Letter to the Editor

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Thank you for your editorial addressing the novels we study in English courses at Schreiber. It is always heartening to hear that someone believes the work we do in English matters–and that the representation of women matters, too.  Like you, I passed many of my years in classrooms waiting to encounter complicated women characters and stories imagined by women. (No, Juliet did not suffice.)  I wish I’d had classmates like yourselves.

Please count me among the people who share your admiration of Bechdel’s graphic novels. However, regarding the Bechdel test, I wonder if it’s useful to consider the original context, as it appeared in one of Bechdel’s comics. Weren’t Bechdel’s characters going to see a movie, on a date night? And if so, does it always make sense to apply the same test to selections for the classroom? Should the same criteria apply, in school and out, everywhere and always? Bechdel herself is so well versed in American literature (note the abundance of literary allusions in Fun Home)—it’s hard to believe she would recommend such a massive deletion of our literary past.

Let’s also remember that–even and especially in classrooms–there are many ways to respond to a text. In tenth grade, when we study Catcher in the Rye (one of the novels you cite), do we merely accept what we read at face value, as pure entertainment?  Do we reach the last page, only to exclaim, “Oh, Holden, what a hilarious kid! Oh, Catcher, what a swell story!” No, of course not. Instead, we interrogate. We practice reading critically.

We argue with the text and with any of the assumptions we uncover there.  Recently, students in one of my classes proposed a relevant question for a whole-class debate: “Is Holden empathetic towards girls and women, or is he a sexist creep?”  Similarly, in last year’s arguments over whether the novel has grown hopelessly outdated, students often noted Holden’s objectifying remarks about “ugly girls,” “girls with fabulous legs” and “falsies that point all over the place.”  (Of course, in the wake of #MeToo, it’s also possible to perceive these same phrases as an indication of the novel’s currency.)

Furthermore, might it be useful to look beyond the three titles you name, to acknowledge other works by and about women that we include in our courses?  Taking the reading lists as a whole into account, would we arrive at a slightly different appraisal?  Yes, in my sophomore courses, we read one of the novels you mention. But we also read works by Emily Dickinson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Willa Cather, Kim Addonizio, Edwidge Danticat, Natasha Trethewey, Lorraine Hansberry, Kate Chopin, and Mariko Tamaki.  With independent reading lists and honors project selections, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Sonia Nazario, Celeste Ng, Jeanette Winterson, and Charlotte Bronte join the

chorus.

A hundred and fifty years ago, English consisted of penmanship and reciting religious or patriotic poems.  In the interim, there have been vigorous, enduring, and competing arguments for a cultural heritage approach, emphasizing “classics” (itself a disputed category); a cultural appreciation approach, encouraging personal expression; and a sole focus on building core competencies (basic, measurable reading and writing skills). There are also compelling, long-standing movements to make readings better reflect the diversity of voices that make up our country and our classrooms–acknowledging gender, race, class, sexuality, and ability as crucial considerations.

Moreover, in the last decade or so, digital literacies and visual rhetoric have fallen into the purview of English. And believe it or not, during the same time span, many have argued that English does not sufficiently address the interests and inclinations of boys.

(Amanda Bechdel: Go figure.) So, English teachers dwell amid some turbulent cross-currents, and many of us thrive on the dynamic quality it brings to our work. Meanwhile, we are thinking about gender—and a tempest of other issues, too.

Some of us try to bring a better balance to our classrooms by pairing “classic” novels with relevant contemporary narratives. In my own courses for sophomores, where I teach Catcher, I sometimes introduce

Skim, a graphic novel narrated  by a biracial Japanese-Canadian girl, Kim, who finds herself emotionally unstable and socially isolated in her elite, all-girls high school. She engages in a variety of risky behaviors, including some ambiguous encounters with Ms. Archer, one of her few inspiring

teachers. This plot line will sound familiar to anyone who has read Catcher

to the end. (Amanda Bechdel fans, look for the enthusiastic blurb on the back cover. And for anyone who fears this “comic book” selection isn’t academically “serious” enough, rest assured that it supplies rich material for a study of layered metaphors.)

Whenever we survey all that English can and should be, it’s tempting to propose that we triple the volume of reading we assign each semester. However, to my knowledge, there’s never been a Schreiber Times editorial recommending a three-fold increase in homework.

As a child, I was fortunate to have a mother who warned me, “Sara, you can never be smart enough if you only read the books they teach in school. You have to read much, much more.” So perhaps my mother’s ghost is whispering now, suggesting that one response to our current predicament lies outside the classroom walls, as well as within: simply read more.

If you’re concerned about gender balance, please join the third wave feminist reading group led by Dr. Sachs.  Please form other reading groups, too. Launch school-wide and community-wide book events. Or stay home all weekend and do nothing but read. Share your favorite books with your friends. Read enough to have favorite books. Read enough to find words to live and die by. Don’t let your teachers stop you from reading.

Thank you again, Schreiber Times Editors, for treating the topics of English, reading and representations of women. These are complicated conversations, and I hope that—in one form or another—they will continue in the weeks and months ahead.

Sara Brock

English Teacher

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