I used to teach a really popular/controversial workshop called “Why We Teach Difficult Texts.” The audience was teachers, and people signed up for various reasons: some knew the books on the syllabus, and liked them, some had never heard of the books, and some couldn’t believe that anyone would ever teach those books to young students. The reaction to the workshop was also varied, with some picking up the books and promising to consider teaching them in their classes, and with others leaving just dumbfounded, like that may work for her, but she seems a bit intense.
I am intense. I don’t know how else to teach except with intensity and intention. I’ve never understood the point of teaching a text that a student can read on his/her own at home. Of course I’ve taught those sort of texts—some very canonical—but that’s mostly been because I have taught in schools with prescribed reading lists. When I get to choose my own texts, I choose the difficult ones, and not because I love those the most (I do), but because I think most people underestimate young people. High schoolers are SMART. And when they come across something difficult, they love the challenge of it, and when they meet the challenge, they are incomparably grateful and excited.
Adults are a different story. I’m about to teach a group of adults a difficult text—one that I’ve taught before in high school—and I am getting so much pushback, more than I ever have before. I am trying to prime myself for the confrontation: thinking of all the things I should and shouldn’t say, how to disagree politely, how to not roll my eyes, etc. But it’s hard not being mad at the adults; I want them to be the mature ones, the ones more willing and open. Here’s the difference between adults and young people: adults are scared. Young people are less afraid to be wrong, less afraid of everything, maybe because they haven’t learned and experienced all the different things they should be afraid of yet. Adults know the price and rewards for being right, they are most comfortable in that position.
But books aren’t about being safe and right. They are about walking in someone else’s shoes, feeling the pebbles digging into your soles, getting blisters, developing callouses. I don’t understand half the things George Saunders is writing about, but whenever I read him, I am blown away. I think he’s fuckin crazy, and I love it. I hope some of that crazy rubs off on me, my writing. Mostly, I am grateful for the chance to learn something new, something that I might not have ever encountered in my own life.
How am I going to convince the adults to be open-minded when they have already made up their minds? Maybe I can’t, but I am going to teach the difficult book, tell them why I love it and hate it and it makes me weep and terrified and also a better person. Maybe no one will agree with me, and maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe everyone will think I’m fuckin crazy, and I will love that too.