Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Ghosts of High School Past

When I think of English classes, I often think it’s a miracle that I still love reading. So many of the stories we read made me wish I could return to a state of illiteracy. But the thing about being literate is that you can’t go back – unless, of course, you crash a sled into a tree.

In elementary school we read inane stories out of reading textbooks and answered comprehension questions at the end (i.e. Why did the animals eat the pineapple?). They were written to educate us without causing us to enjoy ourselves too much. If it weren't for Harry Potter and the American Girls, I probably would have given up on reading and became an ignorant hooligan.

Some of the stories were intended to plant the seed of entrepreneurship in our impressionable young minds. One was a play about a young fellow who realizes that the price of toothpaste is too high, so he makes it from scratch with baking soda and peppermint oil. Other people also agree that toothpaste is too expensive, so they start buying jars of his homemade toothpaste. He turns his passion for cheap toothpaste into a toothpaste dynasty and becomes a millionaire.

I just thought to look up the story and it seems that it was a children’s book that must have been very loosely adapted for our workbooks. They cut out his female business partner, the lessons about gender, racism, and the true meaning of friendship, and the mathematical problems they must solve to become millionaires. It’s like they cut out all the potentially good parts from our textbook to focus on the logistics of making toothpaste.

One Amazon reviewer says this is the most important book he ever read. Well.

In high school, Ethan Frome was on our list of required reading. I feel like Edith Wharton personally ruined my life in a number of ways. She’s a woman writer and I want to like her because of that, but I resent that I had to sit through the mundane details of various miserable lives ending with a botched suicide. The title character and his love interest try to kill themselves by crashing a sled into a tree, but instead they just become horribly, horribly mangled. Sledicide is on par with leaping out a four story window or trying to overdose on children’s aspirin. Oh, Ethan and your half-brained schemes!

I reluctantly finished the book. Then I hurled it against the wall of my bedroom. If I have to pay a fine, so be it, I thought. I hate all these people.

One of the great things about life after school is that no one can make me read anything I don’t want to read. I was starting to get itchy about required reading at the end of college. In my last playwriting class, we were supposed to read plays and take an aspect of that play to write a scene. I mercilessly parodied the plays I didn’t like. As far as I’m concerned, a story that I think is awful only benefits me if I can make fun of it. My professor would ask, What did you think of this play? And I would say, I don’t like it. She would say, I don't care if you liked it, what did you learn?

Nothing! I learned nothing! I refuse to learn anything from this text, I cried indignantly. Then I stood up and flipped my desk.


  1. I was always shocked at how little an impact in-school reading had on me. With the exception of a Sci-Fi literature class and my freshman year's curriculum, I can barely even recall what it was that I read in school. I actually missed assignments or skipped entire books because I was too busy reading books I wanted to read.

    All I learned from the high school curriculum is how to piece together a story through hasty in-class descriptions. And hell, it worked back then(god bless low expectations). It took me well into college before I actually learned how to appreciate literature that existed in my own tiny microcosm of interests.

    1. The art of pretending you read something is one of the most essential parts of education. I've forgotten quite a lot of what we read now, too. And that's just fine.

  2. Oh god, Ethan Frome! I hated that book with a passion. It was a stupid story to begin with and then for weeks my class talked about the symbolism of something that was red, the cats, and random nonsense. I still don't understand what made that book so special that we were forced to read it in school. Gah!

    If I hadn't read Harry Potter, I never would've liked reading too! Before HP I thought reading was just blah. Why would anyone want to spend their time reading? But HP changed my life! Literally! lol

    I love that you said you threw the book against the wall! That's amazing! It reminds me of a scene in Silver Linings Playbook. He's reading a Hemingway book and when he finishes it, he throws it out of the window so hard that he breaks the glass!

  3. The symbolism of the cats! AHH! I think all the literary elements to analyse and the fact that it was written by a woman got it on the curriculum. I don't think I disliked Hemmingway enough to throw him... :P (But, at age 23, I still haven't finished a book by him either.) I'm glad we're not both ignorant hooligans, Sara. I really am.

  4. I was remembering some childhood stories from textbooks (specifically this toothpaste one) and did a google search and this blog was a result. I read that story over 20 years ago. Amazing! november1701d@gmail.com