The Classics

I fell out of love with English classes my freshman year. I’m sure the sweet teacher didn’t mean for it to happen. It’s just we were reading Jack London’s Call of the Wild. Instead of letting us read and engaging us in discussion, the teacher said she didn’t want to worry us too much on that first REAL book; therefore, she’d grace us with reading the book aloud.
At 14 I’d read plenty of real books. And although that teacher had a great soothing southern voice, I had a problem with the way she read the story.
I loved London’s words, the way he structured sentences, the entire idea of The Call and The Wild and what exactly they were.
The teacher might have had the same questions. I don’t know. She lost me with her first instruction. “Ladies and gentlemen, please take out your pencils and proceed to draw a line through all curse words you see.”
Even at that age I knew there was something wrong with the instruction.
Today I can’t tell you how many lines were drawn through curse words in that class. But I can tell you how many weren’t in my books.
I didn’t cross out anything. And I think I might have let a few curses slip with my friends just to see their reactions.
While the teacher enthralled the class with her oral interpretation of that classic, I read the literary great The Karate Kid. I had a thing for Ralph Machio. 🙂
I graduated to those great Silhouette young adult romances and P.S., I Love You. And by senior year I was enjoying my mom’s Desires. I wasn’t reading classics. In fact, after that first REAL book, I didn’t read another required assignment until Sophomore Lit. with Dr. Campbell at Midwestern State. The first classic I read then was The Last Picture Show. It enthralled me, and so did our discussions about McMurtry, our regional literature, the themes of the story and what makes a book a classic.
I lost six years of reading books with universal themes, amazing language, incredible characters. I didn’t even read the Brontes or Austen. But I sure loved the hundreds of Harlequin Presents I read. My high school librarian subscribed to the line and she knew I’d be there to check them out one at a time until I’d read them all.
I’m sure that Freshman English teacher would have explained that they weren’t real books. I would’ve have given her a pencil and asked what she felt needed to be crossed out.
I love the classics. Heart of Darkness is my favorite. But I love genre fiction too. In fact, I love it more. It’s the pulse of the time we live in.
The thing is, we don’t know what will stand the test of time. Hawthorne wrote for the masses. Rowling does today. Three years ago they used Harry Potter as one of the selections for the Literary Criticism test in Texas. Austen’s books are straight up romance. McMurtry sat down and penned a few novels about his home town, a town 30 minutes from the one I grew up in. Only time will tell what books make the cut to become the classics of their time. I’m sure the literati of my generation would disagree, but that’s okay. I love so many of the romances I’ve read over the last few years. Barbara Samuel’s The Goddesses of Kitchen Avenue, Deborah Smith’s Stone Flower Garden or On Bear Mountain are a couple that come to mind that might last a lifetime or three. But it’s okay if they don’t.
What’s not okay is that at 14 I was told the books I’d read weren’t real. That real books (who cares what they were!) were destroyed with pencils and a teacher on a mission to rid the world of “words that might offend”. That I lost six years of reading books I might have liked if I hadn’t been turned off early on.
I hope my students embrace all forms of literature, genre fiction, “literature”, and the classics. And I hope my daughter never has a teacher who knows just how to take a great book and destroy it.


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