On June 11, when the last school bell of the year sounded, I began my vacation from teaching high school English with serious plans to let the red ink fade from my fingertips. But my efforts to focus on exercise and garden, caring for my kids and relaxing have lately been thwarted by one of this summer's hot news stories: According to the National Endowment for the Arts, we are now, decisively, a nation of readers at risk.
The endowment's findings, though nothing we English educators haven't long suspected, drive yet another nail into the coffin of our deepest pedagogical aspirations. Once again, we're being warned that Americans are in the process of losing a common literary heritage. Even more dangerously, our young generation is growing up devoid of cognitive skills, such as focused concentration and complex intellectual deciphering, that take root when children learn primarily from books rather than from television and computer screens.
"Who now is willing to put in the time or effort to read a real book?" Washington Post writer Michael Dirda recently lamented in these pages. "Who among the young aspires to be cultivated and learned?" These are irresistible questions for someone like me who, 10 months a year, works in the trenches with exactly those young adults characterized as the most reluctant readers. So I'm here to tell you that our young people can't be stereotyped and judged as a horde of media-duped lightweights and slackers. Sheer brilliance, intense intellectual hunger, the unquenched passion for ideas and oddball scholarly tastes are qualities that live as vibrantly today as they have in previous generations.
Yes, teaching in an elite private school is, as I tell my friends, the closest thing in education to Utopia, but I still confront significant obstacles to serious reading, though they may be different from those plaguing inner-city public schools. My students may have every educational advantage, but they are often denied the growing time to relax, reflect and dream, with or without a book in their hands.
Take a look at our fatigued, over-scheduled, parentally micromanaged next generation, and you'll understand why neither "Middlemarch" nor "War and Peace" has been checked off the library shelves in months. Ours is a culture of parental expectations, educational pressures and pre-professional demands that put our students' leisure time and, I sometimes fear, personal sanity at risk. When the stream of tears flows into my office, as it does every year, over B+ term papers, and when I see students pondering their resumes before the seventh grade, I don't need a degree in psychiatry from Harvard to sense that something is dreadfully wrong.
Any college counselor will tell you bluntly that it's much harder today than it was 20 years ago to get into an elite university or college. To manage that feat, a student needs to become what David Brooks has dubbed an "organization kid," embodying all the virtues of a first-rate scholar, top athlete, star musician, talented writer and active public servant. With five starring roles to play simultaneously, how many world classics would you read in a year?
Yet if you hung around juniors and seniors in one of our area's college-oriented public or private schools, you'd be pleasantly surprised to find throngs of exceptionally learned and cultivated students. I'll never forget the day when, at the end of class, a student informed me that my use of the word "peruse" was ambiguous. I was sure I was asking the kids to skim a text for homework, but he pointed out that, according to the word's original definition, I could equally have been requesting a careful and thorough reading. It was a humbling moment. Another brought me a beautiful leather-bound copy of McSweeney's Quarterly to help broaden my horizons in the short story genre. And when a group of seniors at our school decided that they needed a forum for more probing political debate, they funded a newspaper and, with a dose of historical reverence, named it Common Sense.
In fact, many of these well-educated, culturally informed, even bookish students would be delighted to become more so, if only they had the time and freedom to cultivate learning for learning's sake. One of our former student body presidents would, I know, have been keen to write more poetry, had not his musical career and Princeton application been pressing. Our school harpist would gladly have written me a 10-page paper last term (I asked for five), had she not also been running track until 6 p.m. and playing with the National Symphony Orchestra until 10 the same night.
It's time for parents, educators and cultural critics alike to face the facts of our own making. Today's educational and professional realities don't foster the reflective context that enables students to become broad and patient readers. And this poses a real challenge for someone like me.
Like all high school English teachers, I toil on the front lines of the reading cause. It's my mission to pass on to my students the "court and spark" -- to borrow a phrase from Joni Mitchell -- of reading practice: to ignite in teenagers a love of classical literature, while walking them through the rituals of courtship with it. My job is modeling how to relate to great books, how to develop the annotation and close-reading skills necessary to become passionate readers, serious lifelong learners and, ideally, self-conscious protectors of the Western literary tradition that undergirds American civic culture.
