I am all for torturing children. As the overlord of a 9th grade classroom, I forced them to memorize sections of The Aeneid, socked them with the one-two punch of The Odyssey and The Iliad and finished them off on a Shakespearian rack. Let them suffer, I say, as they try to parse the difference between iambic pentameter and trochaic tetrameter; let them sweat through psychoanalytic readings of Oedipus Rex.
But when summer comes, unshackle the chains and let them loose.
The idea behind summer reading is noble enough. Force kids to read, the thinking goes, or else they will spend their time playing Xbox and having premarital sex, or some horrific combination of the two. But very often, the teacher’s desire to instill the summer months with intellectual value is tempered by that very teacher’s own memory of summer as an irenic season of stickball or dockside lounging or mountain escapades. Moreover, said teacher has probably read about and/or been made aware of how overprogrammed kids are today, what with dramaturgical camps and retreats for budding lepidopterists. Also, some kid will inevitably say something like, “I’d love to spent my summer with Crime and Punishment, but we’ve totally planned a two-month father-daughter trip to Bhutan.” One gets to feeling rather guilty, and the desire to make kids work inevitably gets tempered by the suspicion that they should be allowed to play.
This strikes me as pandering. If a young person loves reading, she deserves two months to read whatever strikes her fancy, free of the strictures of the classroom.
On the other hand, summer relieves the teacher of every tool he or she has to instill fear in the sort of student who cares neither for Jeannette Walls nor Fyodor Dostoyevsky — but whose interests may well be aroused by the announcement of an imminent quiz. (Fear, whether you like it or not, turns out to be a highly effective educational tool.)
It goes without saying that the teenaged, Shteyngartian me had no idea who Tom Wolfe was. Ditto for Bob Dylan and Ken Kesey. I did not understand why people would ingest lysergic acid diethylamide, nor why they would ride around California in a strangely-painted bus. Don’t get me wrong, my young immigrant self would have loved to travel to California. Only not that California. And so I slogged through the book, understanding nothing, loathing it all.
That’s why when I became a high school English teacher, I resisted the summer reading assignment almost as much as my students did. I was in an eternal bind: If I assigned something too easy (Harry Potter and the Whatevers of Whatever) to my 9th-graders, they would sense my own reluctance and simply dismiss the task out of hand. Conversely, if I forced them to plow through Middlemarch, they would take me for a joyless martinet and rebel en masse.
And I was protective of the books I really loved, not willing to pit them against the myriad distractions offered by the warm-weather months. I couldn’t countenance the idea of The Sun Also Rises having to compete with Super Soaker battles, of The Canterbury Tales stuffed into the back seat along with snacks and sunscreen.
The worst thing I could do was make a kid miserable, to have her equate reading with a chore – precisely at the time of the year that is legendarily free of chores and obligations. The ones who love reading will read regardless of any assignments. As for the rest, many quizzes await in the fall.
Photo by Noël Zia Lee via Flickr.