High school Junior English was a drag. Because I’d chosen not to take chemistry or Latin, my schedule placed me in the English class to accommodate those students who had failed the class once or those whose skills were below par. Performance expectations were low.
To make matters worse, our instructor, Mr. A., had that very school year moved from teaching elementary school students to high school. He was not skilled in judging how much time students might take to complete an assignment. He sat at the front of the totally silent classroom, waiting. And waiting. The students struggled to finish reading the short stories; some of them reading the same stories they’d struggled with the year before. As the year drug slowly on, Mr. A must have realized there never would be a cogent, lively discussion on tone or mood or character from this bunch. He must have been bored to death. No speculation on that point necessary concerning me. Spending two or more days on a single short story until Joe across the aisle could finish reading it was painfully boring.
Some students felt they’d lucked out to have been placed in an easy class. Not me. And not Susie Workman, who sat in front of me and who turned out to be the best literature teacher I ever had, high school, university or grad school.
From somewhere, perhaps an older sibling, she procured popular novels, some of them banned, and she shared her bounty with me, passing to me a novel as soon as she finished reading it.
After reading our required short story or poem and answering the requisite three to five questions following, Susie and I’d prop our huge textbooks open on the front of our desks and stick the delicious, new, forbidden novel in the middle of it and read the REALLY GOOD books.
No other students ever noticed our clandestine reading. Still, given our conservative town and school administrators, I tingled with fear of exposure as I read Catcher In The Rye. Had we been discovered with this book in our possession, we’d have been expelled. The excitement I felt was the same as I fantasized it would be when the lips of the boy I’d been dying to kiss were coming to touch mine any second now. Joe across the aisle could have read this book and understood it, too, as it utilized much of the same vocabulary he employed.
We read Lord of the Flies, and Franny and Zooey and To Kill A Mockingbird, among others.
Choosing great literature wasn’t Susie’s only talent. She so impressed me when she said she’d memorized some Shakespeare. We’d had to read Julius Caesar the year before and never did it occur to me to memorize any of it other than “Et tu, Brutus?”
During the remainder of passing period one day as we were settling in our seats, Susie remarked how this class reminded her of a soliloquy in Macbeth. She began reciting to me, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time.” (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5, 19-28) I’d never even heard of Macbeth but felt the poetic music of the speech and understood what a 16 year-old can of the meaning.
The actress in me set straight away to learn that piece. The thought that life signifies nothing—how luscious is that to a girl full of teenage angst who wanted nothing more than to escape her crypt of a classroom and get on with real life before she turned to dust?
Today, I can still recite Macbeth’s soliloquy, at this end of life when the meaning becomes more evident daily. Whenever I’m full of pent-up emotion, I act it out for myself and I feel better.
Not only that, I later memorized and still have with me Hamlet’s advice to the players, “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue.” (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2, 1-36)
Thanks to Susie, I have found memorable segments in novels and plays I’ve wanted to keep with me forever. If I have not memorized them, I have written them on scraps of paper and tucked them into drawers and file folders where I can take them out at my leisure to enjoy anew.
WWSR? What Would Susie Read? became my mantra as I chose reading material the rest of my adult life—my feminist and science fiction phase (which curiously occurred simultaneously), my Black Lit phase, my Native American phase, my spiritual/alternative lifestyle phase, my memoir phase.
Although I haven’t spoken with her face to face for 47 years, I am certain she read Bright Lights, Big City when it first appeared. I know she’s read authors James Frey, Augusten Burroughs, Margaret Atwood, David Sedaris. I’ll bet she’s read the titles Middlesex; Eat, Pray, Love; The Glass Castle; The Help; and Little Bee.
How fabulously ironic and a measure of Susie’s ability to choose what constitutes good literature that all those books we read, banned and contraband, eventually showed up in high school classrooms across the U.S. as required reading. I had the joy of introducing them to thousands of students. Mr. A., from whom we kept them hidden, may have taught a few of them himself before he retired.
When I read yet again a list of books parents want banned in schools, I am heartened in knowing one truth: Kids will get their hands on good books, the ones that speak to them, the ones that are about someone like them, no matter how parents or schools finagle to keep the child separated from the book.
I am so grateful for Susie’s early guidance in the language arts and for the lessons she taught me: When your friends recommend a good book, check it out. When you come across a lovely, meaningful chunk of language, memorize it to keep with you forever. And remember what you need to learn can come from the most unexpected of sources, sometimes only one seat away.