Didactic, I Know . . .
I’ve been reading a lot lately. After all it is summertime, and I am a teacher. Many often accuse me of having a job where I’m paid three months a year for “doing nothing.” I try to explain that I have a yearly salary which is spread out over 12 months. It’s like that old joke about the guy who went to order a pizza. The waiter asked if he wanted it cut into eight or twelve pieces. After musing several seconds, the guy responded, “You’d better cut it into eight pieces; I don’t think I can eat twelve.” Since I’m “working on” my doctorate (a funny little phrase we who have finished all of our classes but still have the dissertation to write use), very little of my reading is for pure pleasure (e.g. trash novels). I will vouchsafe that my dissertation concerns the importance of public schools including the teaching of major world religions in the standard curriculum (I won’t bore you with details), so my reading material has been, shall we say, “non-fiction.” A disconcerting pattern is emerging, one that many educators have suspected for some time: More and more students see little or no value in reading.
I simply cannot fathom this. I’m no great intellect, but I am a curious fellow. When I hear a student say that he or she has never been “lost” in a book, that is, so totally involved that the outside world melts away, I wonder what the world is coming to. I’ve tried to understand. I’ve tried to imagine that their new “take me away” activities center on video games. I’ve tried to play video games myself, and I just cannot get hooked on them. I like Tetris, but I’m shamed by the fact that the Game Boy® Brother Bear game (based on my all-time favorite cartoon) is too hard for me. I can only get so far, then I’m trapped, sliding around on the ice and surrounded by cliffs I cannot scale.
My parents never read to me. It wasn’t en vogue to do so, so don’t go thinking I had disinterested parents. I will admit that being the last of seven children and the fact that my mother was 43 when I arrived on the scene might have contributed to an upbringing that was markedly less stringent than my brother and sisters. Thank God for the library at Morris Hill Baptist Church and the Happy Hollisters series by Jerry West! Clearly following the successful blueprint of the Bobsey Twins which was laid down in 1904 and eventually resulted in 70+ books, Doubleday published West’s first book, The Happy Hollisters, in 1953. I don’t know how many of the series (the 33rd and last was published in 1970) were in the church library, but I read every one they had. Talk about “transported.” Talk about “lost”! Jesus had nothing on the Happy Hollisters as I sat in the pew, absorbed in this functional family of erstwhile detectives: “Pete, the oldest, is a strudy boy of twelve, with sparkling blue eyes and blond, crew cut hair. His love for sports is shared by his sister Pam, who is ten. Pam whose real name is Pamela, has brown eyes and fluffy golden hair. She is kind to everyone and loves animals, especially their peppy collie dog, Zip, whom she adopted. This faithful pet is on the go almost as much as Ricky Hollister, a seven-year-old package of perpetual motion. Lanky Ricky has reddish hair, which is usually mussed, and a turned-up nose splattered with freckles. He is full of fun and sometimes teases his six-year-old sister, Holly. But Holly, with her tomboy ways, can take it! In fact she looks a lot like Ricky, except that she has dancing brown eyes and dark hair, which she wears in pigtails. Holly’s chief delight is her cat, White Nose, which she carries under her arm like a fluffy purse. White Nose and her five kittens are cute too. Little Sue Hollister, the baby of the family, likes to cuddle them. Although dark-haired Sue is only four, she romps in all the fun which the Hollister family enjoys day in and day out. All their friends say that this is because Mother and Daddy share in the play and in the mysteries the children solve. Mrs. Hollister is always ready to meet any sudden need for a surprise picnic or a helping hand. Mr. Hollister owns the Trading Post, a combination hardware, sports and toy shop. He is never too busy to play ball. And best of all, he likes to take his family on exciting adventures.” (West, Jerry. The Happy Hollisters (book jacket). Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1953)
Of course, it didn’t stop there. I’ve read voraciously ever since, and I’ve swung wildly across genres, both in fiction and non-fiction. I ended up a high school English teacher, and my hobby has become a vocation.
Anyway . . . I’m now reading all of these studies about how “a-literate” today’s students are, that is, how they know how to read, but they choose not to. There’s a lot of noise about how talented today’s young people are, what with their digital acumen and ability to juggle/multitask the Internet, MySpace, Facebook, blogs, video games, TV/movies, cell phones, music, etc., and some researchers think that they only have discovered faster and flashier ways to keep up with each other. Unquestionably, today’s students have at their fingertips more research and knowledge power than anyone heretofore, so why do I still encounter so many students whose idea of “research” is to Google a subject, locate three to five articles never going more than two screens deep into the Google results, cut-and-paste whole paragraphs onto a new document, add transitions, then turn it in without ever really reading it? Is it taking too much time away from posting pictures of themselves on MySpace or Facebook? Is it cutting into their blogging time in which they detail the minutia of their lives (lives which do not include reading for pleasure or research?) and constantly check for feedback from their many “best friends” (ignoring that “best” is a terminal superlative--there can only be one “best”but, I guess “better friends” sounds weird)?
“But this is a blog!” you shout. “Physician, heal thyself” and all that. I guess you are right. It serves me right if you do not respond to this (perceived) screed. Why don’t you just “show me” that I don’t know what I’m bitching about? Why don’t you pick up a book to read that has nothing to do with your friends (sorry, Potterphiles and would-be vampires)? Why don’t you pick up a classic that will make your friends go, “Huh?” then you might actually start being that true individual you so desperately want to be. I’m fifty-one flippin’ years old, and I’m not even close to knowing everything. I dismiss nothing as “boring” unless I’ve fully checked it out. How can you possibly know what is or isn’t needful, helpful, inspiring, challenging, or even “good” (what an annoyingly subjective and relative judgment) unless you have experienced it.
Bored? Get outside of yourself for a few hours. Turn off the cell phone (gasp!). Put down the game controller. Before you turn off the computer, Google “best books”or “best movies”and see what has been inspiring and challenging millions of people for years. Pick one up and see if you can get on that train. It might not take you to Hogwart’s, but it might open up a whole new world, a world that won’t run out of wonder and challenges before you leave this earthly plane.
I’m not bored. I’m just sorry that I don’t have enough years left of my life to read, see, and do everything I want to before I shuffle off this mortal coil (God, I hope you either recognize that illusion as either Shakespeare or the brilliant 80s art band). If you’re reading this and you know me personally, you must realize that I’m pleading, not preaching. Try listening. Try talking to someone without using the personal pronouns I, me or mine. You will be amazed. You will quit wondering “ what now?” and start asking “what’s next?” from a dizzying array of undiscovered countries (again, Shakespeare . . . or one of those Star Trek movies).