The Particular Joys of Teaching

I love being an English teacher.  Really, I do.  Even when I complain about it, even when I’m grading for hours and hours, even when the students don’t do what I hope they will, I love being an English teacher.

One of the many reasons I love my job is the joy of passing down books I love.  Tomorrow, I begin that for the first time this year.  Tomorrow, we begin The Poisonwood Bible.

One of the things I struggle with as an English teacher is rereading the books with my students.  Some of the books I teach I’ve read three, four, five times, and they no longer excite me.  Rereading them becomes a chore.  This is not the case with The Poisonwood Bible.

The Poisonwood Bible is Barbara Kingsolver’s story of the Price family, a family Southern Baptist missionaries who travel to the Belgian Congo in the 60’s.  They are four daughters, Rachel, twins Leah and Adah and youngest Ruth May led by patriarch Nathan Price, compensating for WWII horrors with his fervent faith, and matriarch Orleanna Price, a woman who spends her life not making waves.

I haven’t really started rereading yet, as the students won’t begin reading on Friday.  Tonight, I was preparing tomorrow’s lesson (checking out book covers and reviews and getting their pre-reading responses down), and I was reminded of how much I loved the book and how excited I am to read it.  Kingsolver’s language is stunning, which I haven’t experienced in a book in a while.  Even when Sunnyside was at its best, it was interesting and compelling, not beautiful.  I’m reading Steve Martin’s The Object of Beauty for a book club and, while the sparsity of the language is certainly nice, it’s not lovely (don’t even get me started on the barely there female “protagonist”).  So I’m excited to read Kingsolver again.

A social studies teacher was talking to me about teaching poetry the other day, and I confessed that I hate it.  She thought I meant that I hated poetry.  I don’t hate poetry at all, actually.  I love poetry.  I just hate TEACHING poetry.  The very best poetry, to me, is when something that you’ve always felt is expressed more beautifully than you ever could.  Because of that, I find poetry to be very personal.  I don’t like to analyze WHY it makes me feel something, I want to bask in my visceral reactions.  I particularly hate having to tell students that they’re wrong about poetry.  That it doesn’t mean what they think it does.  Because I think language is at its best when it’s personally meaningful.

So although I have to book club books to finish (well, one to finish, one to start.  Yikes!), and I’m still in the middle of Sunnyside, and this review of Joshua Foer’s book has me desperate to read it, I’m excited to reread The Poisonwood Bible, with all its poetry and symbolism and overt political commentary.



Filed under Books, School

3 responses to “The Particular Joys of Teaching

  1. I bet you’d be a very enjoyable teacher to have. It surprises me that you would have to tell anyone they are wrong about the meaning of a literary piece however. When you’re reading, you connect to that writing. If you have a connection, I don’t think that it’s wrong.

    Just my thoughts.

    • Why thank you!

      I agree with you that there is no “right” interpretation of literature, but I do think that there can be “wrong” interpretations. If a student tells me that The Great Gatsby is about a hostile alien takeover, that’s just not supported by the text. I guess that’s what I mean by “wrong interpretation”–one that’s not supported by textual evidence.

      • I agree. I studied poetry under M.L. Rosenthal at NYU and he was very firm on this. Not that poetry can’t have multiple levels of meaning and lead to different valid interpretations, but any time he was faced with the “This is what it means to me, man” school of poetry explication, he asked the student to demonstrate where the text supported the interpretation.

        A lot of the students couldn’t stand him, but I thought he was right. (It was only later that I found out how important he was in the world of poetry:

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