I am a high school English teacher, which is to say a peddler of the canon. When I justify this job, mostly to myself, I argue that teaching literature means teaching where we come from, even who we are. Few of my American students, though, see their lives reflected in the texts I’m charged with teaching.
The same was true in my first teaching job, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal 19 years ago. Very few of my Nepali students wanted to do the assigned reading, but they all wanted me to visit their homes. When students like Rohit or Raj Kumar or Sabitri invited me for a meal, I always went. To get to Sabitri’s house, I followed her frizzy black ponytail while steering my bike through the muddy maze of the grain bazaar until we emerged onto a wide street I’d never seen before.
“Home,” Sabitri said, shy but proud.
In her concrete house, I sat on a lumpy couch and ate rice, black lentils, cauliflower curry, spicy pickled mango, and tiny, smooth-as-chocolate bananas. Sabitri’s mother clasped my hands and smiled like I belonged. Sabitri, beaming, watched me eat. Her younger sisters sat on either side, their slight thighs pressed up against mine.
Later, I bicycled home in darkness studded with the tiny orange fires on the carts of roasted peanut vendors. When I left, Sabitri and her siblings waved me off as if I’d never return, even though I would see Sabitri in class the next morning, where we would read Franz Kafka’s short story “The Hunter Gracchus.”
In this brief story, a presumably dead man arrives on a boat, only to wake up and begin talking to the burgomaster, or mayor, who is not surprised, since a dove had told him the dead hunter Gracchus was coming. Despite its simple language, the students found the story baffling. So did I.
“Is he dead or alive, miss?” they asked.
I read them what the hunter says: “Since then I’ve been dead … to a certain extent I am also alive.”
The hunter is trapped in limbo: unable to die and leave this world and, although he can talk and see, unable to live. He is doomed to wander the world, his identity born of his dislocation. The dark uncertainty of Kafka’s world did not resonate with many of these students, who were steeped in the steady, sustaining logic of community and tradition, of rice and lentils twice a day and a life style very much like that of their great-great-grandparents. My Hindu students believed that their soon-to-be-murdered king was an incarnation of Vishnu. At Dashain, the autumn festival, they slaughtered goats and built giant bamboo swings, on which everyone took a turn. My students told me, “We do not eat the cow because the cow is Laxmi.”
Maybe, though, Kafka’s world was not as foreign to my students as I thought. On foggy mornings in schoolyards, uniformed Nepali children lined up to sing a national song that goes, Sundar shanta Nepal. “Beautiful, peaceful Nepal.” This line was both true and false. Nepal’s beauty could stop you short, a single pink hibiscus on a silver tray outside a temple, a woman’s hammered-gold nose ring pressed like a shield against her flesh. But half a mile from our school, a chemical plant was sending rivulets of burnt-orange and metallic-blue sludge through roadside ditches, and a poisonous smell threaded over the rice paddies. In Nepal, old men sat peacefully on benches for hours, staring at the sky, and children contentedly played games in the dust, yet in the hills 30 miles away, Maoist soldiers stormed villages with ancient weapons cast off from other countries’ wars. Students knew the darkness that Kafka again and again illumines. The point of great art may be that we all, somehow, have a line to its claim.
Where we come from is a complicated question that forms the core of the literary canon but also refutes that canon. English teachers traditionally focus on the works commonly considered our cultural inheritance, our literary bloodline, though now we recognize this lineage as having been culled over centuries to be disproportionately male, white, and Western: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Kafka, Fitzgerald.
The counterswell to the literary canon has been a decades-long argument for the inclusion of more female, nonwhite, and non-Western authors. This argument is somewhat resolved: Rachel Donadio, writing for The New York Times in 2007, proclaimed, “Today it’s generally agreed that the multiculturalists won the canon wars.” The canon wars had yet to reach Nepal, though, where the curriculum was set by men educated 40 years ago in Britain and the United States.
University of Chicago English professor James Chandler sums up the discourse over the literary canon this way: “Much of the debate concerns how the books we claim to care about represent the world, how our selection of them constitutes a reflection of it.” Most high school students, American or otherwise, do not see the trappings of their existence reflected in literature.
The hunter Gracchus says, “I am here. I don’t know any more than that. There’s nothing more I can do,” which seems to suggest that bafflement is Kafka’s point, and that these variations of it—of the hunter, of the people who welcome him, of us as readers, of me trying to figure out what I was doing in Nepal, of my students trying to figure out what they were doing reading Kafka—are more or less the same.
