Friday, September 4, 2009

Teaching Our Kids

I understand there is currently a controversy going on about letting kids select the books they want to read in school.

I think it's a good idea, if and when assigned reading is undertaken, too. In my varied past, I taught English for several years. (Out there is a good friend who was once a student in my senior English class.) Some common sense for the folks engaged in this controversy: When you read the regular assignment--you get to do a report for extra credit on a book of your choosing. It seems to me that this would be encouraging reading.

Who would want to miss out on reading some of the classics we struggled through? Not me. And as some wise person in the media suggested recently, that by reading the same books, we have a vocabulary of references to communicate with. It's a marvelous point. So much of our language is filled with such colorful chestnuts. (I'll look forward to hearing some of yours.) I found out several years ago that the common saying,"the proof of the pudding is in the eating," is from Cervantes! Think of our language devoid of such touchstones. Unthinkable.

Miss Gallager was my sophomore English teacher in high school. She hauled us through Dickens and George Eliot. Several Christmases ago a friend gave me a very fancy copy of The Mill on the Floss. It brought a tear to my eye thinking of tackling this masterpiece at such a young age. But it has had a lifetime-long impression. My son still smarts from having to read Henry James' Portrait of a Lady. But it was a film not too long ago, so there are still devotees. And I confessed to him, that just before he was born I took on reading the complete works of Henry James. I'm not sure if all the words were taken in or it was a nice excuse to sit in the sun and rest.

For those of us who seem to have found ourselves wandering around in the best of the 19th century, it is frightening indeed to see its literature slipping through our fingers. In the research I am doing for my new book, I sometimes think we are losing collective touch with those times all together. Mind you, there were some not very pleasant aspects of life then--but there are so many valuable lessons for us now. Read about the panics of 1873 and 1876 and think to our current pickle. Could we have avoided them by taking heed of what our forefathers did wrong--and right.

I also lament that many of the good women writers of the 1930's and 1940's are not being read anymore. Perhaps they are quaint. But Jessamyn West will never be to me. The Friendly Persuasion should never be out of print. It is one that I suggest you "read with tea." And there is no better book on dealing with grief than The Woman Said Yes. It was that high school student of mine who brought it to my attention. I guess she took to heart reading good books, assigned and otherwise.

And now to another subject on teaching our kids. I understand that we all want to encourage and delight our kids with things to make their activities fun and colorful. But I had to smile this morning while perusing a catalog and seeing an array of cooking utensils for little girls designed so that they will spend time in the kitchen with mom. I was so happy to sit next to my grandmother as she rolled out a pie; she would give me a little piece of dough to make my own little pie. We didn't have fancy things designed just for me. We had love and attention. Don't misunderstand me: I like these darling things and have bought some myself to give as gifts, but I hope my grandmother's recipe is not forgotten.

Have we started yet another controversy here?


  1. I was just thinking the other day as I was gliding through the local mega cooking store, how my grandmother entered the kitchen each day and simple cooked! She didn't have any sherbert hued spatulas in the spring or a pumpkin shaped cake pan in the fall. She only had one set of dishes too, Adams Lowestoft which I now get to cherish. No fancy gadgets and nothing battery operated either. And, her cooking is still talked about long after her life stopped overlapping ours.

    Regarding books and children, I agree. I had a terrific Jr. High English teacher and although she introduced me to the gothic novel beginning with Rebecca, I balked at Beowulf. But she must have sowed a seed inside me as I often recall Beowulf's battles with his antagonists and how they relate to life in the 21st century!

  2. Thank you for the thought provoking post Nancy. It is good to hear your "voice" again.


  3. Growing up I didn't have many books in my home; so I have thanked Miss Woods (my senior English teacher) so many times in my mind that she was there to inspire me to explore books such as Jane Eyre. I would never have explored and learn if it hadn't been required of me in my high school classes. If students want to chose their books, they can do that for pleasure or extra credit.

  4. Oh my, I am really in need of a good book on grief, since the passing of my Mother. Your book suggestion,Nancy sounds like just what might help me a lot with that.I will look for "The woman said Yes".
    I have a couple others smaller pamphlet type ones on the topic given to me by the Hospice team,- but those two books didn't do much for me. The two that really are beautiful & of great help for me, are titled"Embraced By The Light", by Bette Eadie, and another written by her,is called "The Awakening Heart".They helped me so much,especially in the couple months after my Mom passed.

    I am so thankful that I loved to read and learned how at a very young age, my Parents kept our home stocked with many classic books and also Fairy Tales etc. Recently I commented to a group of Adults about the newer soft sheets I have , made of bamboo, they are like sleeping on silk , etc. I have a few sets of the really good quality & high thread count Cotton ones, but I am preferring the new Bamboo kind I have.

    Anyway, when I was in North Dakota & slept at a relatives home, I couldn't sleep a wink the first night because of the teeny little bumps in their sheets. The next day I went and bought a set for their guest room of the Bamboo kind, {they don't pill like cotton can either}-- I remarked at supper that I am like "The Princess & the Pea"--and not a one Adult at the table new what I meant or was talking about at all! I remember reading that little book as a young child. I couldn't believe that none had ever read it or even heard of that little children's book.

