The Horrors of High School English

For some reason I cannot explain I have become haunted by the ghosts of English classrooms past. I keep returning in my dreams to bad high school classrooms, once again sitting through a badly organized discussion on a book by a lecturer that couldn’t care less.  The only difference is that in the dream I am now in my thirties, no longer that bright and complaining 17-year old, now my disillusioned older dude self… Oh, and the end of my pants are still rolled up, because that is what you did in 1991 when you wanted to be cool. And frankly, I needed all the help I could get.

Being cool, I mean.

I have always loved books, it is a running theme in my life, but it seemed like as a public school student whenever I was in an environment that should’ve created—I don’t know—a “cocoon of support” let’s say, I was an outsider, with even the teacher wondering what is wrong with this kid. There was no cocoon! If anything it gave others ammunition to ask what is wrong with me? You like this!? Really!? This stuff!?

The fact is that my experience in high school English created in me somewhat a feeling of isolation. Yes, other students got good grades in English classes, but I never felt like they got “it” like I did. They read the assigned Charles Dickens, did they spend the last summer reading six other books by him? No, probably not. I felt like screaming, “These are great stories! Isn’t this better than that crappy Stephen King in your locker?”

I remember teachers making jokes about books and about how “we’ll get through this together.” If the goal of a good English teacher is to instill in their students a love of reading and an understanding of their importance on our society, shouldn’t they at least pretend to enjoy the experience of reading? It’s like the great rule for parenting a reader: if you want your kids to be readers, you have to be a reader. They learn from watching you, people!

Yet, teacher after teacher from junior high through high school seemed to merely be walking through the paces of a job, as compared to being a lover of books who each day got to lead young minds through great stories. Because, frankly, classics are classics for a reason. They are good stories, it is only the binding and pages that have the cobwebs.

So each year while in public school, I got older and bitter and more and more isolated. How much of an impact did this high school experience have on me, you may ask? I avoided taking an English class in college into late in my sophomore year. Yeah, I had to be forced to take my first class! Only then did I realize the great and glorious truth that was staring at me for so long.

All of my high school English teachers were morons and I was right all along.

I was always right… Always…

Deep breath.

A wonderful feeling, but sadly a few years too late to have really made a difference with the high school version of me. He is still back in the past suffering with his head on the desk wondering how this person speaking got a teaching certificate.

To be honest, it could be argued that my high school teachers began each semester with one obstacle already in front of them, even before the students arrived. It seems they were rarely given the best material to teach to the kids. I don’t know if this is still a problem today, but when I was a student it seems that we were given books that were chosen for their “name” as compared to their ability to “inspire” more readings.

For Shakespeare, for example, we were given Julius Caesar. It sounds impressive when you say you are reading Julius Caesar by Shakespeare, but the work doesn’t exactly inspire someone to read more works by the immortal bard (who may or may not be Edward DeVere).   Even back then I wondered why not a comedy that could make Shakespeare more fun. Twelfth Night? Much Ado About Nothing? No, they would give us something like King Lear and hope we can keep up with the multiple plots and political entanglements.

And then there was Lord of the Flies. Was I the only teenager that felt insulted by the premise of this book? Were they trying to say to us “we can see what would happen if you were in charge?” Were they merely warning us about why we shouldn’t be in charge? Or was it frankly because they liked to put kids in their place by showing that they couldn’t govern on their own? Whichever it was, I felt annoyed by the book and the fact I was reading it in a classroom of peers all around the same ages as the characters.  See, I was pretty sure even then that if I or my peers were on an island like that we would not break down into “Survival” mode. I would be annoyed by Piggy, I wouldn’t have killed him.

And of all of the Steinbeck they could pick from, they would throw Grapes of Wrath at us with that last image forever burned into our young minds. Not to say there are a lot of “light” options with Steinbeck to choose from, but we could have avoided the “ew” factor a little around reading.

I could go on and go on… The fact that I still can remember these feelings and thoughts is somewhat a little troubling, but all of this frustration is related to one point that stuck with me through my education and it is hard for me to forget. See, with the English teachers I had (and who might be teaching still today) is that you really didn’t walk away with a feeling that they even liked books.

Let me clarify, “classic literature.” I just didn’t see them as readers and that is heartbreaking. Not to say Math teachers need to go home and do math all night, but I like to assume that they have a balanced checkbook and don’t mind measuring stuff around the house.

My favorite horror stories from high school classrooms seem to all stem around Mrs. W. I won’t give her name here, because then I might be hesitant to share stories like this: She used to take baths with her dachshund and she told the class about it… more than once.

I actually was kicked out of Mrs. W’s class. It was an AP English course and I questioned her teaching style. Let me back up and tell this story in the right order.

So we were going to study Hamlet, but Mrs. W—an English teacher which I assume means she has a degree from someplace semi-respectable—told us she had never read the play before.

An English teacher who had never read Hamlet. I’ll let that sink in for a bit before I continue. Take your time.

 Ready? Let’s continue…

When she mentioned this in class, my mouth fell open. By this time, I was about 17 or so and had read all of the plays during a Shakespeare kick in Junior High. I KNEW Hamlet (That and Midsummer were probably my two favorite of the plays) and here I was about to be educated by someone who had never read it before… and while my mouth was hanging open, Mrs W  was complaining to the entire class of fresh Shakespeare readers that it was going to be a “painful” experience that we will all be sharing together.

You would think it was a birthing class.

The problem with me is I can’t keep my mouth shut, especially if someone needs to be corrected around books. So we butted heads… every day. And I felt like my hand was always up in the air. I was not making any friends, especially not with the teacher.

It finally came to an impasse when she stated (I kid you not) in class that Ophelia and Hamlet were brother and sister. She assumed this relationship in her reading! I don’t remember what I said out loud, but I know my hand was not up, and it involved a four-letter word.

For the rest of the class she had me stand, facing away from the front of the class. Later that day I was asked to leave the class.

Yes, I was not in a cocoon.

Later, when I was working towards my BA in English I had friends around me that were hoping to go into teaching in High School or Junior High. Some I had hopes for, others I didn’t have any idea why they were choosing that path. Maybe it was simply the easiest path in front of them, but for me, I saw the cycle beginning again, knowing somewhere in the future there would be another kid in that classroom wondering if there is something wrong with them for enjoying books.

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