SONNY SCOTT: Allow yourself an unshakable addiction to good literature

By Sonny Scott

The headline was an attention grabber: “American High School Students Are Reading Books at 5th Grade Appropriate Levels: Report” (Emmeline Zhao on “The Huffington Post,” 3/22/12). The article went on to list the 20 most-assigned books to high school students, with their “reading level,” as measured by somebody’s algorithm, hovering around the fifth grade level. It included such to-be-expected fare as Harry Potter, “The Hunger Games,” the Nancy Drewish “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the mildly provocative “Of Mice and Men” and “Animal Farm,” along with “The Great Gatsby” and 14 titles unfamiliar to me.
Well…, of course. If you are a high school student choosing your own reading material, you go for the light stuff. If you are a high school teacher facing 30 kids – 20 of which don’t want to be there, and 25 of which have serious reading deficiencies, you don’t assign “Ulysses” or “The Sound and the Fury,” do you?
Our youth are born communicators. LOL, ROFL, and OMG may be the first creations of their pudgy little fingers. They pick up on nuance in social interaction much quicker than those of us who grew up at a more sedate pace. All these skills are important. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” the ancient cliché maker opined. “But it takes words to make that point,” some aphorist added. Carefully honed and organized prose is necessary to present complex ideas, and it’s on this shoal that our media-driven networking, texting, chatting, educationally fragmented student body runs aground.
Light reading for diversion was important to us on the farm at Sparta in the ’50s. Having no TV or telephone to fill time on sleepy Sunday afternoons or rainy day down times, Sis and I followed the example of our parents and read for diversion, knowledge and enjoyment – cultivating vocabulary, comprehension and reading speed all the while.
Schools usually manage to take the joy out of everything, but since the art of narrative was not extinct in the texts of the ’50s and ’60s, they failed to do so with reading. A comparison of vintage texts and modern is illuminating. The interpretations and points of view may have been dated or provincial, but those old writers could tell a story and sustain interest. Today’s committee-composed tomes weigh in at several pounds, cost upward of $70 each, are laden with color, graphics, and asides to make sure that every possible demographic group’s self-esteem gets a stroking, but they have no continuity and nobody reads them. (Neither would I.)
The skill and ability to read on an advanced level stands or falls with the language arts instructor, or “English teacher,” as we called her back in the day. In the 10th grade, I had the good fortune of encountering a teacher who wasn’t afraid of complacent students or doting parents. She assigned the first book report on a work of our choice, and I was glad to oblige. I loved to read, and writing reports had always seemed as natural as breathing. Imagine my surprise when my report came back adorned with “F+”. She seemed to be expecting me at recess, and cut right to the chase. “Your report is well organized and well written,” she allowed, “but your chosen book is light fiction with no value beyond trivial entertainment. If you want to improve your grade, read a work from this list, and we’ll see what happens.”
I went to the closet we euphemistically called a “library,” and came away with “A Tale of Two Cities.” By the time I finished reading and reporting on it (with Miss Thompson’s coaching on how to read literature), I was hooked. Like crack cocaine, good literature is highly addictive.
In today’s school climate, this approach (with its “find-my-strike-zone” approach) would not work. There would have to be state-approved “objectives” written in behavioral terms. Specific outcomes would have to be delineated and evaluated. (Read that as “tested.”) If it isn’t on the state sanctioned test, forget it. As the young folks say, “How is THAT working out for you?”
Hiring a well-educated teacher, trusting her to deal with a student in accordance with her judgment, and staying out of her way while she does her job … what a radical idea! Wonder why it’s never been tried? Oh, wait … it has been. I wonder why it went out of style?
Sonny Scott is a Chickasaw County resident and a community columnist. Contact him at sonnyscott@yahoo.com.