    I don't recall many toys either when I was little, I had a couple Dolls and Art supplies,lots of books,- and my Parents loving attention- they encouraged my creativity, Mom would have me draw outfits & she would then sew them for me and my dolls. My Father was a Pilot & we would go travel overseas a lot. I saw many beautiful "rooms" in Castles in Europe etc. and was constantly decorating and re-decorating my Bedroom and drawing room design ideas.{on a limited budget,we were not wealthy people}-- I also had this different fascination with teeny little bottles,& a bunch of different extracts & oils etc. lol I was creating "Scents". To this day these are my passions,.Interior design, Fashion, and Perfumes.-hmm carried away here, but I think creative Adults became that way as children, & I doubt that they had many "Toys" either. I didn't & was never bored for a second, same with how I raised my two boys-{books & music and was there for them}...Love,Valery

  5. This marvelous post reminds me, happily, of the determined English teachers I’d been blessed with throughout my school years. It never occurred to these upright women and men that “today’s” students might need to read “relevant” literature. They just piled on the tomes, insisting that we read international classics like Crime and Punishment, The Cherry Orchard, The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick (yes, the whole thing), Man and Superman, Sonnets of the Portuguese, Julius Caesar, Canterbury Tales, and so many others. Our lunch table talk was punctuated with insults Shakespearean and bon mots Shavian…and we loved speaking a language that many of our peers distained. This summer, in a sort of homage, I set myself the task of reading The Iliad and The Odyssey. (I called this “My Big Fat Greek Summer”.) Accompanied by lecture series on tape that kept my work commute fascinating (and provided me with some stunningly effective epithets to mutter at crazy drivers), I sailed the seas with Odysseus and marched on Troy with Achilles—and loved every minute of it. Right now, I’m tackling The Aeneid (something ELSE I’ve never read) and am reveling in a story that’s provided the plot for 90% of Western literature. I know Mrs. Bates, Mrs. Kinsley, Mrs. Cook, and Miss Brylowski are somewhere smiling.

    Speaking of women writers who’ve gone underground, I recommend to all your readers the Persephone Press, a London-based bookseller that specializes in women authors who were very renowned in their day and all but forgotten now.
    A visit to their site is like burrowing about in a beloved used book store, staffed by your favorite lit teachers! Enjoy!

    Love, Karen Marline

  6. I have the later Sister Georgene, SSND, to thank for much of my reading in high school. Thomas Hardy, Shakespeare, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austin, Herman Melville, and many more that led to many more, including Sinclair Lewis, Booth Tarkington, Willa Cather and James Joyce. Of course, there were others in college, and I was blessed to have parents who actually had bookshelves filled with everything from classics to popular fiction. I must be missing some favorite here - I like a good mix, and while I don't like cheap novels with gratuitous sex (on page 3, yet!), I have to admit I take pride in my eclectic tastes as well as my ability to recognize a literary allusion.

  7. Like Marilyn, I grew up in a house without many books (despite my father graduating from Fordham!) and I have been trying to "catch up" with good literature for many years. I am grateful for all the classics I was required to read in school and as a very young girl I treasured our class's "library day" where we were allowed to check out two books every other week. I am happy to report that my college age daughter has far surpassed me in the sheer volume and variety of classic and modern literature she reads. She is just as likely to pick up Oscar Wilde as Stephen King from her nightstand. It's so much fun sharing books with her!

  8. In light of your post, Nancy, on the importance of good literature, I came across this great quote and wanted to share it:

    "To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all of the miseries of life."
    -- W. Somerset Maugham

    Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, Gustav Flaubert, et al have soothed me many times.


  9. I cannot imagine my life without books. I was blessed to be born into a family of strong, independent women. My mother and her six sisters were all avid readers. They had a habit of discussing their current books in my grandmother's large country kitchen while cooking. I have long said that I learned everything I needed to know about life sitting on the floor of grandma's wonderful pantry playing with paper dolls listening to their spirited discussions. They would discuss the news, particuarly the World War II, along with books they were reading with lots of opinion, colorful descriptions, and maybe a little bit of competition. At times I didn't know if they were discussing real people or fictional characters. I thought they knew Scarlett and Rhett personally. Gone With the Wind got a lot of discussion.

    Before I could read I discovered a book in my grandmother's library. It was a high school literature book, "American Writers--Good Reading for High Schools," but not a book that would appeal to a preschooler. The inside cover had an antique map of the New World. I begged an aunt to read to me. I was introduced to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Stephen Vincent Benet, Amy Lowell, John Bannister Tabb and countless others. I loved Song From Drake by Alfred Noyes and begged her to read it over and over. Today I can still recite the the lovely words, "The moon is up, the stars are bright ----- Beyond the Spanish Main. I still have this 1931 book and it is one of my cherished possessions.

    My youngest daughter and her two young sons have inherited the Hedges passion for reading. I hope they carry that love for generations to come. Now I am reading poetry and wonderful books to them.

    Last week I heard on TV that one library was getting rid of all their books and it would all be online. This would probably be good for research books, but it would not be the same to read Walt Whitman's "Miracles" without a cherished book in my hands.

    Thank you for reminding us again where real joy can be found in our lives.