The Homework You Never Did

There are some books that are part of America’s lexicon because their titles have appeared on every high school’s mandated reading list for decades. We have all touched these novels, tabbed them, underlined them, written in the margin, or just left them at the bottom of our locker and resorted to CliffsNotes and the smart guy in the desk next to us.

Chances are if you were anything like me, you combined all of these methods and came out the other end with a diploma.

Here’s a sampling for your recollection: The Great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet, Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, Scarlett Letter, Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men, 1984, The Crucible, Grapes of Wrath, A Brave New World, The Color Purple, Macbeth, The Old Man in the Sea.

There’s more, as you well know, and you may give a nod to some of these while thinking proudly, I’ve read that one. Kind of.

I recently came across my high school copy of The Great Gatsby. It somehow survived the purge of several moves and is older than I care to admit. The baby blue highlighting stops midway through, and what earned my attention seems sporadic. The emphasis is part on plot, part a desperate need to find a quote that will fit nicely into a paper I don’t remember writing. Did I ever finish that book? I wasn’t sure. I knew the story well enough. I’d seen the movies. You would think flipping through the pages would produce some memory of the prose, the story arc, the theme. But, my recollection was strangely blank.

This got me thinking about how many other books I read during my teens – those years when you are equal parts hormones and self-consciousness, when you are wrestling with a hideous combination of autonomy and dependence. Apparently, the powers that be in the educational system thought this would be a good time to hand us some literary masterpieces and demand that we make sense of them. For a grade. To this day, they still believe in this method. I peeked at a few local school 2015 summer reading lists and they included As I Lay Dying, Jane Eyre and Frankenstein.

What do high school book reports even look like nowadays? How many are just a manipulation of a Wikipedia plot overview? I shudder to think. Kids these days. Then again, who can blame them? They’re trying to survive high school, same as us.

But more importantly, why serve a bunch of pubescent teens a rich meal that they’re ill equipped to digest?

I suppose it’s not unlike a vaccine. You give them to your children because you know they’ll need it later, but a baby only understands that you’re hurting them with a shot for no good reason at all. This is how I felt about reading Beowulf my junior year, by the way. Yet here I am with this Old English epic poem lurking somewhere in the recesses of my brain, influencing even the words I’m putting onto the page now. I’ve been vaccinated.

So what? We all have that book that we claim to have read but really haven’t. I’d put money on the fact that for the majority of us, that book was supposedly read in high school. I guess mine was The Great Gatsby, and how sad I was to realize this. But when I finally sat down with my yellowing copy and read it, really read it, I had an honest to goodness appreciation for the book. The story! The word-smithing! Apparently when you give a classic book its due as an adult, you get to appreciate the genius that it is instead of the school-born legend you’ve been taught. It becomes a book you’ve read instead of book your remember having read.

Since this realization, I’ve committed to reading (and re-reading) some of those classics. Next on the list: a little Herman Melville, thanks to a nudge from Carve’s own Patrick Roesle.

You’re welcome to join me. Sure it’s homework, but somehow when you’re giving yourself the assignment, it doesn’t feel like it.