“Literature is the better part of life.”
– Wallace Stevens
Walk into my classroom during our current unit and you’ll hear a number of passionate discussions going on.
Now, this may be something you “super teachers” have come to expect. Perhaps you facilitate these discussions every day in your bright, airy classrooms that smell good and are decorated with relevant and artful posters. But I teach English, and not many kids love to read anymore (not a complaint—just a fact). And it’s beautiful outside and we’re stuck in here and my posters are falling down due to humidity changes and there are always always sticky melted frappuccino rings on my desks. And I teach a lot of seniors, and they have four days of their obligatory school careers left.
So excuse me if I walk around the room grinning.
What, you may ask, has gotten them so riled up? Banned books.
They’re working in book clubs on a set of books that have been frequently challenged in schools and libraries around the country. Four or five students per book, six books in all. The question I posed them, and that they’ll be presenting on next week to the whole class, is whether or not the book they read should be taught in a Christian high school. Sure, I see the irony in this: I have already made the decision for them by assigning the book in a Christian high school. My opinion is clear. But I’m certainly ready for them to disagree with me, and some already have.
It’s invigorating to float around the room and hear kids discussing faithful discernment and maturity levels and consideration of family values. They’re pondering the prevalence of swearing or sexual content in the books—just one word or many? How “hot and heavy” does it get? They’re considering whether the questionable material is realistic—does it portray a true aspect of our broken world? Or is the violence or drug use simply sensational? Does it matter that young people hear about this content? Have they already encountered it? Do any of the positive messages overshadow the negative ones?
But if I’m honest, the underlying (and probably larger) reason I chose these books is because I just wanted students to read them. These are books that I read over and over and loved time after time in high school. They’re books that taught me, ever so gently, what went on in the world outside my middle class white bubble, but also what it meant to be an outsider even when you looked like everyone around you. They showed me what it felt like to love someone and to lose someone—both things I hadn’t really experienced yet as a teenager. They were, according to my favorite metaphor for reading, both windows and mirrors. I could look through them to learn about different people, places, and events, but I could also see myself reflected in them, awkward and messy and unsure though I was.
Because literature really is the better part of life. It’s the part where you get to sit down and leave your own reality for just a few hours. Maybe that world is better, or maybe it’s worse, but what matters is that it’s different—it’s a window. And literature is the part of life where you get to see your own traits magnified, your own imperfections smoothed over, your own problems solved in new ways a mirror. Maybe what Stevens really means is that literature takes our good stuff and canonizes it. Literature is the better part of our human nature: our idealized selves, our dreams realized, our slapdash teenage romances turned fifty-year marriages.
So when I sit in with these book club groups and hear my students—largely white, mostly middle class, from fairly stable families—identifying with poor, generally parent-less Junior in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, I have to smile. When I hear a girl say she feels the same sort of guilt Miles does in Looking for Alaska, I feel her ache. When a student blames me for a failed government test because “I just had to stay up and find out what happens in Eleanor and Park,” I feel only a little bit bad.
And when a student emails me at 11:24 on Friday night that she and her friends watched the movie version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower together that night and it’s “so SO so so good” and she says, “thanks for a great book to read and leading my friends and I to a great Friday night,” I’m tempted to think that I’ve done something right.
But really, it’s not me. It’s Charlie and Sam and Patrick and football games and tears and leaving for college. It’s life.
Abby Zwart (’13) teaches high school English in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spends her free time making lists of books she should read, cooking, and managing the post calvin.