Required Reading: Autobiographies & Memoirs

And, yes, even now, there’s no lack of crap. I know that this is a shocking revelation, but some of the so-called literature in many grade school literature books is crap squeezed between two covers.

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Back in my day, there was a lot of stuff that I read in school that was banal and a total waste of education space. And, yes, even now, there’s no lack of crap. I know that this is a shocking revelation, but some of the so-called literature in many grade school literature books is crap squeezed between two covers.

In my school system, the higher up you go in your education, the less fiction and more nonfiction you are given. Sometimes this can be a relief, especially for those kids who hate stories. Yes, they exist. It’s that much more painful to have bad stories–no, lukewarm stories— thrust into their ears. Their low estimation of the value of literature is solidified. Confirmed. They feel superior and vindicated. Worthy of spitting in the face of book readers. (Maybe I exaggerate a little bit.)

This thinking is difficult for a teacher to reverse when he or she doesn’t have a choice in the required reading. A teacher can suggest that a kid ask his momma to swing by the public library and grab a copy of such and such book. I promise, you’ll love it, says the teacher with an overly enthused smile. It’ll change your mind about reading. He ain’t buyin it.

You know what’s even less likely to bare results? Tell her to stop by the school library just up the corridor. The media center?  The words practically spit themselves out of her mouth.  Full of dorks and the readers she despises. They’re always rattling off about some character no one else has even heard of or cares about. Face in a book any time the teacher gives a little free time; never loud and extravagant like the rest of us. Gasping at inappropriate times or wiping a tear forlornly while staring… at a book. Those shelves and shelves of worn out books with worn out images. Or worse, no images. Having to go before school or after school because THOSE ARE THE ONLY TIMES THAT CHILDREN ARE ALLOWED IN THE MEDIA CENTER WITHOUT A TEACHER. So, to get a book, she wants me to leave my friends in the morning? The whole reason why I come to school? Well, that and Science class. She ain’t buying it.

When learning about a person, usually male, usually rich, usually some type of leader (that or it’s Harriet Tubman) students read nonfiction usually in the way of very short biographies. But most biographies that are made for school suck books. Most of the nonfiction sucks. Surprise! Kids don’t give a damn about the habits of bonobos in the wild.

But what about this?

“They put us on a chartered flight back to New York. If you’ve never been on a chartered flight full of people who are afraid to fly who have just been traumatized in the past 12 hours, I recommend it more than a cruise. It’s pretty funny. Everyone is jittery, and when the pilot makes the unfortunate choice of testing the PA system by saying, “Bravo, bravo,” you can almost hear people’s b-holes tighten. A collective cartoon-mouse squeak of b-hole.”

excerpt from Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants

I will tell you with all confidence that if you take a kid who doesn’t like reading and give that kid this passage to read, the kid will choose to keep reading. Not only that, he or she just might get more inspired by a person than if reading about Woodrow Wilson. What’s Woodrow Wilson gonna inspire a kid to do? Ignore women’s rights?

Give a child the energy and immediacy of the present and they will follow.

“If I may quote myself: Reality has a well-known liberal bias. And who can you depend on to kowtow to reality like it’s the only game in town? Scientists. They do it religiously. With their fanatical devotion, scientists are no better than cult members– only difference is they put their blind faith in empirical observation instead of in a drifter who marries 14-year-olds and declares himself the reincarnation of Ramses II.

from I Am America (And So Can You!) by Stephen Colbert

Any high school kid will jump on this discussion. Especially a religious or science kid. Or a kid in the middle, for that matter. And what’s more, they’ll want to keep reading. I don’t understand why this is so hard.

“My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute.”

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, written by himself.

Nothing can replace history. He was in the thick of it. His life’s journey is profoundly disturbing, humbling and hope-filling. It really moves you. But to add to this the fact that he was an ex-slave. This man grew from slavery and wrote this eloquent, incisive, richly literary work. And when a particularly strong, beautiful, or well-crafted passage comes along, you remind them, the students, who he was. And they go, Ohhh yeahhhh. And their eyes light up in this way. And some of them nod slightly. And your eyes keep scanning the room watching their faces, and you smile at all of them. And you feel like you’ve helped them somehow, like you’ve given them something good to keep with them forever. Their faces are like a warm hug.

One of top joys of teaching.

Now imagine the energy a teacher gets when the story is lukewarm. The energy is neither hot, nor cold, just tepid. There’s a scripture like that: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were cold or else hot. So because you are lukewarm and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth.” — Revelation 3:15,16. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Problem is, kids can’t spit it out. They aren’t allowed to. They’ve got to take in the vile banality.