More than English literature, perhaps, what my students needed was conversational English classes. One wrote a note to me on every assignment: “Best o’clock!” I puzzled over it for weeks until I realized, after a lengthy conversation, that Suman was trying to wish me “best of luck.” Their teachers also struggled. One man asked me to observe him teach Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In trying to explain what an albatross was, he turned to me and said, “It is a kind of sea ostrich, isn’t it?” Because I could not think of anything else to do, I nodded, and the students carefully penciled “sea ostrich” in their notebooks.
Instead of teaching these students much of anything, my efforts distorted language and stories beyond usefulness. “The Hunter Gracchus” became a story about a man who is dead and also not dead. Coleridge’s albatross became a sea ostrich. Freshly dispatched from a university English department, I experienced this distortion as a betrayal of the canon. Years later, I see it as a test of how well the canon holds up outside Western universities. Although I wasn’t a very good teacher in Nepal, my students were. I absorbed their daily lessons.
When I left Nepal, I moved to Los Angeles and taught in South Central, where my students never invited me to their houses but schooled me nonetheless. One day, Marquis came to class on crutches. He explained, “I took off running when I heard they was shooting.”
Marquis, in his purple Lakers jersey, was normally a headache, asking girls if they were on the rag, shouting with his friend Jeffrey, selling candy. Still, when I was grumpy and brusque, he pantomimed tripping over a desk to make me smile. On the day of state testing, I brought my students breakfast. Marquis ate three bananas and said happily, “Damn! Free bananas and a juice box. Life don’t get no better than this.”
He showed me his wrist, where a bullet had pierced his 15-year-old body as he scrambled over a chainlink fence.
“Seven bullets,” he told me. “Three in the arm and four in the leg. I’m okay. I can walk. Only thing is, the doctors say I might not be able to play baseball anymore.”
At our mostly Crip school, my students knew a language I could barely decipher. They repped their streets and their crews in colors and clothing, language and gestures. I was exposed only to the periphery of gang culture—the whispered comments students made about fights, the scrawled tags I couldn’t read on notebooks and lockers, papers with every b crossed out, to show the author’s hatred of Bloods, or an excessive use of the letter c—sacc written for sack—to show the author’s love of Crips. Family mattered. Who your uncle was mattered. What street you grew up on mattered.
In Marquis’s 10th-grade class, we read John Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl. In it, peasants Kino, Juana, and their son Coyotito live a simple life in Baja until Kino finds an enormous pearl. This seemingly lucky occurrence prompts a series of events that leave the family even poorer than it was before. As Kino and Juana are hunted for their pearl, Steinbeck plays with our judgments about whether luck is good or bad. Questions of fortune and fate should have been relevant to my students, but I struggled to make them like or even read Steinbeck’s novella. That year, I bought Tupac’s The Rose That Grew From Concrete three times because it kept getting stolen. Years later, in a North Carolina high school, Tupac’s book is still the one I put into the most reluctant reader’s hands. Students written off as incapable of understanding art and literature are hungry for both, but they want forms they can recognize.
The canon wars have trickled down to the secondary level, most often in high schools like Marquis’s, where it is difficult to get students to read books in class, much less at home. Teachers who once taught Shakespeare and Hemingway now bring in Alice Walker and Sherman Alexie, but also Tupac and Kanye. They teach Beyoncé’s “Formation” as a critical text, and they put young adult books like Twilight or the Bluford series in students’ hands. They look for lines of resonance between students’ lives and pop culture and the classroom. The most effective teachers ask students to hone their critical faculties on both Tupac and Shakespeare. They teach their students that the world can be read as text, and that code switching in culture—from highbrow to lowbrow—will be as crucial to their success and upward mobility as code switching in dialect. They teach students how to go from “Yo, what up homie” to “This representation is problematic” in the time it takes to drop a backpack and slide behind a desk. I try to be this kind of teacher. Easier said than done.
Junot Díaz, an author and MIT professor whose family emigrated from the Dominican Republic, is a master of code switching, eloquently using the words “phenotypically” and “motherfucker” in the same conversation. When I heard him speak at Duke University in 2009 (before he, like Alexie, became the target of #MeToo accusations), I wished my students could hear him because so many do not know how to do this code switching, or even that it can be done. Students everywhere, though, know how to negotiate the worlds of home and school. They flip hand-pounded chapatis over an open flame before they struggle through Kafka. By night they climb fences under a spray of bullets, and by day, stairs to a classroom, where they discuss what might foreshadow Coyotito’s death in The Pearl.
In Nepal, teaching literature felt like being the only one in on a joke. In Om Prakash’s 12th-grade class, I had to teach The Great Gatsby. I tried to give the students context: Prohibition, the Jazz Age, flappers, bootleggers. They stared at me, incredulous. We read about Gatsby’s luxurious parties and the girls who “came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.” Then they went home and herded water buffalo. My love for the novel did not help my students love it.
