If a university professor discusses Vanity Fair or anything else his classes listen with notebooks open and pens poised. If they dislike the novel they won’t dare complain for fear of lowered grades.
When I distributed Vanity Fair to my junior class at McKee Vocational and Technical High School there was moaning in the room. Why do we have to read this dumb book? I told them it was about two young women, Becky and Amelia, and their adventures with men, but my students said it was written in that old English and who can read that? Four girls read it and said it was beautiful and should be made into a movie. The boys pretended to yawn and told me English teachers were all the same. They just wanted to make you read that old stuff and how was that gonna help you if you was fixin’ a car or a busted air conditioner, ah?
I could threaten them with failure. If they refused to read this book, they’d fail the course and they wouldn’t graduate and everyone knew girls didn’t want to go out with anyone who wasn’t a high school graduate.
For three weeks we toiled through Vanity Fair. Every day I tried to motivate and encourage them, to draw them into a discussion of what it’s like to make your way through the world when you’re a young 19th-century woman, but they didn’t care. One wrote on the board, Becky Sharp Drop Dead.
Then, as decreed by the school syllabus, it was on to The Scarlet Letter. This would be easier. I’d talk about the New England witch hunts, the accusations, the hysteria, the hangings. I’d talk about Germany in the 1930s and how a whole nation was brainwashed.
Not my students. They’d never be brainwashed. No, sir, they’d never be able to get away with that here. They’d never fool us like that.
I chanted to them, Winston tastes good like...and they finished the sentence.
I sang, My beer is Rheingold the dry beer...and they finished the jingle.
I chanted again, You wonder where the yellow went when...and they finished the line.
I asked if they knew any more and there was an eruption of jingles from radio and television, proof of the power of advertising. When I told them they were brainwashed they were indignant, Oh, no, they weren’t brainwashed. They could think for themselves and nobody could tell them what to do. They denied they’d been told what cigarette to smoke, what beer to drink, what toothpaste to use though they’d admit that when you’re in a supermarket you’ll buy the brand in your head. No, you’d never buy a cigarette called Turnip.
Yeah, they heard about Senator McCarthy and all that but they were too young and their fathers and mothers said he was a great man for getting rid of the Communists.
From day to day I struggled to make connections between Hitler and McCarthy and the New England witch hunts, trying to soften them up for The Scarlet Letter. From parents there were indignant calls. What is this guy telling our kids about Senator McCarthy? Tell him back off. Senator McCarthy was a good man, fought for his country. Tail gunner Joe. Got rid of the Communists.
Mr. Sorola, the principal, said he didn’t want to interfere but would I please tell him was I teaching English or was I teaching history. I told him about my troubles trying to get the kids to read anything. He said I shouldn’t listen to them. Just tell them, You’re going to read The Scarlet Letter whether you like it or not because this is high school and that’s what we do here and that’s that and if you don’t like it, kid, you fail.
They complained when I distributed the book. Here we go again with the old stuff. We thought you was a nice guy, Mr. McCourt. We thought you was different.
I told them this book was about a young woman in Boston who got into trouble over having a baby with a man who wasn’t her husband though I couldn’t tell them who the man was in case it might ruin the story. They said they didn’t care who the father was.
One boy said you never know who your father is anyway because he had a friend who discovered his father wasn’t his father at all, that his real father was killed in Korea but the pretend father was the one he grew up with, a good guy, so who gives a shit about this woman in Boston.
Most of the class agreed though they wouldn’t want to wake up in the morning to find their fathers weren’t their real fathers. Some wished they had other fathers, their own fathers were so mean they made them come to school and read dumb books.
But that’s not the story of The Scarlet Letter, I said.
Aw, Mr. McCourt, do we have to talk about that old stuff? This guy Hawthorne don’t even know how to write so’s we can understand and you’re always saying write simple, write simple. Why can’t we read the Daily News? They have good writers. They write simple.
