Thursday, March 29, 2012

Honors English

A couple of decades before the Twilight series, teens had a great void. We had to read adult books or kids books. I was a voracious reader as a girl, but when I hit 8th grade, I had a hard time finding things to read. One day at SSR a friend gave me a romance novel. I tried hard to like it, but there was something weird and creepy about it. The men were these hard types who didn't show their feelings. They were usually nearing 40 as opposed to the female protagonist who was barely out of her teens. But the books themselves were quick to read, readily available, and I was a young girl ready to enter a life of romance.
When I got to high school, I started taking honors English classes. The books we were reading were a far cry from the romance novel. I was frustrated. I loved Newbery Award winning books, which were considered the best of children's lit, but if these books we were supposed to read in high school were any indication of quality literature, I would stick to trashy novels. Bring on V.C. Andrews and Danielle Steele.
It wasn't until my freshman year of college when I had a Women's Studies course that I discovered real literature again. I still remember the three novels we discussed: Chopin's The Awakening, Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. I could not believe that I was reading these books as an assignment. And the discussion points--they blew me out of the water because I could suddenly identify with what I was reading. This was no Lord Jim or The Red Badge of Courage! At this point I realized that of all the novels I read in 11th-12th grade honors English, only Wharton's Ethan Frome (my favorite book of both classes) was written by a woman.
I began trolling the Women's Studies section of textbooks at the college store for my casual reading. I pretended to be registered for the classes, buying the required reading. It was through this deceptive practice that I discovered Toni Morrison, Isabel Allende, Marge Piercy, Alice Walker, and Marilyn French to name a few. Then I would start to read everything by these authors. I found the poets Adrienne Rich and Maya Angelou. These women changed my life.
I was saddened to learn of Adrienne Rich's recent death. It brought me right back to my college questing days. These writers leave such a legacy. I am forever in their debt.
What are your kids reading in high school? Is it a good balance of male and female writers? It should be if half the people in the room are female. Are people of color represented? Ask to see your student's English curriculum. Write letters to the school board asking for diversity in their materials. Girls and boys alike need to experience the female voice--not as a side bar, not as a movie version. The Twilight Series is over. (Yes, I read them.) Give us the breadth and depth of creation. Here is my assignment for you: start by finding a poem by Adrienne Rich.

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