTF!
Context, and presentation.
The first Shakespeare play I saw was “Merry Wives of Windsor” at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in 7th grade. My English class studied it ahead of time, and my teacher was great. Plus it’s a comedy. Plus we stayed afterwards, and the actors chatted with us about it. And we sat close in. And then afterwards we got to ask questions about it. Sure, it was more complex than, I dunno, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but they made it approachable. So the next time I encountered Shakespeare—”Julius Caesar”, it was—the fact that I didn’t like it much wasn’t because It Was Shakespeare™, but because, well, I didn’t like it, is all. (And I’ve found in later years I’m not much of one for tragedies in general. Not just Shakespeare; any tragedies. I couldn’t stand The Departed, for example.)
Shakespeare Santa Cruz had a genius for this, not just with Shakespeare, but with anything. The brilliance of staging Samuel Beckett’s minimalist, absurdist “Waiting for Godot” in the middle of a redwood grove simply cannot be overstated. Or changing the sexes of the parts of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Until you’ve seen Titania played by a 6’2″ black man with a powerful bass voice, you’ve never seen it.) Or “A Doll’s House” set up like a 1950’s sitcom. I didn’t always like these plays, but the staging provided the context that brought them home to me.
Just an ass…telling a fairy…he loves her
Similarly, when you consider something like Little Women, or Moby Dick, or Heart of Darkness, a little imagination can provide the context needed for a young reader to enjoy them. And I did enjoy them, because I luckily had people to provide that little extra for me; my grandmother in the case of the first, and excellent teachers in the case of the second and third. (I treated Moby Dick like a science fiction book which, to a kid in the 70s suburbs, it pretty much reads like, honestly. A whaling ship of the mid-19th Century might as well be a spaceship for all that it resembles your world of freeways, McDonald’s hamburgers, and food wrapped in cellophane.)
And this is what I’m suggesting for the readers of classics now. Provide some context. People can enjoy them. Look at how many people are watching the TV show Dickinson, when the material is injected with a little context and imagination. Or the film Sense & Sensibility. I won’t draw the obvious parallels between Emma and Clueless, because other people already have, but there are other examples. Enough to get people started. Why don’t we use them? Why do we keep dumping kids straight into these books and expect them to enjoy them and then are surprised when they act like with “Our Town”?
I’m not dumping on teachers here. I’m reaching out to everyone: Parents, Uncles, Aunts, school boards, older siblings; everyone who has access to kids. Do like my ex and I did and watch Sense & Sensibility with your kids and then give them Austen. Have them watch Clare Danes and (a very young) Leo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet and then try them on a more “standard” version. Watch the new version of West Side Story and then say, “Hey, did you know…” It’s not “cheating”; it’s being smart.
Seriously, who can resist these women?
No one has to like all the “old classics”. Especially all the old classics by DWM. But it’s a good idea to at least figure out a way to give them a try before you give up on them. Really. Because while some of them IMO really don’t translate well to our era, or our sensibilities (I’m sorry; I’m never going to be a fan of Lolita), a lot of them do.
I’m never going to like “Our Town”, though. Sorry about that.
I agree completely (well, except for your ludicrous Nabokov dismissal).
An aside: Shakespeare Santa Cruz was my *second* re-introduction to Will’s works. English majors at UCLA in 1985 were invited to a recitation of several soliloquies, at lunchtime in a small science classroom. Twelve of us accepted. An unknown (to us) English actor breathed new life and parsed rhyming couplets for nearly an hour. Afterward, I thanked him and shook his hand. Patrick Stewart graciously answered questions until well after the bell rang.
But yes, “Our Town” is abysmal.