This is a guest post from Rebecca Renner. Rebecca, an MFA candidate at Stetson University, teaches American literature and creative writing in a chill Florida beach town. While not reading, writing fiction, or blogging on beckyrenner.com, Rebecca frolics with her dog Daisy Buchanan and travels. She is finishing work on a novel. Follow her on Twitter @becky_renner.
Behind every book nerd, there’s an English teacher who started it all. Sure, they didn’t convince us to like books. They did, however, encourage us to see them differently. They conjured enchanted objects onto the page: theme, metaphor, symbolism. They suffered our grammatical errors, remedying them with the wand of their red pen. Most of all, they listened to us talk about books, a subject we might find later in life that not everyone enjoys.
This teacher for me was Mrs. Malarkey (no, really). She taught both tenth and twelfth-grade IB English in a windowless classroom with industrial beige walls. Before I took her class, I thought reading was boring. After? The bookstore became my new best friend.
As an English teacher now, I often wonder how she did this. What was her secret recipe? We certainly read a lot, so much that I’m not sure how Mrs. M fit it all in. In tenth grade, she introduced me to Greek tragedy. She taught me about hubris, irony, and archetype. We studied allegory with The Crucible and self-fulfilling prophesy in Macbeth.
In twelfth grade, Mrs. M led me to Margaret Atwood’s feminist poetry. Seventeen years old, and I had no idea how cool that was. (Seriously, if you haven’t read Atwood’s poetry, drop what you’re doing right now. Right this minute! Go!) We studied Sartre’s No Exit, too, and for a brief spell, I thought myself an Existentialist with a capital E. We analyzed Wilfred Owen and Robert Frost. We devoured 1984, Anowa, Hamlet, Things Fall Apart, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and A Streetcar Named Desire. My students can tell you I still do a mean Blanche Dubois, complete with whisky-voiced Southern drawl: “I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers.”
Still more books from Mrs. M’s class have probably slipped my mind. The fact is, it isn’t what I learned that made such an impression on me. It’s how. In many of my other classes, “learning” meant ingestion and regurgitation: this is how the world is, remember it, write it on the test. English wasn’t like that.
Confession: I hated The Great Gatsby. I read it over the winter break of my senior year, and in January, I came in and told Mrs. M exactly how much I loathed the book. Speaking of hubris.
Instead of letting that ruffle her, Mrs. M accepted the challenge, and I am so glad she did. By the end of that quarter, my copy of Gatsby was striped with Mrs. M’s patented four-color annotation. She evoked connections between the smallest things, not only the lofty themes behind Gatsby (the ephemerality of life and love, for one), but also how not a single detail, not even a word, in that brief, seven-chapter novel is wasted. By now, I have read The Great Gatsby at least 20 times, and every time, I see something new.
I am on the other side of the classroom these days, and the view is different from here. For one, I can see all the grimaces when I announce we’re starting a new novel. My classroom doesn’t look like Mrs. M’s. My walls are a lighter shade of beige. I have two windows, sunlight, but not everything is brighter. I have almost double the amount of standardized tests than Mrs. M had to contend with. Gone, too, are many of the choices. I wish there were more books by women available in the book room. I wish there were more writers of color. I wish I had more time to teach novels. I wish, I wish, I wish. Sometimes it’s easy to get discouraged.
Then I remember the day I walked into Mrs. M’s windowless classroom to find the 4’ by 12’ chalkboard completely covered in literary devices and their definitions, each letter no more than an inch tall. This labor must have taken Mrs. M hours, and I have the distinct memory of being awed at her work.
Everyone remembers their English teachers, because these are the people who devote their lives to stories, not only the stories inside the books we read, but the stories of our lives and the stories that frame our world. My questioning of books (What the hell, Hamlet?! Everyone died!) sparked my curiosity and motivated me to examine complex ideas like feminism, racism, and freedom. Books, like Their Eyes Were Watching God, offered up perspectives that differed from my own. Books, like No Exit, forced me to question everything I believed to be absolute. Books, like The Great Gatsby, taught me to see meanings hidden beneath the surface, but I wouldn’t have seen that if Mrs. M never let me question her.
So when a student says they hate The Great Gatsby, I tell them about a student (me) who despised the book, too, and a teacher who taught her how to find the enchanted details in literature. Sometimes this doesn’t do anything. The student might hold on to their belief that Gatsby is a dull, meaningless book worthy of their scorn. But every once in a while, maybe after a discussion on the valley of the ashes or the green light, I see the spark in their eyes, and everything shifts.