Then I remembered I was broke and that’s what led to Catcher in the Rye and Five Great Plays of Shakespeare and a change in my teaching career. I had 48 cents to get me home on the ferry and the subway, no money for lunch, not even for a cup of coffee on the ferry, and I blurted to the class that if they wanted to read a good book that didn’t have big words and long sentences and was all about a boy their age who was mad at the world I’d get it for them but they’d have to buy it, $1.25 each which they could pay in installments starting now, so if you have a nickel or a dime or more you can pass it up and I’ll write your name and amount on a sheet of paper and order the books today from the Coleman Book Co. in Yonkers, and they’d never know, my students, I’d have a pocketful of change for lunch and maybe a beer at the Meurot next door, though I didn’t tell them that, they’d be shocked.
Small change was passed up and when I called the book company I saved a dime by using the assistant principal’s phone because it’s illegal to have students buy books when bookrooms are spilling over with copies of Silas Marner and Giants in the Earth.
Catcher in the Rye arrived in two days and I passed them out, paid for or not. Some students never offered a penny, others less than their share, but the money collected kept me going till payday when I’d satisfy the book company.
When I handed out the books someone discovered the word crap on the first page and that brought silence to the room. That’s a word you’d never find in any book in the English bookroom. Girls covered their mouths and giggled and boys tittered over shocking pages. When the bell rang there was no stampede to the door. I had to ask them to leave, another class was coming in.
The class coming in was curious about the class going out and why was everyone looking at this book and if it was that good why couldn’t they read it. I reminded them they were seniors and the class going out was juniors. Yeah, but why couldn’t they read that small book instead of Great Expectations? I told them they could but they’d have to buy it and they said they’d pay anything not to read Great Expectations, anything.
|Next day Mr. Sorola came into the room with his assistant, Miss Seested. They went from desk to desk snatching copies of Catcher in the Rye and dropping them into two shopping bags.|
Next day Mr. Sorola came into the room with his assistant, Miss Seested. They went from desk to desk snatching copies of Catcher in the Rye and dropping them into two shopping bags. If the books weren’t on the desks they demanded the students take them from their bags. They counted the books in the shopping bags and compared them with the class attendance and threatened the four students who hadn’t turned in their books with big trouble. Raise your hands, the four people who still have the book. No hands were raised and on the way out Mr. Sorola told me I was to see him in his office right after this class, not a minute later.
Mr. McCourt, you in trouble?
Mr. McCourt, that’s the only book I ever read and now that man took it.
They complained about the loss of their books and told me if anything happened to me they’d go on strike and that would teach the school a lesson. They nudged and winked over the strike and they knew I knew it would simply be another excuse for avoiding school and not any great concern for me.
Mr. Sorola sat behind his desk reading Catcher in the Rye, puffing on his cigarette and letting me wait while he turned the page, shook his head and put the book down.
Mr. McCourt, this book is not on the syllabus.
I know, Mr. Sorola.
You know I’ve had calls from 17 parents and you know why?
They didn’t like the book?
That’s right, Mr. McCourt. There’s a scene in this book where the kid is in a hotel room with a prostitute.
Yes, but nothing happens.
That’s not what the parents think. You telling me that kid was in that room to sing? The parents don’t want their kids reading this kind of trash. He warned me to be careful, that I was endangering my satisfactory rating on the yearly performance report and we wouldn’t want that, would we? He would have to place a note in my file as a record of our meeting. If there were no further incidents in the near future the note would be removed.
Mr. McCourt, what are we goona read next?
The Scarlet Letter. We have tons of them in the bookroom.
Their faces fell. Aw, Gawd, no. All the kids in the other classes told us it’s that old stuff again.
All right, I said, jokingly. We’ll read Shakespeare.
Their faces fell even farther and the room was filled with moans and hisses. Mr. McCourt, my sister went to college for a year and dropped out because she couldn’t read Shakespeare and she can speak Italian and everything.
I said it again, Shakespeare. There was fear in the room and I felt myself drawn to the edge of a cliff with something in my head demanding, How can you move from Salinger to Shakespeare?
I told the class, It’s Shakespeare or The Scarlet Letter, kings and lovers or a woman having a baby in Boston. If we read Shakespeare we’ll act out the plays. If we read The Scarlet Letter we’ll sit here and discuss the deeper meaning and I’ll give you the big exam they keep in the department office.
Oh, no, not the deeper meaning. English teachers always be going on about the deeper meaning.
