This week, I begin my twenty-seventh school year as an English teacher. I have taught at the university level for ten years and at the high school level for sixteen. This year, like most school years, I am fired up to begin. My work this year will be similar to my last few– I’ll teach two classes of high school seniors Classic Literature. In this course, we read The Iliad, The Aeneid, The Inferno, and Hamlet. In January, these classes become Creative Writing: Poetry, an elective course. I’ll also teach two classes of high school juniors American Literature. Yes, I am among the world’s luckiest people. I love these courses.
The American Literature classes, in particular, give us a chance to explore the important realities of American life: colonization, slavery, gender equality, capitalism, the American Dream, racism, religion, to name a few. The texts we read are challenging and the discussions are often lively. We begin with Columbus’ “Letter Concerning His First Voyage” and we conclude the year with Lucille Clifton’s “Slaveships.” Along the way, we read Anne Bradstreet, Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, Arthur Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston, Hughes, James Baldwin, Sherman Alexie and more.
Recently, I heard from a former student, now at a Big 10 school where he studies political science and plays football. He told me that he used our study of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman in an essay about the creation of the American media. He also said he used ideas from these two authors in our American Literature class as he reflected in a paper on the constructed reality of “whiteness.” This young person discovered his passionate intellectual curiosity about race and politics in the midst of his high school English class. Back in our American Literature class, he dove into the political questions of the readings and now his desire for knowledge is offering his life real depth and meaning. To me, he demonstrates the essential nature of a literature course. You never know when these timeless ideas will take hold of a young person. You never know where they will be led.
The Classic Literature classes explore some of the universal questions humans face: Are we free? What does it mean to be a man? a son? a father? a citizen? What does it mean to live in a world laced with suffering? To read and then discuss these ideas with young people is a true privilege. Some days I am amused by what students say. Most days I am moved by what they say. I seem to learn something everyday, if I’m paying attention.
In my Creative Writing: Poetry class last year, one student I taught the year before regularly found inspiration for his own poem in the poets we’d studied back in American Lit. In the poems he wrote, he recalled the psychological wisdom of Emily Dickinson, the ominous predictions Langston Hughes made about America. He found ways to echo the poems of previous centuries in his own. This young man is now off to a large university in the South. I can’t wait to see the various ways his ideas grow and deepen.
You cannot predict when the power of literature will grab hold of a young mind. You cannot predict when the beauty of literature will move a student to begin to write and create on his or her own literature. If we lower our expectations and don’t offer good literature to students, we know they won’t grow. If we dare to keep spreading great literature out before them, we will find some young people who catch fire in ways we could never expect.
I’m looking to make #27 the best year yet.
Photo: Dooley Hall, Gonzaga College High School, Washington, D.C.