Musing on English classes

A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like

JONESBORO, Ga. — For years Lorrie McNeill loved teaching “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the Harper Lee classic that many Americans regard as a literary rite of passage.

But last fall, for the first time in 15 years, Ms. McNeill, 42, did not assign “Mockingbird” — or any novel. Instead she turned over all the decisions about which books to read to the students in her seventh- and eighth-grade English classes at Jonesboro Middle School in this south Atlanta suburb.

My recollection of high school English class was long periods of slogging through (or reading the Cliff notes for) novels (and in some cases, plays) I had no interest in, with occasional moments of high interest in the a few with sufficient adventure or science fiction credibility to hold my interest. One of my favorite memories of my whole education was discovering Brave New World and plowing through it in a single evening – something I’ve never done with a whole novel assigned for class, before or since (even in the “Science and Science Fiction” multidisciplinary class I took in high college to fulfil my literature requirement.)

Huxley blew my mind; here was a far, far more evocative dystopia than 1984 – and much more frighteningly believeable as a child of the 1970s and 1980s, compared to Orwell’s vision of a “hard” police state. I had started 1984 on my own at some point in the previous year or two, but unlike Animal Farm, never finished it on my own (although it was one of the more enjoyable books we had to read for class, IIRC, a year later and a couple of years of maturity in between my first attempt and the latter one made a big difference.)

At some point I’ll need to dig into my files to refresh my memory of what I read from 8th grade on (anything from 7th will have been lost to old Commodore disks and handwriting.) Sort of scary, I suppose, that I still have a good bit from 8th grade on. Digital preservation, you’ve got to love it, and I can still read any of the files involved (although if any of them are in the old Wordstar format, that will take a little work.)