Saturday, September 11, 2010

Did He Just Say Queynte?

I was in class discussing sex and naked girls with my students...

Wait a second. What was that? I should be fired? I'm a sick pervert? Maybe. But not because of what was happening in class that day.

Don't blame me. Blame Arthur Miller.

See, Mr. Miller's classic play The Crucible begins with a bunch of teenage girls (and younger) dancing in the woods like a bunch of, well, teenagers. One plump little sexpot Puritan, Mercy Lewis, is taken by the Barbados spirit (maybe she thought Tituba was from Cancun) and strips down to her birthday suit. Girls Gone Wild: Salem Style.

The kicker is that one of the girls, Abigail Williams, was drinking blood in order to cast a spell to kill Goody Proctor, the wife of the man twice her age that was knocking boots with her behind the barn "where his beasts are bedded." As she delivers the line (well, as the student reading her part delivers the line) "...sweated like a stallion whenever I came near" the class chuckles and a few cat-calls go up from the crowd. I chuckle, too, playing up the soap opera-i-ness of the whole thing. At this point, they are hooked and are actually upset that class is about to end. Score one for Mr. Teacher Dude.

When I have a chance to reflect later in the afternoon, on the drive home, I realize something. I have an epiphany. All of the literature schools force students to read was originally written for adults. Who was Fitzgerald's target audience? Poe's? They were writing for adults. For literary types. Not a single thing I will teach this year was designed with young adults in mind. Furthermore, most of it has been, or could have been, banned in districts throughout the United States.

Let's look at the facts. The Crucible is edgy. People are hanged until they're all dead and stuff! WTF? A thirty-something is banging a teenage girl (who was actually 12 if we look at the true history of the whole debacle) for crying out loud! But it's literature, so it's okay.*

In preparation for The Crucible we read Cotton Mathers's "Wonders of the Invisible World," which discusses a sore "breeding" in a man's groin that has to be lanced by a doctor. "Several gallons of corruption" pour out of another of his sores once cut. This is graphic. This is gross. This is STDs, dude! But it's literature, so it's okay.

What about "The Masque of the Red Death?" It's a total blood-bath! A thousand "light-hearted" friends lie dead in the "blood bedewed halls of their revel." Picture the morning dew drenching the grass. Then, picture the dew is blood drenching a hallway of a castle in the same way. Move over Freddy Krueger, make room for Edgar Allan Poe's Read Death Dude of Doom! This is gratuitous gore the likes the big screen has never seen. But it's literature, so it's okay.

How about the homo-erotic, racist, violent classic, The Great Gatsby. Come on. If Nick wasn't a flamer, than I'm a Vermicious Knid. Look at the language: "groaning down the elevator," "keep your hands off the lever." After a break in the text indicating time has passed, Nick leaves some dude he just met at a party in his underpants in bed, and nobody says a damn thing. Of course Nick thinks Gatsby is "worth the whole damn bunch put together." He wants his sexy Gatsby body! If Gatsby hadn't been shot (did I mention the violence), and Nick had gone over that afternoon for a swim, what might have happened? Gatsby and his pink suite on the rebound. Nick jaded by the immorality of the East. A match made in homo-heaven. Sam Waterston breaks out some cuffs from the now dismantled set of Law and Order and dangles them in front of Robert Redford's taught face wearing that sexy, striped swim suit. You do the math. But it's literature, so it's okay.

Finally, we end with The Catcher in the Rye. I actually start the unit by listing all the scandalous topics covered in the book on the board, not telling them why they're up there until a half hour or so into class. Nothing makes a teen want to read a book more than writing "kinky sex acts in a hotel," giving them a good thirty minutes to contemplate how that can possibly be written on a whiteboard in an English class, then telling them that IT'S IN THE BOOK. Holden talks about "perverty things," engages a prostitute, contemplates suicide, and discusses the pros and cons of spitting water "or something" in a girl's face, and in most schools, it's just peachy keen. Why? You should be all over this by now. It's literature, so it's okay.