One day, we discussed the duplicitous, resentful Daisy, a woman at once complicit with and trapped by her philandering husband, Tom. Om Prakash stood up and read what he had written in his notebook the night before: “Daisy is a coward and shelfish.” He meant selfish, the Nepali s and sh sounds being interchangeable. Only I appreciated how right he was: Daisy is selfish, but even more, she is a shellfish.
Om Prakash insisted I come to his rented room for a meal, but I demurred—he stood too close, asked too many questions. Finally, I relented, and we biked together down the long, dusty road. Tata trucks decorated with tinsel blared their horns and swerved around placid, garbage-munching cows. Women sold their roadside wares: a few ears of corn arranged over coals and fanned with a piece of cardboard, a litter of green mangoes spread upon fraying burlap.
When we arrived at his room, Om Prakash opened a metal gate to a barren yard. Chickens pecked at our feet. Inside his tiny room, the floor was swept, and the bed in the corner, a thin cotton mattress on a plywood frame, tidily made. Om Prakash owned two spoons, two forks, two plates, two bowls, and an aluminum mug, which he drank out of. I drank out of my cloudy Nalgene bottle. He had come to the city to study after his parents died. To pay his school fees and rent, he tutored younger children.
As we ate our soup—I sitting on a stool, he on the floor—we talked about his life plans. He had come from a tiny village, and what luck that God had placed an American teacher here for him, one who really knew the language, one who was rich and would help him achieve his goal, which was to become a teacher and start a school for poor orphans like himself.
Om Prakash had Gatsby’s determination. For a decade after I left Nepal, he was still emailing me and ringing my parents’ house in the middle of the night. He wanted me to sponsor him, get him a visa, write him recommendations. Like Gatsby, too, the ferocity of his desire was off-putting. I wrote the recommendations, but he stayed in Nepal. His persistence in tracking me down reminded me of how he would stay after class for an hour, pressing me to explain every word of Gatsby, telling me, “You can stay. You will stay here with me,” so gently that I felt guilty about my intense desire to leave. Into the gap between where he had come from and where he wanted to go, between what he wanted and what I could give, I pressed what I had to offer: Fitzgerald. Om Prakash likely did not see the parallels between himself and Gatsby that were so obvious to me, an irony that strikes me as both a missed opportunity and something I never could have explained.
Christian, a straight-A 11th-grader in LA, shared Om Prakash’s determination. On days when exams were over, Christian’s dark, curly head appeared in my doorway each morning to help me take down bulletin board decorations. Christian mostly understood the works I taught him. He never raised his hand, but whenever I called on him, he gave a correct answer, offered tentatively, and only after a surprised “oh”—a deflection I remembered myself from a time when it was dangerous to be too smart.
Oh! Ralph Waldo Emerson and transcendentalism?
Oh! Character foil?
Oh! It symbolizes, like, the barrier between the living and the dead?
We chatted as he swept up the toxic dark lint from the whiteboard tray, a year’s worth of erasing. He wanted to know what kind of car I drove and clucked with disapproval when I told him how long it had been since I’d checked the oil.
“With an old car like that, miss, you really got to check the oil every month. And the radiator fluid.”
As with Om Prakash, Christian’s intelligence and work ethic may not be enough to propel him over the fences that bound his life. They were both stuck in subpar high schools. What I gave them—exposure to the canon, a bit of grammar instruction—felt paltry. Perhaps it would have been better to teach books they would have liked more, by authors they would not have found as alienating as Kafka and Fitzgerald and Emerson. Or perhaps to do so would only have widened the gap between those who receive a top-notch education and those who must make do with what they get.
Christian told me he and his father had bought an old Trans Am to rebuild and then sell for three times what they paid for it. His dad couldn’t help anymore, though, because he had to go back to El Salvador for an operation.
“Is he okay?” I asked.
“Yeah, he’s fine, but my mother had to go, too, so it was just me and my brother and sister for, like, three months.”
“How old are your siblings?” I asked.
“My brother’s in the third grade and my sister’s two.”
“Two! But how did you take care of her and go to school?”
“She goes to daycare,” he said. “Actually, she was easier than my brother. When I’d be doing my homework, she’d just sit there, asking what things were. My brother, man, he’d always be giving me trouble, like, ‘I don’t want to go to bed! I don’t want to take a bath!’ ” Christian smiles. “But they’re good kids. Only this one time, the neighbor called social services on us. I got home from picking them up, and this social worker was waiting on the porch. And you know how little kids get, like, dirty, from playing? Well, my brother had gotten his shirt dirty at school. And my sister had, like, Popsicle around her mouth. So the social worker came in and started asking all these questions, like, why are they so dirty, where are your parents, how old are you. I had to tell her, lady, it’s fine, they’re not being neglected or nothing!” He shook his head.
