Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What do Oscar Wilde and Poop have in common? Other than this post, I really don’t want to know.

It’s over.  Over.  Thank God.  Although I imagine there will be setbacks, I feel confident in saying that Charles is potty trained.  Sure, while he was sick and feverish, he spent the whole weekend in diapers, but since then he has worn underwear and not looked back.  He tells us when he has to go potty (“Charles potty too!”) and he will even poop in the potty if he needs to go.  I imagined that pooping would be a much tougher deal than peeing based on stories, but Charles just goes whatever he has to go.  Perhaps this is because we have always flushed his turds (cloth diapers, remember?), occasionally saying “Bye-bye poop!” as we flushed, or perhaps it’s because we eased into this potty training thing with no pressure and let him decide when he was ready.  Either way, I am relieved (no pun intended, but you can have that one anyway).


Also!  This frees up the cloth diapers to be adjusted down to fit a tiny baby in a few months!


So, I’ve been reading The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, mostly because I never have, though I did read Salome some time back and enjoyed Wilde’s style.  Every time I pick it up, I think to myself, “I can’t believe that this was assigned to high schoolers in France.”  Not because of content, oh no, but because they were assigned to read it in English as a part of their English classes. 


I happen to believe that one of the surest ways our public education systems (and I mean “our” in a global sense, as I am obviously referencing French students as much as my own experiences) turn kids off of reading is by assigning them boring books.  Oh, sure, Oscar Wilde was revolutionary, writing vaguely about homosexuality, used lots of great symbolism, and is a fantastic example of late 19th-century writing, but geez, I can’t even imagine getting into this as a 17-year-old.  I like reading it now, as a 29-year-old with free time and interest in such literary pursuits.  I might have enjoyed it in college if someone were to have assigned it in class, since I loved lively debate, and I’m sure there would have been plenty of discussions about morality with Dorian Gray as a backdrop, but in high school?  Here is an excerpt from Chapter Four, which is WELL before we get to any of the meat about the painting aging and Dorian Gray staying youthful, so you can see what I mean:


As he left the room, Lord Henry's heavy eyelids drooped, and he began to think. Certainly few people had ever interested him so much as Dorian Gray, and yet the lad's mad adoration of some one else caused him not the slightest pang of annoyance or jealousy. He was pleased by it. It made him a more interesting study. He had been always enthralled by the methods of natural science, but the ordinary subject-matter of that science had seemed to him trivial and of no import. And so he had begun by vivisecting himself, as he had ended by vivisecting others. Human life--that appeared to him the one thing worth investigating. Compared to it there was nothing else of any value. It was true that as one watched life in its curious crucible of pain and pleasure, one could not wear over one's face a mask of glass, nor keep the sulphurous fumes from troubling the brain and making the imagination turbid with monstrous fancies and misshapen dreams. There were poisons so subtle that to know their properties one had to sicken of them. There were maladies so strange that one had to pass through them if one sought to understand their nature. And, yet, what a great reward one received! How wonderful the whole world became to one! To note the curious hard logic of passion, and the emotional coloured life of the intellect--to observe where they met, and where they separated, at what point they were in unison, and at what point they were at discord--there was a delight in that! What matter what the cost was? One could never pay too high a price for any sensation.


That way ONE PARAGRAPH.  Sure, I understand every word.  And yes, I am fascinated.  But in NO WAY can I imagine that someone trying to learn English as a second language in a foreign high school would go in for this.


Do you know what I read in my first few years of learning French?  Antoine de St Exupery.  Not The Little Prince, but rather Night Flight and Wind, Sand, and Stars.  Not only were these written in a prose that was at least 50 years younger than Wilde’s, but they were interesting.  Action-packed.  Full of relatable occurrences (unlike Wilde’s 19th-century discourses on morality and immorality).


I can remember the last book we read in high school that everyone got into.  It was Lord of the Flies.  That book had everything!  It featured kids as the main characters.  There were factions and fighting, survival, catchy phrases (“Piggy’s got the conch!” became an oft-heard refrain in the freshman hall that year), and an engrossing plot.  By the time we were seniors, we were reading A Tale of Two Cities.  Now, I happen to love A Tale of Two Cities, I think it is one of the most romantic and exciting stories of all time, but I can tell you exactly how many people in my class read it: one.  Just one.  Me.  I am possibly one of those few exceptions in my small-town high school that would have thrived and been challenged by a real AP English course.


Most everyone I know read parts of Beowulf, parts of The Scarlet Letter, parts of The Crucible in our high school, but no one read whole books by then.  They just didn’t hold interest. 


I do think there’s a solution, but probably (and I’m just guessing here) there is a ridiculous amount of bureaucracy that keeps this from happening.  Anyhow, my idea is this: why not have contemporary books, or at least interesting classics, to read in school?  There are plenty of contemporary books that are amazing and would be interesting for high schoolers, I would imagine: Life of Pi, Water for Elephants, Atonement, Frankenstein, 1984, Call of the Wild… the list goes on.  Perhaps Dorian Gray would be good for an AP class, but for regular English, why?  Why do that to kids?


And why do that to French kids?  They probably never wanted to read another book in English ever, ever again after muddling through that.  Sigh.  Ask them to read Harry Potter and they’ll stay interested, for goodness’ sake.


K Schimmy said...

You might be surprised to see what kids are reading in schools nowadays. There are, of course, the required texts, such as "To Kill a Mockingbird" sophomore year, and the Shakespeare plays assigned to each year... but English teachers also have a degree of freedom with what they read the rest of the year. One of my good friends actually DOES teach "Water for Elephants" and has for a couple years. Lots of contemporary fiction (and even a bit of nonfiction) is worked into the curriculum at IHS, believe it or not.

Times ARE a-changing... but you don't get to hear about that because all of us teachers are doing an awful job and our schools are failing. That is, according to some...

Amelia said...

Well, I'm glad it's changing... perhaps they took a clue from my graduating class. I think 50% of them couldn't read.

CrisPace said...

I would agree Wilde for students just learning English is insane. However, for English classes over here it has more to do with the teacher than the text. I can make regular level English courses love the Scarlet Letter and beg me for MORE Shakespeare because I love those books. Bad English teachers however aren't able to make any work of literature contemporary or classic enjoyable to students. Teachers should balance the classics with the modern, but it's getting rid of the worthless teachers not the books that will solve problems.