When it comes to reading, patience is a discipline

by Mr. Sheehy

I love those phrases that reside in my head in the voice of the person who said them. When I hear the phrase my response is to say it like that original voice, and though the resulting imitation recalls little of the original, the memory remains strong. Many of these stockpiled phrases are lines from movies. Thus, when I need to use the word “erased,” I don’t hear the memory of my own voice uttering “erased,” I hear Doc Brown from Back to the Future whispering dramatically, “Erased! . . . from existence!” (I actually once hijacked my roommate’s computer and made Doc say this whenever my roomie emptied the trash can.)

Not surprisingly many of the memory phrases are from my parents, so when I hear about one thing that does not naturally lead to another, I immediately hear my dad say with an exaggerated New Hampshire accent, “Ya can’t get theya from heeya.”

I have found lately in conversation with colleagues that I am recurringly making this claim in one particular area. I do not know if that is because we are repetitive and have trouble talking about other things (a serious possibility), or because I am fixated on it (another serious possibility), or because I am right (the least likely possibility), but I am definitely establishing a position when it comes to teaching students literature and the fruit of using easier, more exciting, and “relevant” texts to accomplish this. The position is this: giving students new and exciting books (particularly what are identified as young adult books), picked because students will like reading them and with the hope that an enjoyable reading experience will lead to a love of reading, cannot accomplish the goal of creating educated readers. “Ya can’t get theya from heeya.”

A few events jarred this into my head more clearly than usual. The first occurred with my freshmen. This year I have asked them to read a book each quarter. At the end of the quarter they turn in a two-page writing assignment and a verification form and they receive a ton of points. To earn as high as a B, they can choose basically any book they want. To earn an A, they have to choose a book from one of the lists I provide for them. Students like earning A’s, so most of them begin by perusing the lists and seeing if there is anything they would like to read. A story that has recurred more times than I have counted, however, goes like this: student picks a book from the A-list, begins reading it, says it’s boring and switches books. Student then reads a little of the next book, declares it equally boring, and proceeds to give up with the A-list, finding instead an exciting title like Crank.

Meanwhile, as a second event of interest, I am reading Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. The first couple pages were a bit confusing (some stuff about the English Chancery Courts) but I was soon enjoying myself thoroughly, meeting an assortment of odd and intriguing characters. When I hit the inciting moment,  my enjoyment transformed into an eagerness to chug espresso and read by the company of the clock’s single digits. This relatively normal reading experience struck me in light of my students’ troubles, because that inciting moment came at page 130.

I stopped to wonder what my students’ opinion would be of a book that withholds its narrative hook until after the 100th page. Boring? Crazy? Cruel and unusual?

I do not mock my students in observing this. I certainly would not have willingly finished Bleak House while in high school, and I understand the desire to read an immediately exciting book. When trapped beneath teaching books, for example, I openly long to return to a story where plot pulls me through the pages. Yet despite the empathy, I find myself wondering what the difference is between me and my more daring students (one chose to read The Illiad, another Huckleberry Finn, and another 1984) and their less eager classmates, the ones who are perpetually dissatisfied with the A-list.

An easy answer is to tag those who dislike the A-list books as victims of a modern onslaught on their attention spans. The flashing choices inflicted upon them from Sesame Street through Ipods has left them incapable of fighting their own impulse for distraction. It’s a plausible sounding scenario, but a recent essay from Kelly Foster, a teacher, observes the flaw in declaring attention spans the problem.

If a night’s reading requires twenty minutes of undivided comprehension, I can guarantee [my students] will come in the next morning moaning, “Ms. Foster, it took me forever to read that homework last night! I worked so hard!”

And yet, I will just as often hear them talking about how they watched an entire season of Gossip Girl in a single day. Talk about forever.

My students are literate and smart, and like Foster’s students, they will devote their attention to a task they value, though often they do not value the work we educators present to them, instead appreciating the easy distraction of devices and media. What seem to be more relevant differences between the readers of challenging texts and those of easier texts are the levels of tenacity and patience the rigorous readers employ toward the task.

Impatient strikes me as a more apt label for our youth than attention-span-less, especially considering that impatience is a mark of our entire culture, not just our youth. We are not just materialistic, we are impatiently materialistic, building an economy on consumer credit so we can have it now; we do not just have the right to the good life, we are entitled to it now, consistently easing discomforts and difficulties by borrowing money posterity will pay back. That is not to say that credit is bad and borrowing is evil, or to endorse a particular political position–it is more to observe that impatience appears to be part of what has driven us to the new levels of borrowing as modus operandi. Why wait? Here’s a way we can have it, whatever it is, now.