There are reasons why everyone can’t be doing their own thing in a public school setting. The teachers are overworked as it is. And we’d need much smaller class sizes, and etc., Lady! Quite true. As if teaching were the only thing teachers do at work….

But Lady, these books were written for adult audiences. So how about we meet these kids halfway and give them a little credit. They’ve all been talking about boobs and dicks since the 6th grade, or have at least been surrounded by the R-rated vocalizations and gesticulations of a middle school hallway. And if you think your kid is homeschooled and isn’t exposed, he has at least one cousin that’s told him something nasty while the adults were talking and they were pretending to look for fishing worms.

My point is, don’t exclude good books because of the word boob or whatever other variation of a sex thingy. There may be one or two inappropriate words or themes, but it isn’t what they haven’t likely already heard. Give them excerpts, for crying out loud. In trying to whitewash everything, we scrub away reality. And kids can smell bullshit.

In reading modern autobiographies, students will get to see that adults do cool shit. That some adults struggled before success. That adults are funny. That adults don’t have all the answers. Maybe those teens will show some mercy on their parents instead of expecting perfection and raging about hypocrisy and you-don’t-understand judgements. We do understand. And we’re trying to figure shit out just like you are. We’re just a bit further along. It’s just a little thought.

Let’s give them something to read about.

14 comments on “Required Reading: Autobiographies & Memoirs”

  1. Personally, I love memoirs and I push them on people obnoxiously. I have always loved reading, in general, so to me this is such a no brainer. My younger brother had a hard time with reading and I will never forget when his 6th(or maybe 5th) grade teacher introduced him to graphic novels. My poor conservative mother might have actually shit a brick over the inappropriate nature of some of them. She went up to talk to that teacher all ready to put him in his place and that young hot thing looked her right in the face and said, “But, is he reading now? And actually enjoying it?” My mom tried to argue it but that battle was already lost. By lighting that spark that young teacher taught my brother how to enjoy reading, which he loves to do now.

    1. Reading this makes me all warm and fuzzy inside. Sometimes the means justifies the end. Sometimes, we relinquish a battle to win a war. My brother never had that opportunity. He’d start yawning after two sentences of any book. I’m proud of that teacher of your brother. He probably has no clue the impact he’s had on his life.

  2. My point is, don’t exclude good books because of the word boob or whatever other variation of a sex thingy. There may be one or two inappropriate words or themes, but it isn’t what they haven’t likely already heard.

    Couldn’t agree more here Lyz!!! Next school year (junior year) my son will start “home schooling” through a ultra-conservative teachers-group in his church — which actually has the K-12 private academy he’s been attending the last 3-years — and I’m not sure I totally agree with this move for some of the same reasons you’ve mentioned here. What are your thoughts about ultra-conservative home schooling?

    I am a huge proponent of broad public education, including the sorts of books/education you speak about — Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Kite Runner, The Absolute True Diary of A Part-Time Indian, or Of Mice and Men… some of the best classic works ever written with significant social questions/debates for today’s generations! Yet many of these type books are NOT ALLOWED in church or home-schooling curriculums. 😦

    1. I think it’s a real shame. We should be teaching students to think, evaluate, make judgements, not blindly accept what’s handed to them. I think the fear is that open discussion will lead kids astray, but maybe reading about gangs will solidify their desire to stay away. Maybe they will be strengthened in their beliefs because they’ve proven its validity for themselves instead of being told something is correct or wrong. Or maybe they’ll see a whole other perspective. It’s better that we be their as guides in their journey, to give them balance and perspective. They will find the way to things on their own anyhow.

      I love homeschooling. I’d love to do it with my kids, though I could never compete with my son’s amazing science teacher. My reason would be to make room for more freedom, experiences, and individualized learning based on their passions, strengths, etc. Then again, nothing beats the joy and adrenaline they get from a good heated class debate. I’ve seen them. They drink it up. The sharing of ideas is on of the greatest gifts of the classroom. In my humble opinion.

      1. Apologies for my delay Lyz — was out of town the last 5 days. It’s funny that you used the word “evaluate”. Our Texas Board of Education just made a preliminary vote to EXCLUDE the word evaluation from all science textbooks. It wouldn’t surprise me much if the next teaching exercise/concept on their chopping-block was Compare & Contrast. 😦 Nevertheless, I agree with your assessment of how dynamic the classrooms can be to facilitate broader learning compare/contrasted 😉 to siblings at home.

        Thank you Lyz for your thoughts. ❤

        1. I actually read that post of yours. I have been having the WORST technology issues this past week or two. I can’t figure out where it’s coming from. So I apologize for not commenting on it as I would’ve liked to. It’s been happening a lot. It was a great post!

          And a trip, eh? Ohhh

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