I’m so woefully underprepared to start teaching my class tomorrow (I’m reasonably confident that, once I hit the ground, I won’t stumble for too long before I get to running, so I’m trying to to worry and stress too much, but still). Instead of bitching and moaning about that, though, I’m giving you ten things that my students – and I – will be reading in the first third of the term.
(I’ve edited this entry to include links to the short stories where I could find them. For a couple of them (the Staples piece and the Liu piece, if memory serves), you’ll need Acrobat to read the files that the links will take you to. Happy Reading!)
1. Learning to Read by Malcolm X. It’s an excerpt from his Autobiography (which was written by Alex Haley, which still kind of confuses me. I mean, I understand ghost writing and all, but both Malcolm and Haley pretty much told the world that Haley wrote it, yet they still called it an autobiography. Weird). Anyway, this is a piece about the power of literacy and the transformation that Malcolm was able to make once he figured reading out. Even in prison, he said, reading set him free, and once he learned to read, he never, ever stopped. Powerful stuff.
2. A Clack of Tiny Sparks: Remembrances of a Gay Boyhood by Bernard Cooper. I’ve read this story before, and am eager to read through it again. It’s a richly characterized retelling of Cooper’s attempts, as a very young man, to understand his place in the world before announcing that he was gay. He observes people with such a keen (and, at times, riotously funny) eye, and the payoff at the end of the story is, I think, a whole lot more subtle than most people realize (personally, I think the ending has more to do with his mother taking up smoking again than anything else). This is going to be a fun story to teach; Cooper’s style is really interesting to examine.
3. Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space by Brent Staples. I know for sure that I’ve read this short story before – as a matter of fact, I think it’s true that I can go to my bookshelf and pull up an anthology that has this piece in it – but it’s been so long that it’ll be as if I’m reading it for the first time (in case you’re wondering why I’ve got pieces on here that I haven’t read (or that I haven’t read in practically forever), the answer is because they were on the template that an experienced FE teacher gave me, so I’m running with it. I don’t have to reinvent the wheel in my first semester). If I’m remembering it correctly, it’s about the discomfort and awkwardness of being different in an environment of sameness – being the only black man in the street. If I’m remembering it correctly, Staples also implies that the problem isn’t his – he can’t change the way he looks – but he does have to deal with other people’s misunderstanding of him. It’s a good story, and I’m looking forward to playing with it again.
4. Ain’t I a Woman by Sojourner Truth. Here’s the first story of the group that I’ve not read at all, and I have to say that I’m a little embarrassed by that. (Though it’s entirely possible that I did read it in high school somewhere, the fact of the matter is that if I did, I have zero recollection of it.) I’ve been aware of the story for decades – if you ask me “who wrote “Ain’t I a Woman?” I could tell you that it was Sojourner Truth. I know who she was and what she did, but I’ve never read this piece. I’m looking for it to be another link in my literary armor; it hasn’t been read and taught this long for nothing.
5. Notes of a Native Speaker by Eric Liu. I read this for the first time last week, and I enjoyed it quite a lot. In this essay, Liu investigates the meaning of “whiteness,” and talks eloquently about the intersection between integration and culture. It’s a complex essay, and one that my students will likely have trouble working through, so I’m going to give it to them around week three or so and devote an entire class period to the discussion. I want them to do at least a little heavy academic lifting early in the semester, and this piece is a good place to start.
6. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. This is just an excerpt from the collection of the same name, but it’s a good one (if you’ve read the book, it’s the section where he goes to his first language class and the teacher insults the students as they try to tell what they love most in the world). In it, Sedaris talks about learning a new language with a teacher who clearly loves her work, insults notwithstanding, and about how the students struggle with knowing more than they can express (how many writers experience that feeling every day!). True to Sedaris form, it’s biting and hysterically funny and there are just enough words on the page.
7. Mother Tongue by Amy Tan. Here’s one I’m sure I’ve not read yet. In fact, I think it’s true that I’ve not read anything by Amy Tan, though I do have The Bonesetter’s Daughter in my bookshelves. I can guess what this short story is about, but it’d be better to tell you more after I’ve read the thing; I don’t like trying to make assertions about something with which I have no experience; I’m funny that way.
8. Shooting Elephants by George Orwell. I can’t say with any certainty that I’ve not read this yet; something tells me that I have because I can put my hands on about four different anthologies that have this story in them. That being said, I don’t recall the story if I have read it, so we’re back to the disclaimer from Sojourner Truth in #4. This reading is due for the class that’s subtitled “focusing and developing your theme; description.” I’ve got another piece for description that I want my students to read, too, that I’ll be adding to the syllabus, that being…
9. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. I love this story on a number of levels, not the least of which being the way that O’Brien makes a deeply moving and wrenching story into something readable and comprehensible simply by how he chooses to describe things. He fleshes out the people in his story through the things that they felt valuable enough to carry around with them in the jungle during war, and the effect of that literary decision is fascinating to unravel.
10. Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr. This piece will come as the students are learning to formulate – and articulate – an argument. Not too long ago, someone – I believe it was Carson – turned me on to the Letter, and I’ve been marveling at it ever since (I think I’ve read it about a dozen times up to now). It’s angry in a measured, logical way. It very clearly lays out an argument, the counter points to that argument, and a resolution in the form of a call to action. It’s incredibly literate – King quotes philosophers and thinkers from memory (he really did write this from a jail cell, so he didn’t have access to reference materials). It’s a glorious piece, and I’m looking forward to diving into it again with a new group of students.
There are many, many more things on our reading list for the next 15 weeks. Perhaps I’ll make another list as the semester goes on. For now, though, I’ve got some prepping to do. Happy Tuesday, Everyone!