With impatience, like with many vices, the trouble does not seem to lie so much in the occasional incident. Every once in a while I quit reading challenging texts and spend an hour reading about the Red Sox or the Tour de France, or I will grab a Harry Potter novel. Why should I not do such things? Is there anything wrong with a few indulgent, easy pleasures of this kind?

Yet a steady diet of immediate rewards, an unfettered practice of such behavior, leads to a kind of decadence, a deadened sense of what is good. Ironically Dickens himself frames this most obviously for me in Bleak House with Lady Dedlock, a fashionable woman who has everything she wants and grows bored with anything, anytime. After a trip to Paris, the Lady and her husband

cannot go away too fast; for, even here, my Lady Dedlock has been bored to death. . . . Weariness of soul lies before her, as it lies behind . . . but the imperfect remedy is always to fly, from the last place where it had been experienced.  (159)

As they travel, she notices her husband’s correspondence and asks him about it despite her lack of interest. Her reason for inquiring appears to be the same reason they are flying from Paris: she is fleeing that which bores her.

“You have an unusual amount of correspondence this morning?” says my lady after a long time. She is fatigued with reading. Has almost read a page in twenty miles. (160)

Her symptoms are eerily similar to my students, showing that boredom is not a modern invention, but at least in part the logical result of decadence and easy satiation. Lady Dedlock’s ennui renders her incapable of surmounting the obstacles of boredom; to fight, to stay and battle, would require a tenacity and patience she no longer practices. In the face of such effort, as in the face of her book, all she can think to do is retreat.

The literature lover marvels as, once again, Dickens “tell us, in the grandest way possible, why we are what we are” (Varese).

Yet Dickens takes us only part way there. What we are is not the business of the educator as much as what we should be. Certainly what we are and why is crucial–without such knowledge how could we begin?–but if we are to bring a student to a goal, what is that place? Concerning the life of the mind and our students’ impatience and lack of tenacity, is this issue of work ethic the teacher’s job to address? Is it the business of the teacher to guide a student beyond immediate reward?

It seems to me that it is, especially on the basis of the superiority of the reward for one who waits. Certainly I dabble here in absolutes. I am affirming the superiority of certain texts, media, and behavior. Yet I fail to see why educated minds should pretend Lady Dedlock’s situation is not perilous or pitiable, or that a life doused in low pop art is dissimilar from being chained in a cave watching shadows. I am not suggesting there exists no difference of opinion concerning what greatness is, but that the line between great and what our culture produces en masse is more of a chasm than a line. I am suggesting that too often we apply too narrow a criteria for relevancy in English education, which means I am suggesting that we should not be comparing Roland Smith with Jack London, for example.

Not that anyone consciously pits such writers or that there is a raging debate over it. The very existence of a curriculum reveals a broad agreement in this area, yet as educators we often respond to our students’ negative reaction to challenging texts by substituting Smith for London, or Hopkins for Poe. We look for relevant texts, and by relevant we seem to mean anything they like and can read easily. When faced with the confrontation over content, we often waver, wondering as we look at the life our students will lead whether they have a point about Shakespeare’s or Chaucer’s irrelevance. In this we question the reward, its value, and the possibility of setting another person’s sights on it.

Christ, that foremost of teachers, spoke clearly about the virtues of awaiting a better reward during his Sermon on the Mount. The implication is clear when he describes the hypocrites (“hypokrites” a word surely meant to recall for his listeners the actors they had watched on the Roman stages). The “hypokrites” prayed, fasted, and gave to the needy in ways that performed for the crowds, and with the crowds’ approval, Christ observes, they received their reward. Their reward was immediate and pleasurable, but if they had better contemplated what they traded for that reward, they might have reconsidered.

He continues to explain that for those patient enough to forego immediate gratification, to give, pray, and fast in secret; for those willing to uphold righteousness even at the cost of losing material treasures, the “Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6). The reward of which he speaks is not immediate and it takes patience to be willing to wait for it. Patience is then a key element of faith, the term the writer of Hebrews later uses when lauding those who were willing to wait for a reward not received in this life.

