News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mike Lunsford

May 18, 2009

The Off Season: Are literature and poetry headed out for recess?

I posed a question to one of my English classes the other day: “Have you ever read something that touches you? That inspires you? That has changed you in some fundamental way?

Although I could tell that many of my kids were thinking about my queries, and a few had even raised their hands to share responses with me, I also could see that too many of them had no idea what I meant in asking, not because they didn’t understand my words, but because the concept behind them seemed strangely foreign.

Most of what those young men and women read in school now is not for inspiration or even interest. It is for test preparation, for answering multiple-choice reading comprehension questions. It is boring and bland or incomplete, hardly inspirational stuff. Mark Twain and John Steinbeck and Emily Dickinson be damned; we have train schedules and endless excerpts to study; letter C and bubble sheets await. After all, that type of reading leads to diplomas and certificates of completion and more qualified entrance into a shrinking job market.

I teach a subject that has been under assault for a long time.

The ages-old stereotype of the English teacher persists. She is often clothed in a conservative skirt and heels, the proverbial bun, reading glasses, and pearls as part of her ensemble. Her male counterpart is dressed in a conservatively dull suit and outdated narrow tie, a pocket protector filled with ballpoint pens among his requisite accessories.

Both versions carry sack lunches and copies of Byron, and among their limited interests are red marking pens, diagramming sentences, and informing weary teens that they have once again misinterpreted their Tennyson. Both prudes silently labor at secretly writing novels that will take them away from the doldrums of their everyday existence.

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