Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect every student who walks into my English 101: Composition class to have read, or even KNOW all the classics. I get that elementary and high schools can’t teach it all. But not one of the 23 students read or knew Poe?! I read “The Tell Tale Heart” for the first time when I was 12. I thought Poe was the biggest bad ass ever, and he is why I got into reading Stephen King, among others. Maybe 12 wasn’t the right age to read him, but I was reading at a 10th grade level at the time and they had to give me something other than the Babysitter’s Club and Nancy Drew. I was bleeding my parents dry with trips back and forth to the public library, and bringing me to the mall to go to Waldenbooks! (God I miss that store; So many memories of me sitting on the floor going through a huge stack of books, deciding which 3 I could get…and then always getting to go to the Ground Round afterwards as a special treat. *gets all nostalgic for a moment*)
But I digress. I had them read “The Tell Tale Heart” for Monday’s class, and then had them listen to it here. We talked about the story afterwards, and I introduced them to basic information about the author, the basic plot “triangle” (which I learned in 5th grade but they didn’t know, and oddly I went to the same public school district that most of these kids did. I don’t know what the hell happened since I graduated high school in 1996!), and how to do a plot summary, and defined key terms (with examples from the story) like theme, motif, symbol, etc.
I did think, for a moment, that perhaps they were just saying they had never heard of this. That maybe they just didn’t want to participate. But after 8 weeks or so of class, I know these students. When they know about something, they participate. Discussions of readings and participation in this particular class are not ever an issue. So I take them at face value when they tell me they have never read his work and did not know Poe.
And this is what brings me back to the shocked look on my face as I stood there facing them. I mean, who hasn’t read these two works at some point in their life?! Who hasn’t had a teacher assign Poe around Halloween to add to the scary and spooky factor and gets the students engaged? And even if perhaps someone has gone through life and never read a word of Poe, wouldn’t they at least be familiar with the Simpson’s “the Raven” inspired Treehouse of Horror episode?!?!?! For the love of god people what is this world coming to!!!! *grabs my inhaler as I start to have a panic attack*
I mean seriously!?! Seriously?!?!? I just cannot wrap my head around this, at all. I am not advocating that every student should know and have read every classic or even a good chunk of them, but I mean, isn’t there a baseline that students should have read by the time they enter college? Like, I don’t know, maybe something along the lines of: Little Women, Huck Finn, a bit of Shakespeare, Poe, maybe one or two of the works by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, some Emily Dickinson, Browning, CS Lewis, Daphne DuMaurier, Steinbeck, Wells, Cather... I mean, I guess the list could technically go on forever, so I will stop there (though I am sure I missed some essential writers, and for that I apologize. Must be the lack of oxygen to the brain from my blood pressure spike). But when over twenty students, just out of high school, tell me they never read Poe, what are the chances they have read something by Twain or Hemingway, let alone Shakespeare!?
I believe that it is essential for every student, whether they want to be a teacher or fly to the mars in a NASA space machine, to be able to use critical thinking and reading strategies whether reading a book, a magazine article or a newspaper. But people aren’t born with this knowledge—they have to be taught. And leaving it until they hit their freshman year in college is not freaking cool! I’m not saying that cause I don’t want to be the one to teach it, it’s just that my class is only 15 weeks long—that isn’t enough time to teach that, as well as the basic writing skills they so desperately need!
These kids are the future…they are the ones who will take care of when we are old and decrepit and need assisted living facilities. These are the people who will be running the country! Now, you might ask yourself, “what does running the country have to do with reading Poe?” Well, the answer to that is simple. Communication. People need to communicate; they need to read and write competently (even more than just competently) in order to communicate effectively. If they can’t form a proper sentence and on top of that they don’t read anything because—as they tell me, it is boring—and therefore are not exposed to what great writing is and isn’t…well how are they ever to succeed in life, let alone run this country by making policy, balance budgets, and communicate with other foreign countries and leaders. (And yes, I know much of that may not be happening right now, but that is a post for another day...I don't think my brain can take any more added stress at this point).
I know, I know, I know. I am a ranting lunatic right now. But for me, this is distressing. And what frightens me even more is that I don’t know what the answer is. I think I need to be appalled by this for a little bit and just marvel (in a bad way) at the terrifying future I can see unfolding before us all. Maybe a zombie apocalypse isn’t such a bad thing…