All right. It’s Shakespeare, no deeper meaning and no exams except what you decide. So, write your name on this paper and the amount you’re paying and we’ll get the book.
They passed up their nickels and dimes. They groaned when they thumbed the book, Five Great Plays of Shakespeare. Man, I can’t read this old English.
Whatever happened in that class did not spring from any talent, intellect, or careful planning of mine. I wished I could have dominated my classes like other teachers, imposed on them classic English and American literature. I failed. I caved in and took the easy way with Catcher in the Rye and when that was taken dodged and danced my way to Shakespeare. We’d read the plays and enjoy ourselves and why not? Wasn’t he the best?
Still my students complained till someone called out, Shit, man, excuse the language, Mr. McCourt, but here’s this guy saying Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
Where? Where? The class wanted to know the page number and all around the room boys declaimed Mark Antony’s speech, flung out their arms, and laughed.
Another discovered Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy and soon the room was filled with ranting Hamlets.
The girls raised their hands. Mr. McCourt, the boys have all these great speeches and there’s nothing for us.
Oh, girls, girls, there’s Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, Gertrude.
We spent two days plucking morsels from the five plays, Romeo and Juliet; Julius Caesar; Macbeth; Hamlet; Henry IV, Part One.
My students led and I followed because there was nothing else to do. Remarks had been passed in the hallways, in the students’ cafeteria.
Hey, wass dat?
It’s a book, man.
Oh, yeah? What book?
Shakespeare. We’re reading Shakespeare.
Shakespeare? Shit, man, you not reading Shakespeare.
When the girls wanted to act out Romeo and Juliet the boys yawned and obliged. This would be sissy romantic stuff till the fight scene where Mercutio dies in style, telling the world about his wound.
‘Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door/But ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve.
“To be or not to be” was the passage everyone memorized but when they recited it they had to be reminded this was a meditation on suicide and not an incitement to arms.
|Boys declaimed Mark Antony’s speech, flung out their arms, and laughed. Another discovered Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy and soon the room was filled with ranting Hamlets.|
The girls wanted to know why everyone picked on Ophelia especially Laertes, Polonious, Hamlet. Why didn’t she fight back? They had sisters like that who were married to bastard sons o’ bitches, excuse the language, and you wouldn’t believe what they put up with.
A hand went up. Why didn’t Ophelia run away to America?
Another hand. Because there was no America in the old days. It had to be discovered.
Whadda you talkin’ about? There was always an America. Where do you think the Indians lived?
I told them they’d have to look it up and the opposing hands agreed to go to the library and report next day.
One hand, There was an America in Shakespeare’s time and she coulda went.
The other hand, There was an America in Shakespeare’s time but no America in Ophelia’s time and she cuddena went. If she went in Shakespeare’s time there was nothing but Indians and Ophelia woulda been uncomfortable in a teepee which is what they called their houses.
We moved on to Henry IV, Part One, and all the boys wanted to be Hal, Hotspur, Falstaff. The girls complained again there was nothing for them except for Juliet, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, and Queen Gertrude and look what happened to them. Didn’t Shakespeare like women? Did he have to kill everyone who wore a skirt?
The boys said that’s the way it is and the girls snapped back they were sorry we didn’t read The Scarlet Letter because one of them had read it and told the rest how Hester Prynne had her beautiful baby, Pearl, and the father was a jerk who died miserable and Hester got her revenge on the whole town of Boston and wasn’t that much better than poor Ophelia floating down a stream, out of her mind, talking to herself and throwin’ flowers around, wasn’t it?
Mr. Sorola came to observe me with the new head of the academic department, Mrs. Popp. They smiled and didn’t complain about this Shakespeare book not being on the syllabus though the next term Mrs. Popp took this class away from me.
I lodged a grievance and had a hearing before the superintendent. I said that was my class, I had started them reading Shakespeare and I wanted to continue in the next term. The superintendent ruled against me on the grounds that my attendance record was spotty and erratic.
My Shakespeare students were probably lucky in having the head of the department as their teacher. She was surely more organized than I and more likely to discover deeper meanings.
From ‘Tis, by Frank McCourt. Copyright © 1999 by Frank McCourt. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon and Schuster Inc.