In this sense, my students lack faith that the reward of reading a book like A Tale of Two Cities will be worth the expense of effort it will cost to read it. They are not patient enough or faithful enough to overcome the obstacles of a difficult text. Rather, they would like to experience something whose meaning is immediately apparent, be it a new and exciting young adult novel, movie, or text message. They want the reward now, not then.

This is where I am convinced my dad’s old saying applies. How can such texts lead a student to the great works of our culture? I return to my college days for an appropriate analogy. My roommate dragged me into the weight room our freshman year and we followed a crazy regime he must have discovered on the last page of the Internet. In a year of lifting I gained almost 20 pounds, not a bit of it attributable to cafeteria food. Our goal was not to gain weight, but to grow stronger, and eventually I–a guy who had never lifted a weight before–was able to bench press more than 200 pounds. I got there by pushing myself to lift as much as I could, until I could do more.

Concerning our literature classes, though, our students and segments of our culture have said that 200 pounds is too difficult and not a relevant achievement, and we have responded by telling them that bench pressing is important, but that they should go ahead and work with just the bar. Then, when we add a weight to either end, they put the bar down and look for a way to go back to what they had been doing. These books are so simple for students to read that they are bench pressing a bar, and though they enjoy reading the books and seem to be growing a love for reading, some day, when faced with choices for how to spend their time, what is the likelihood that they will choose to lift an empty bar up and down? In that day, when it comes to reading, it seems more likely they will choose some machine in the corner that imagines for them, because by the end of their education, they are no more capable of lifting those heavy weights than they were before.

“They can’t get theya from heeya.”

Susan Schaeffer Macaulay pitches education’s role as one of not only teaching students how to lift heavier weights, but how to keep oneself from remaining satisfied with just the bar. She quotes Charlotte Mason’s perspective:

It is the business of education to find some way of supplementing that weakness of will which is the bane of most of us as of the children.

Education here is in the business of instructing students how to overcome obstacles when their wills are weak. This would necessitate presenting obstacles to students–appropriate, overcome-able obstacles, but obstacles nonetheless. Impatience strikes me as a weakness of will. Thus I need to instruct students how to supplement, or overcome, that impatience and lack of tenacity, and one way of accomplishing this is with books often labeled boring by impatient readers.

Surely this would be easier if we could convince them that the reward is greater with meatier texts, but arguing students into this place seems similar to arguing a man into a love of baseball. A man does not love baseball because another fan convincingly persuaded him that the sport’s rules and framework bring about a beautiful performance. He loves baseball because he watched games and was drawn in and won over by what he saw. If I had magic powers and wanted you to love baseball, you and I would travel back in time to Fenway Park, 2004, and watch the Red Sox beat the Yankees in 12 innings. Then we would hop a ride to Cape Cod and eat hot dogs in the sun watching college students play in a summer league, and in both of these trips, I would not accompany you as a 30 something year old father, but as a 12-year old boy with visions of baseballs dancing in my head.

With books, Macaulay describes this process of winning over children as exposing them to “living books,” books with richness of language, theme, and plot that increasingly lead children to greater texts, or, to retreat to my previous metaphor, to heavier weights. From this perspective, getting students to read a book, “any book,” is not sufficient. Getting them to read carefully selected, challenging texts is crucial; texts that scaffold their learning, to use the teacher-jargon; texts that provide them with opportunities to learn the disciplines of reading that could help them overcome their weakness of will.

High school in 2010 in America is a tricky place. We teachers are tagged with pulling every student through grade 12, regardless of their interest or attitude towards school. Knowing that these students will not submit to the challenge of Great Expectations or The Scarlet Letter, we replace these texts with Night or The Secret Life of Bees, or something of their own choice.

The switch is not necessarily a bad one, as long as we realize that the new path does not take students to the same place they previously went. Without a proper challenge, we do not push them to overcome that weakness of will. With easier texts, we allow a bit of impatience to determine much of the choice. With this training, they will not be able to bench press 200 pounds, and they may even think it was impossible ever to do so.

Yet for many students, it is possible. I have students in my classroom capable of reading Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. If I never assign them such a challenge, I will have abandoned one aspect of their education and allowed them to focus upon a more immediate, lesser reward.

Recently, Sally Thomas lovingly described the potential of great literature to push “the borders of our particular landscape farther towards a common horizon.” Literature like that is the kind of reward my students deserve. What I as a teacher would like to do is encourage in them the patience and tenacity required to grasp the greater reward. To do so, I need to choose  consciously and carefully to travel the road that gets “theya from heeya.”

Thanks for reading.

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