I’d drawn a little tombstone on the board. I was in the middle of leading a class of 10th-grade English students through Piggy’s death scene in Lord of the Flies: the rock, the shattered conch, Piggy’s long fall, the red stuff flowing out, the twitching legs. The corners of her eyes bubbling, a 15-year-old girl dashed for the door.
When I spoke with her after class, the student explained that she identified with Piggy. Being studious, fearful of bullies, and a bit of an outsider, it upset her to casually discuss his violent death. Piggy’s demise was not the symbolic death of order or logic, but the murder of a kid like her.
In my experience teaching and observing other teachers, students spend a lot of time learning academic skills and rarely even talk about the emotional reactions they may have to what they read—even when stories, as they often do, address dark themes. The Common Core Standards push students to become clinical crafters of arguments and masters of academic language. While these are essential skills to possess, the fact that my other students appear perfectly comfortable not acknowledging and discussing emotional responses to literature may be as revelatory as this one student’s teary dash from class. Inundated with video games, movies, and memes, teenagers often seem hard to shake up. Characters are fictitious abstractions, and, without actors to bring them to life and makeup and digital tricks to make the drama feel real, students may strictly do the analytical work teachers expect without the interference of a significant emotional response. That’s a bad thing. An emotional response should be part of the curriculum.