Thursday Three-for-All: Three Shameful Confessions of a High School English Teacher

Yeah, I know it’s Friday. But I had the idea that maybe a weekly feature or two would help me maintain better focus on my blog and help keep me accountable for posting regularly. Yesterday – Thursday – the “Thursday Three-for-All” came to me. Unfortunately, I was not able to get the inaugural edition completed before the day was out. Instead of saving it for next week (and risking setting it aside forever), I decided to deliver it a day late. Late, they tell me, is better than never.

I thought I should inaugurate my new feature with something that hits close to home. So here goes….

THREE SHAMEFUL CONFESSIONS OF A HIGH SCHOOL ENGLISH TEACHER

1. I’ve never finished Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

I just can’t do it. And, believe me, I’ve tried. What begins as a brilliant, biting, and sometimes uproariously funny novel hits its peak in chapter 31….and then limps along for twelve more chapters. The book’s final adventure is ludicrous, tiresome, and decidedly unentertaining. Worse than that, it represents some serious backsliding for the title character.

Imagine if Twain had exercised enough restraint to make this the closing passage of the novel:

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” – and tore it up.

Against all odds, Huck makes the most important and the most grown-up decision of his life. In spite of his father, in spite of the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, in spite of the law, and even in spite of the mortal (perhaps eternal) danger to himself, Huck chooses to rescue the runaway Jim from capture and re-enslavement. Whether or not Huck succeeds is ultimately immaterial. At this point, Huck has seen enough of the “sivilized” world to understand what it is to be truly civilized. He’s finally mature enough to make the right choice simply because it’s right and because Jim is plainly and simply his friend.

Then Tom Sawyer shows up.

If I could reach through the pages of Huck Finn and punch Tom, I would. Repeatedly.

What is supposed to be Adventures of Huckleberry Finn rapidly degenerates into The Grand Delusions of Tom Sawyer. Huck does a complete 180 and falls back into his old habit of being Tom’s lackey while Tom goes out of his way to put himself, Huck, and Jim in danger. Tom even manages gets himself shot before it’s all said and done. And then he reveals that, oops!, Jim was a free man the entire time. To put it into modern terms, you can almost hear Tom saying Sorry, brah. No worries, ok?

Are you fucking kidding me?

The sad thing is, I teach this novel. And – sub-confession to an already lengthy outpouring of my soul here – after chapter 31, my heart’s never in it . Some years I simply stop there. Some years I make the last twelve chapters optional or extra credit. And some years I make those chapters independent reading and keep my students accountable by requiring some reference to them in the final essay. But there’s really no good way to handle them. They’re shit. And I just don’t have the heart to drag my students through such steaming piles of shit, especially when I can’t even do it to myself!

2. I really don’t like Holden Caulfield

I’m sure this will be met with immediate outcries of You just don’t get it. And regardless of what it might be – Holden, Salinger, the novel, the era, the counter-cultural movement, the beat generation, the moral, the theme, the meaning of life, whatever – you might be right. I’m willing to concede that maybe I don’t get it. But I still just can’t stand that Holden Caulfield. If I could have him and Tom Sawyer play Larry and Curly to my Moe, if I could take care of the pair of them with one sweeping slap across both of their faces, I’d be a happier man for it.

That’s not to say that an unlikeable character is an automatic deal-breaker for me as a reader. I spent most of Confederacy of Dunces wishing awful things on Ignatius J. Reilly, but I still couldn’t stop reading. He and his story were too damn entertaining. I’ve even fallen into the trap myself of writing a book with a protagonist who can easily be written off as weak-willed and whiney. But I identify with him and his plight.

Unfortunately, I have none of those feelings for poor Holden. In my eyes, he’s a repeat failure who’s irresponsible, judgmental, and who generally treats the people around him like shit. He’s quick to dismiss anyone who doesn’t agree with his stunted worldview as a “phony”, but he ultimately proves himself one of the phoniest and most hypocritical losers in American literature. Multiple generations of readers revere him as an icon of teen angst and rebelliousness, but for what? For running away from his problems and transferring his insecurities on to others so he doesn’t have to face the damning truths of his own life?

Great American icon of teenage rebellion my ass. As far as I’m concerned, Holden Caulfield is a spoiled brat and a coward.

What more is there to get?

3. I just can’t read Tim O’Brien

This is an especially damning confession for me, because O’Brien is held up on the highest of pedestals by most of the other English teachers in my district. The Things They Carried is regarded by my colleagues as a seminal work in the twentieth-century canon, one which EVERY student needs to read at some point in their life.

And maybe that’s my problem with Tim O’Brien. Maybe the hype monster killed him for me.

I’ve tried to read The Things They Carried….I’ve tried to read Going After Cacciato…and I’ve tried to read In the Lake of the Woods. I’ve tried to read each of them multiple times. And I just can’t find my way into them. I don’t know if it’s O’Brien’s style or his subject matter. I don’t know if it’s that my expectations are impossibly high or if there’s just a little bit of the contrarian coming out of me. But I just can’t get in to Tim O’Brien.

That’s not to say that I’ve given up on him. I’ve promised myself I’ll take another poke at The Things They Carried before I put it to rest for good. I just don’t know when that will be.

And I’m definitely not in any hurry.

So, that’s it for this week’s inaugural “Thursday Three-for-All”. I’m sure it’s ruffled some feathers, but I doubt I’m alone in any of this. Regardless of where you fall, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

And, if you’re an English teacher, I’d love to hear some of your shameful confessions, too.

CVA

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