I hate British Literature.
Well, for the most part, anyway. There are things I can tolerate, such as Coleridge and Wordsworth, and very few things that I love, such as the Irish (Who doesn’t love the Irish? They’re not really British, anyway, are they?), T.S. Eliot (and he’s really American), John Keats, (and his Grecian urns and nightingales) and Hamlet (just Hamlet, himself).
But I loathe Dickens (I mean, you want to talk about bleak). And please don’t make me read anything by the Bronte gals (sorry, Jane). I know, I know. How can I call myself an English teacher? It’s sacrilegious.
And here’s the rub: I teach English IV, senior English. Traditionally, English IV is British Literature. And it’s no different at the school where I teach. But for the last five years, I’ve taken some liberties. (Okay, a lot of liberties.) Let’s be honest. It’s hard to get the kids interested in something if I’m not intereted in it (and with some of my struggling students, it’s hard to get them interested in anything). I’ve covered Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon so that I can justify covering Yuself Komunyakaa and Brian Turner and Tim O’Brien. And, really, I had no true justification for asking my darlings to read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (except that Dave Eggers speaks English) last year, but a lot of them actually read it. One even came into the classroom the morning after he finished it and said, “This is the best book I’ve ever read.” I swear.
This year, though, we are implementing the Common Core curriculum, and so I have decided, finally, to come to terms with the literary canon and embrace the Brits.
And what is my first unit? The Canterbury Tales. Awesome. I hated it in high school (sorry, Mr. Baker) and have since avoided Chaucer like the . . . well, yes. Like the plague. But I do remember being awestruck when I stood before his tomb in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. And maybe I even felt a little guilty for it; if I had never appreciated him in the first place, then was my reverence some sort of writerly obligation, something I felt I was supposed to feel just because he was Chaucer? Just because he was . . . old?
I can tell you right now that answer is not going to fly when my sixth period class starts asking, “Why are we reading this? It’s not even in English.” They’re going to want an answer. A real answer. And, as their teacher, I owe them one.
But these kids also know me well enough to expect some kind of honest explanation. The students I have this year as seniors I also had as freshmen. Two-thirds of them had me as their English teacher during their sophomore year, too. We’re close. Really close. (There are about five or six of them that I eat lunch with every day in my classroom, or outside, if I have lunch duty. We solve the world’s problems, share each other’s potato chips and rice krispie treats and veggie straws, and celebrate each other’s birthdays.)
This is both good and bad (but more good than bad, I think); it’s good in the sense that I know what I’ll be up against during sixth period every day. They’re disliked (to put it mildly). And it’s partially their fault (but only partially). There will be around thirty of them, including the one who sometimes forgets I’m not his mother and yells at me like I am (he’ll apologize later; he always does), and the one that I can count on to stand in front of the class and read The Wife of Bath’s Tale in a feminine and terrible British accent; there will be the one that tries to be a big man (though he’s no bigger than I am) and we’ll go nose-to-nose each day, but we’ll end up on the same side; there will be the one I look to for commiseration, and he’ll roll his eyes at his friends’ antics because he understands. Completely. And the girls, oh, what those poor girls will have to tolerate (all four of them).
It’s bad in the sense that I’m going to laugh a lot (when I’m not crying). I always say that I’d be a much more effective teacher if I didn’t laugh so much. But, God, teenagers are way too funny.
So I’ve given myself a relatively tall order for the start of the school year; not only do I need to put aside my own propensities and put forth the effort to find the true value (and I know it exists) of The Canterbury Tales, but I also need to attempt to convince a large group of twenty-first century adolescents of its worth, and maybe even more importantly, of its relevance.
The latter, of course, is a much more daunting task. And to be completely honest, I have no idea, yet, how I’m going to tackle it. But I know that it will have to involve performance. Actors, costumes, and props. A soundtrack, maybe (I’m banking on mostly rap and country). The thing with teaching is that it’s all trial and error. All of it. And that’s not just for each unit or each lesson plan — it’s for each period, each day. What worked yesterday might not work today. What worked first period might not work third. So you just have keep trying until you figure out what does work. Even if that means you have to dress yourself as the Wife of Bath and project your own terrible British accent.
Whew. I’m sweating already. And it’s not even August.