I stared at him.
“What, miss?” he asked, shrugging off my awe. “I’m 18.”
The crossroads of the classroom often feels like a land of missed opportunities. We could change the curriculum and teach high-engagement, young-adult novels to the exclusion of the classics, especially to students who are either less interested in reading or less prepared to approach rigorous works. Yet if we don’t teach the canon—flawed as it is—in schools where it has the least resonance, we create one cultural inheritance for one social class and a different one for another. Such curricula will only heighten the inequity in American schools. Of course, we can teach works both inside and outside the canon, but there are only so many days in a school year.
In Christian’s class, I taught John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men, in which the character George finds himself a caretaker to Lennie. Throughout our unit, I did not draw on my students’ experiences as caretakers, did not even consider that some of them, like Christian, might have had more experience taking care of other people than I did. What might Christian have been able to say about unasked-for responsibilities, about the burden of being the caretaker to a person who is not your child? Each year, I see anew how I must seek out the parts of my students’ lives that might be reflected in canonical literature. Later, independently, they might perform the same trick: catching the glimmer of a reflection in works that initially seemed dull and opaque.
Mark Lilla, a history professor at Columbia University, says, “What Americans yearn for in literature is self-recognition.” But, he adds, reading difficult works is “the most alienating experience possible.” Lilla believes this alienation has value. He argues that a negative consequence of broadening the canon is that it has given people a chance to read selectively, choosing works (and courses) that appeal to them or reflect their own backgrounds, rather than struggling through works that, though initially alienating, may reward the diligent reader with recognition of a shared humanity. A better teacher could have helped Om Prakash see himself in Gatsby, or Christian in George, instead of just seeing these connections herself.
These connections arise unbidden. In Sweta’s house, we sat on the second floor, where the air moved through the windows. Sweta’s mother, a widow in a white sari, parked herself in front of the TV to watch Hindi soap operas. The air in the city often felt oceanic, even in landlocked Nepal. The tropical swells of hot breezes, the overripe smells rising from debris and offal in the street below, the swishing palm leaves all convinced me the ocean was just a few blocks away. The heat, the billowing white sari, the gusts of breezes and then the terrible stillness made me recall the scene in Gatsby when we first meet Daisy, perched with her friend Jordan Baker on the couch on another hot afternoon. Fitzgerald writes: “They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.”
But this was not East Egg, it was Biratnagar. Sweta, 17, and I talked in low voices as she explained that she would probably get married soon. Every month, one or two girls disappeared from my classes. When I inquired about Archana or Mina or Bandana, the others told me, “She is married now, miss.” The first few times, I, an insolent 23-year-old American feminist, demanded, “So? Why can’t she still come to school?” Which made the girls laugh and laugh. The new bride lived with her in-laws, cooking and cleaning. She would likely never attend school again. I stopped asking. Most of these girls accepted the prospect of an arranged marriage going off in their lives like a car bomb: at any moment, it may explode. These lithe teenagers who giggled behind hankies would be given away, one by one, often to much older men.
In what might have been their last weeks of unmarried freedom, my girls sat in my classroom, reading Irish playwright John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea. In this play, a mother and two daughters in the west of Ireland mourn the deaths at sea of six sons, a husband, and a father-in-law. We fanned ourselves as we discussed the cold waves and sharp rocks of the North Atlantic, though the girls had only seen pictures of oceans. The Irish dialect was hard for them.
“Do you understand?” I asked repeatedly.
They nodded, but maybe just to please me. I wanted them to imagine this house of soon-to-be-destitute women, listen to Maurya say, “They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me.” I wanted these girls to see connections between the women in the play, buffeted by forces outside their control, and their own lives. My girls also wanted this, maybe, but what they really wanted, now that class was over, was for us all to go down to a photo studio, where I would be costumed in the traditional dress of the Limbu tribe, including an enormous dangling fake nose ring attached by chain to clip-on gold earrings. I gave in. We went.
Rosa, a senior in 10th-grade English in LA, was trying to graduate on time. Her class was reading the mandated Julius Caesar. It was spring, the students sick of Rome, Caesar, and me. But the room came to attention each day when Rosa arrived. She ran with the wild kids but wasn’t disrespectful, failed her classes but wasn’t dumb, was beautiful but not stuck up.
