A teacher has many, many children.
I can still see in my mind’s eye the tenth-grade English classroom. The dictionaries are piled on the west wall near my desk (we occasionally played a word game and they were passed out, but the most vivid memory I have of them is the night of a school play when Sid Catlett spent all his offstage time rearranging the spines and edges so that they spelled out in white a message to the class–sort of the same way they spell things with cola fridge packs in the front windows of supermarkets). The posters on the wall include the “Desiderata” poem that we still believed was by a medieval monk, Jimi Hendrix, and a snake in the grass with the Emily Dickinson quatrain superimposed over it. Today is the day that the AP English teacher from the senior high school will come to tell us about advanced placement English credit.
Her name is Mrs. Bettye Mischen, and she has taught APEs (Advanced Placement English students) for ten years. She tells us we will cover the masters of English literature in AP English. Hamlet and Henry IV, Part I; Paradise Lost; Saint Joan; Keats and Shelley. I couldn’t wait.
I did have one question. I raised my hand and was called on.
“If we want to have a background in American literature, what should we study?” (I was a grind even then. I didn’t want to miss anything.)
She leaned earnestly forward. Ticking them off on her fingers, the greats. “Hawthorne, Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Twain.” As an afterthought, she added, “Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost.”
Her voice has come with me for forty years. It doesn’t seem possible. That classroom is as vivid to me today as it was the hour after our overview of AP coursework.
A professor who was a colleague of my father’s added, “Don’t forget Herman Melville.” I added Carl Sandburg because I had always loved “Fog” and “Chicago” (“the city with big shoulders”) and the young Mr. Lincoln books. And later I also added Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg so I would have the Beats, and Henry Miller so I would have the classic perv. But really, the list of the Big Seven is the bottom line. If you read them, you have read the American bards.
At the time I was in school, the courses in the American Novel Since 1900 covered a standard group of novels that you didn’t need as much help to read as you did to read, say, Dante or Milton. We could (in those days) generally still follow the prose in Gatsby, Sun Also Rises, O Pioneers, a Sinclair Lewis (usually Arrowsmith), Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. And one of the Steinbecks–either Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men. Sometimes Faulkner, though not always, and sometimes Zora Neale Hurston to give a nod to the Harlem Renaissance. If the teacher felt expansive, To Kill a Mockingbird.
These were our touchstones.
Today’s scholars complain that they can’t follow the prose or that “nothing happens” because “it’s so boring.” But we who thought we would be English majors (although not all of us turned out that way) loved them. We would someday see our works in print and on library shelves along with these classics.
But today the facade of traditional publishing seems to be crumbling like an ant farm with the front pane of glass fallen off. The grains of sand cascade to the carpet and the ants scurry wildly to try to gain a foothold anywhere. Borders is gone, and three independent bookstores are closing this month (one in Denver that has been a mainstay of many mystery authors on their book tours). E-books are selling three times better than last year, and softcover novels are sitting in the racks only around six weeks before being pulled and replaced. It doesn’t look good for authors.
Still, it was swell while it lasted. And my teacher’s voice still echoes in my ears when I revisit one of the works we studied so eagerly and assiduously in first period APE.
“Never use ‘of course,'” she admonished us. “Not in papers for my class. Because it really means, ‘As any jackass can plainly see.'”
That’s insightful. I still use the phrase. But now you know what I REALLY mean.