I'm off for awhile. enjoy the second part of this series until I return.
In classic mythology, Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to roll a heavy stone uphill for eternity. That tale is a metaphor to describe someone's burden.
After two days, I decide, Sisyphus had a walk on the beach compared to teaching The Great Gatsby to high school juniors before the sun is fully up.
Some are late and are sorry; some are late and don't care. Some claim to have a pass but lost it. Some cram the gooey contents of a McDonald's bag into their mouths before the bell rings. Some sleep on their desks. At first I was offended and woke them up. Later I let them sleep because awake they were just a distraction.
How exactly do you teach The Great Gatsby? I wonder. Or any novel. For some students, reading literature is like trying to decipher the Dead Sea Scrolls. It must mean something, but what?
I tell them to read the book and follow the class discussions and that we will have a test at the end. That is the hammer; the test. Without that threat, the book would be used to prop open the window.
Some particularly salient or moving passages I read out loud so they can hear the wonder of the language. Other times, I ask for volunteers to read. This is generally a mistake although not without its light moments.
Angela volunteers to read the first paragraph on page 45 about the lavish feast Gatsby has laid out for his guests; "At least once a fortnight," Angela begins deliberately, "a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby's enormous garden." I nodded with approval as the class sat in varying states of narcolepsy.
"On buffet tables garnished with glistening whores, spiced baked hams, ..." A bolt like a cattle prod courses through me and splinters the reverie. I do not remember anything about "glistening whores" in The Great Gatsby.
No one has snickered, glanced around or given any indication that something is amiss. I find the passage and read it quickly to myself as Angela continues in a monotone. The passage said the table was "glistening with hors d'oeuvre, spiced baked hams," etc.
Do I stop and embarrass her or let it go? I decide to let it go and spare her the shame. Besides, the way she read it was more contemporary for the MTV generation.
The days move on and we slog through Gatsby. My classes are evenly divided between those who genuinely enjoy the book (a handful) those who are doing it because it is their duty (the majority) and those who couldn't give a fiddler's damn (a handful).
In fifth period Pedro stares idly out the window as we digest the majesty of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I read with great passion the author's description of Gatsby's tormented fantasies of his love for the unattainable Daisy; "But his heart was in a constant, turbulent riot. The most grotesque and fantastic conceits haunted him in his bed at night. A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain while the clock ticked on the wash-stand and the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor. Each night he added to the patterns of his fancies until drowsiness closed down upon some vivid scene with an oblivious embrace. For a while, those reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing."
"Pedro?" I ask, "What do you think Fitzgerald meant by this passage?" Pedro doesn't turn his head away from the window. "Don't know," he says dully.
"Did you read any of the book?" I ask gently.
"Never read any book and I'm not starting with this one," he says, turning to face me now. "I fix cars and that's what I'm going to do for a living and I don't need to read this book to do that."
The class looks at me. I think a minute. I have an answer but decide against it. I will be here two weeks and I cannot save the world.
In sixth hour, one student politely confesses that he also has not read one word but hurries to reassure me that it had nothing to do with my teaching ability.
"You see," he says, "My Dad owns three McDonald's and I'm set for life. I don't have to go to college or anything."
Then he looked at me as though I would certainly understand that the only real reason to learn anything is just to get a job and since he has one in the bank, he need know nothing, except how to SuperSize fries.
I think of my discussion with officemate Gary that we should stop teaching Gatsby and start teaching students how to operate a roller coaster.
This student may be at the opposite end of the economic spectrum from Pedro but destined to be trapped in the same stagnant backwater of life nonetheless.
I hold my tongue and do not respond. But the next time someone dismisses literature as unnecessary, I decide, I will.
(Conclusion next week).