When Rosa came to tutoring, we puzzled through the lines Cassius speaks about Caesar: “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus, and we petty men walk under his huge legs and peep about to find ourselves dishonorable graves.”
“Okay, so basically what Cassius is saying is he’s jealous of Caesar. He’s like, why does Caesar think he’s all that?” Rosa said.
Rosa was a Colossus in my classroom, in that school, but I wondered how she would navigate the wider world. What is the point in teaching Julius Caesar to teenagers at a school surrounded by doughnut shops and mattress warehouses, for whom a hundred skills seem more critical than understanding Shakespeare? Pragmatists believe that teaching Rosa Shakespeare does her a disservice. She could learn a vocational skill instead. Humanists say not teaching Rosa Shakespeare underestimates both the power of Shakespeare as art and the power in Rosa to appreciate and be deepened by art. I want to say to them yes, and yes.
For her senior portfolio, Rosa had to write an autobiography.
“I don’t know what to write,” she said.
“Think about your stories,” I said. “Your memories. Where you come from. Why don’t you just talk to me for a little bit about how you grew up, to get some ideas.”
Rosa told me she was the oldest of three children, born to parents who emigrated from Mexico. Her working mother couldn’t afford daycare for three kids, so she sent the younger two back to Mexico to be raised by grandparents. Her father attributed Rosa’s bad behavior—failing classes, ditching school, drinking—to her heightened Americanness, while her more studious, obedient siblings he saw as more traditional, more Mexican.
“You know what my dad said about me?” Rosa whispered. “He said, ‘You’re ruined.’ Ruined.” She wiped away tears sooty with mascara.
“Oh, Rosa,” I said.
“But my mom says, don’t listen to him. Prove him wrong. And I think I’m going to do it! I can’t believe I’m going to graduate. I’m sorry I’m crying. I’m emotional. My mom always tells me I’m emotional.”
“Don’t apologize,” I said. “These are your stories. Write them down, just like you told me, and you’ll have your autobiography.”
The finished version, which she brought me to read, was good. Full of grammatical errors, but also full of concrete details, like the lightning storm the night she was born and how she felt when she used to walk to preschool holding her father’s hand. When I told her I was proud of her, she blushed and said she’d see me at graduation.
Graduation in South Central meant a sea of shiny Mylar balloons and card tables set up along the sidewalk, where vendors sold silk roses and teddy bears in miniature polyester caps and gowns. After the ceremony, I found Rosa. She stood, dazed but pleased, by the gym. Some of these students were headed to college, but many weren’t. Rosa said she didn’t want to go to college, but she might get her beauty technician’s license. She liked to do hair. I chatted with her mother, whose younger children translated for us, then I hugged Rosa goodbye and never saw her again.
As Louis Menand, a Harvard professor and a staff writer at The New Yorker, told The New York Times, “The big question for humanists is, How do we explain why what we do is important for people who aren’t humanists? That’s been tough, really tough.” I would amend his line for teachers. How do teachers explain why what we do is important for people who aren’t teachers? We don’t just teach our students, we witness their stories, their truths, and their lives. There is plenty to learn from listening to these young people whom we are supposedly enculturating.
Most years, I ask students to write a “Where I’m From” poem, a common creative writing exercise. To brainstorm, students list their families’ sayings, foods they eat, places they go, objects in their house or yard, well-loved books and TV shows and songs. They choose the most telling images for the poem. When stuck, the writer goes back to the phrase “I’m from …” and begins the litany again.
I like to do this near the beginning of the year. All of us are perched, teetering, between where we come from and where we are going, at the narrow waist of the hourglass. I want them to believe that literature can hold our worlds at bay. Here we are, on the cusp. Here we are, midtransaction. Teaching English is tracing lineage: asking students where do you come from and helping them to tell their stories and see their lives reflected in literature, but also saying, This is where this comes from, helping them navigate our complicated cultural inheritance.
In their poems, my students write:
I’m from a gun in my hand and hours in the deer stand
I’m from the duplex on Barton Street, the wooden picnic table and the old mattress in the yard
I’m from the land of the Incas where blood was spread and life was stolen
I’m from four mothers and no fathers
I’m from drug dealers, crack heads and a little bit of gin
I’m from grandma selling fish dinners in the projects to make ends meet
I’m from the cool mountain stream where we spread my mother’s ashes
My students have their own forms and canons, their own ways of making meaning. As their teacher, I get to glimpse the symbolism and form at work in my students’ lives, and to participate, however tangentially, in helping them craft their ideas of themselves. This knowledge consoles me on days when it feels like no one wants what I’m selling. I get to teach them literature, an extravagant necessity.
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