None of this literature was meant for "children" when it was written. And this is just a small sample of what is read in high school--just the junior year. Throw in Chaucer and Shakespeare, and we're talking real perversion. Chaucer's got a cock, a chick farting on a dude, and a woman being grabbed by the "queynte," which loosely translate to the mother of all swear words (according to most woman)--C U Next Tuesday! Can you imagine! All okay. All literature. Go figure.

So it strikes me funny in that "do we ever even think about what the hell we are really doing on this planet anyway" kind of way that parents get all frothy at the mouth about some titles being marketed toward teens, when the schools their kids attend are making them read ADULT titles with all kinds of naughtiness drenching the pages. (Along with who knows what else.)

What's the point, you ask? I'm not exactly sure. I just know that it would be way super cool to see what's being taught in schools in 100 years. 200 years. Will adult books that are interesting to teens like Prep and Election be taught in schools as "the canon" while YA novels that are equally as well-written and literary are being shunned?

Thanks to that pesky Mayan calendar, we may never know.

*Literature is defined by as...

writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays.
the entire body of writings of a specific language, period, people, etc.: the literature of England.
the writings dealing with a particular subject: the literature of ornithology.
the profession of a writer or author.
literary work or production.
any kind of printed material, as circulars, leaflets, or handbills: literature describing company products.
Archaic . polite learning; literary culture; appreciation of letters and books.



  1. This is why I hate YA, and why I hate being labeled as a YA author. By putting that mark on the genre, the labelers as well as the adherents assign themselves to the constraints of some kind of "secret code" -- which I have never been able to figure the fuck out -- that says to readers (and especially non-readers) "this is okay for your underdeveloped sensibilities" and prescribes to writers exactly the formulaic and neutered kinds of content, plot lines, and characters you are "allowed" to use.

  2. But I still think the labels have some value if we DEvalue them a bit. It's just makes shopping easier. I mean, when I went into a music store (back when I knew music stores not called Amazon), I liked them separating everything into genre. Avoid country at all costs, think long and hard about pop, make sure to check rock, and sift through metal carefully. Maybe if we had a different category that didn't have anything to do with age. And definitely not just LITERATURE. Let's take the fiction and break it into crime, thriller, horror, suspense, chicklit, total crap, COMING OF AGE, scifi, mystery, porn, romance, supernatural romance...wait...I could be going on forever. FINE... just call it fiction. Or else each individual book might end up with its own section. I'm fighting the urge to change all my profiles all over the web.

  3. I agree with you that the literature kids are taught in high school was all aimed at adults when it was written. The trick is, most teachers don't teach that aspect of it. They teach all the symbolism and themes and stuff, but they ignore the adulty stuff. I was taught all those novels you talk about in high school and because I was so incredibly naive, I didn't understand any of the adult content. It went over my head. And because I found the books so painfully dull at the time I've never reread any of them. So by teaching the books like they should be taught - talking about all the content - not only are you doing them justice, and actually educating your students, but you're also not tainting their opinion of "literature." They might actually reread some of those books. Not that I think most of them belong in the "canon" to the exclusion of others...but don't get me started on the concept of the canon. It totally pisses me off and I could rant for hours about it.

  4. Oh, and btw you probably don't know but Mara Nash is the pen name I've chosen to use. It's a long story. Anyway, my super-secret identity is M. Bail. hehe.

  5. And here I thought I got an unsolicited follower. I point everything out. My class is a hoot. That's what happens when they let the class clown teach.

  6. Mara Nash - that has a nice ring to it, Margaret! Anyway William, letting kids on the soap-opery drama of a text - adult or YA - certainly beats trying to lure them with the metaphor or simile patterns (unless, it's the pickle and pickle dish in Ethan Frome!). I think sometimes we teachers forget that the human side of the text is the magnet - not the glossary of literary terms the text uses. High schoolers love The Crucible because of the teen psychology it reveals ( adolescent crushes, mean girl syndromes, illicit affairs) and their innate morality that tells them those Salemites were just damn wrong to hang the innocents. Whether 1690s Salem trials or 2000s hate crime - they will respond to human drama and morality.