Time and again, however, I can't help pondering the essential questions of my trade: Can passion for serious reading be taught? How, really, does an English teacher help a young person love language for its sheer expressive beauty and embrace literature for its timeless stories of imagination and truth? Can even the most committed educator spark an appetite for classical literature in adolescents surrounded not only by the technological jungle of Palm Pilots, cell phones, instant messages, MP3 players and DVDs, but also by a world of exceptional social complexity and global terror?
To these questions, I say: Yes, it can be done, but it takes an unfaltering leap of faith. For literary courtship, when you come right down to it, is a relationship as vexed, exhilarating and painful as real-life romance.
Consider this. On any given day of the school year, I can be found at 8:10 a.m. in a cinder-block classroom, encouraging typically sleep-deprived and hormone-infused teenagers to appreciate, perhaps, Emily Dickinson's metaphoric snake (her "Narrow Fellow in the Grass") or Nathaniel Hawthorne's Hester Prynne, the unapologetic victim, you will remember, of an adulterous affair and scarlet exile from Puritan Boston. While I may love these writers unconditionally, my students, perched on hard chairs anxiously awaiting a second-period physics test, may be less than inclined to see the attraction.
Still, we English teachers labor steadfastly against the odds, striving to keep the flame of serious reading alive. We lecture, analyze, explain, persuade, humor -- do just about anything our creative imaginations can invent -- to help students reach the moments of transcendence that are the priceless gift of serious reading. It's the "aha!" moment that keeps us motivated; the day when the kids stop looking at the clock and push to get at the beauty of Robert Frost's "Birches," the afternoon when it really matters to the entire class to know whether Jay Gatsby is truly great or thoroughly corrupt. There is, however, no science to this craft, no straight path to this end.
Due to some indecipherable chemistry, some students will feel a spark or two or three while reading J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" or Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," while others leave high school never having felt this pleasure. Some go off to college to become English majors; others leave high school swearing off (and swearing at) literary books forever. Some catch the spark much later in life, perhaps due in part -- I can hope, can't I? -- to the groundwork put in place during their formative high school and college years.
In moments of weakness, I find myself wishing for the vital, connected social context that bound readers together in an earlier time. At the height of 19th-century print culture, while American readers awaited news of Charles Dickens's serialized novels, Harriet Beecher Stowe sat in her parlor reading her children drafts of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in an effort to determine how best to shape her story. Great literature was often read aloud, discussed publicly, and composed within close-knit social networks and dynamic reading communities -- conditions that neither surround nor support young readers today.
Nonetheless, I stand in awe of my students as they go about their business cheerfully, with a certainty that high school boot camp will bring them well-deserved future rewards. School-year scholars, athletes and artists, my students have earned their right to some time on the living room couch -- even in front of "The O.C." reruns -- on lazy summer days.
So, teaching passion for great books in the year 2004 is, I admit, a matter of infinite hope. Nevertheless, my teenage students keep me optimistic. Critics bemoaning the end of an era are invited to my school cafeteria, where young people exhibit, every day, their compelling adventures in the life of the mind. Over cold pizza and chocolate milk, they discuss their dates for the prom side by side with subjects ranging from genocide to Biblical interpretation, from medical ethics to civil rights.
When I checked in with one graduate to ask about best lunch talks from the past year, he e-mailed this reply: "What better way to spend a lunch block than discussing Jorge Luis Borges's view of the nature of time or whether reality is a human construction?" Doesn't appear that, in the area of mental capital, we have much to worry about.
Perhaps all of us would benefit from a rereading of Dickinson's poem: " 'Hope' is the thing with feathers -- /That perches in the soul -- /And sings the tune without the words -- /And never stops -- at all -- ."
Join a motivated student for lunch. It will provide, I promise, comforting food for thought.