Are You Smarter Than a Boston Latin Student?

by Robert Pondiscio
February 22nd, 2008

On Sunday, the New York Times published a lovely, uplifting piece about how The Great Gatsby still resonates with striving immigrant students at the prestigious Boston Latin School. One recent immigrant featured in the story is “inspired by the green light at the end of the dock, which for Jay Gatsby, the self-made millionaire from North Dakota, symbolizes the upper-class woman he longs for.” Says the student: “My green light is Harvard.”

Seemingly in direct response to the Times own ed blogger Will Okun, who recently questioned the relevance of teaching classic literature to inner city youth, Sara Rimer writes: “Some educators say the best way to engage racially and ethnically diverse students in reading is with books that mirror their lives and culture. But others say that while a variety of literary voices is important, ‘Gatsby’ — still required reading at half the high schools in the country — resonates powerfully among urban adolescents, many of them first- and second-generation immigrants, who are striving to ascend in 21st-century America.”

Fordham’s Gadfly took note of the piece yesterday, hailing, “three cheers for dead, white men,” and remarking with approval how urban adolescents “still identify with the book’s main characters and its themes of aspiration and striving.”

Leave it to a pair of bright high schoolers to rain on the feel-good parade in letters to the Times. Robinson G. Meyer, a junior from Pennington, New Jersey wonders if those Boston Latin strivers, their teachers and the Times have missed the point of the novel. “The Great Gatsby is no Great American Fable of accomplished dreams, it is a cautionary tragedy. Its characters discard their morals to attain pleasure or to quench their ambitions, and, by the novel’s end, they all wind up hollow and disaffected.”

Nathaniel Eiseman, himself a Boston Latin student, pointedly writes, “If F. Scott Fitzgerald knew that today’s high school students would be comparing Jay Gatsby’s elusive green light to admission to Harvard he would be shaking his head in disdain.

“The Great Gatsby’ is not a novel that glorifies the rags-to-riches American dream. It is, in fact, the very opposite, and I find it most surprising that the students and faculty of the Boston Latin School featured in the article could be so misinformed,” says Eiseman. “The light does give Gatsby hope, but between West Egg, where Gatsby is, and East Egg, where his hope is, there lies an insuperable cultural divide. The green light represents all of what we want, but that we never can attain. Jay Gatsby would never reach that light, for the end of his American dream saw him face down in his swimming pool.”

Ouch! Well, thanks for clearing that up, gentlemen. Somewhere today, there are a couple a proud English teachers smiling quietly to themselves.