Literary Classics: Adults Still Misreading the Teen-Agers
Christine Baron, an English teacher at Fountain Valley High School, is fighting back against readers who have expressed skepticism about the reading preferences of her students.
Baron had written me to report that, in a poll, her students listed among their 12 favorite books such modern classics as “The Great Gatsby,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “1984" and “Of Mice and Men.”
Kordyan Lewandowski Ph.D. and Jaime R. Rios, paralegal supervisor, among others, scoffed at her report, suggesting that her students were “sucking up” to the teacher by listing books she had assigned. They also suggested that I should be “chastised” for believing her.
Baron replies to Lewandowski, Rios and her other critics with spirit. “We read and discussed the column in my classes today and we’re more than ready to take on all comers.”
Of Lewandowski and Rios she says, “Have they spent a lot of time around teen-agers? . . . Today’s young people are an independent, feisty bunch who do not mold their opinions to please others. In fact, assigned books often face an uphill battle, as students tend to regard them as schoolwork and most likely boring. . . . “
She pointed out that her students also listed books by such authors as Ray Bradbury, Agatha Christie, Louis L’Amour, Stephen King, Tom Clancy and Albert Camus, but more votes were given to the 12 on her list.
She says Lewandowski and Rios suggested she is “unfit for her position,” because “I dared to ask my students about their favorite books, and then had the audacity to believe them. I think I’ll hang in there. Despite these cynics and naysayers, there’s a healthy crop of literate, bright, delightful young people out there--whom I have the pleasure to meet every day.”
One of her students, Daniel Borses, writes: “I would like to absolve myself and my classmates of the alleged crime of ‘buttering up.’ ”
He says, “No book was considered ineligible for Mrs. Baron’s survey, and certainly many books that were placed on lists were not books that many teachers would consider acceptable reading.
“Regarding your statement that college-bound students do not read anything that is not assigned to them"--(I didn’t say that--Lewandowski and Rios said that)--"I must contest. On my own time, I have read several books, some considered classics, some not. In the summer of my freshman year, I read all the way through the unabridged version of ‘Les Miserables’. . . . I’ve also read, with no priming, books by Albert Camus . . . and modern classics like ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ which has probably had more effect on me than any other novel I’ve read. I am not the only one who reads such books out of class, and I can name several friends who are always involved with reading one novel or another. I do not say this to supplement my grade. I say this because I appreciate good teaching. . . . “
Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) writes that he was “fascinated and heartened” by Baron’s report, and he asked his daughter, a public high school student, a student council member, a varsity volleyball player and “a voracious reader,” to list her 10 favorite books.
“To my surprise,” he says, “none of the books on your list made her list. Here are her choices:
“ ‘Count of Monte Cristo,’ ‘The Powers That Be,’ ‘The Source,’ ‘The Chosen,’ ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful,’ ‘To the Scaffold,’ ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy,’ ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ ‘Jane Eyre,’ and ‘A Separate Peace.’ ”
Hart’s daughter said she suspected all the books on Baron’s list were assigned. “And I’ve heard my daughter comment on a number of occasions that so many of her classmates just don’t seem to be avid readers. If it’s not assigned, it isn’t read.”
Jun Lee of Buena Park is also critical of Baron’s poll, but her complaint is interesting mostly because of its quaint references to what she considers my own lack of “realism.” She calls me an “unaware journalist” with a mind that is “archaic” and “dreamy.”
You may remember reader Jim Kline’s suggestion that teachers assign such contemporary favorites as “Catch 22,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Slaughterhouse Five,” “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” or “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.”
“Come on,” he said, “a 17-year-old who prefers Hamlet’s Angst to Sissy Hankshaw’s thumbs? Get real!”
I said I didn’t know who Sissy Hankshaw was, but I was going to find out.
I’m finding out. Sissy is a beautiful girl with enormous thumbs, the heroine of “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.” She is obsessed with hitchhiking. She is sexually naive, but learning. I’ve just finished a chapter in which she is in bed with a sophisticated New York couple.
I’ll give you a full report later. (By the way, the book was lent to me by Joan Maturko, who teaches kindergarten.)