by Jessica Lahey
The “stuff to be read when I have time” pile perched on top of my filing cabinet had become a public health hazard; it was time to catch up on my reading. I grabbed a handful of unread journals and headed over to one place where students could not find me – the basement faculty room. I settled in with my lunch and opened the journal on top of the pile to the table of contents, and hey! Lookee there! An article on teaching Great Expectations – I teach Great Expectations, I adore Great Expectations, in fact. A few minutes away from student questions, a sublime sandwich of leftover venison and an article on Great Expectations makes for just about the perfect lunch. I happily tucked in to the sandwich and the article, highlighter in hand, ready to pick up some pearls of wisdom from one of my esteemed English-teacher colleagues.
“Long before The Hills’ Spencer and Heidi became “Speidi” and The Bachelor began handing out roses, Charles Dickens was populating his novels with memorable characters perfectly suited for today’s reality-TV generation.”
No. Please, no. Please tell me this isn’t going where I think it’s going.
“When his readers first meet Miss Havisham, Dickens shares Pip’s impressions: ‘In an arm-chair, with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand, sat the strangest lady I have ever seen, or shall ever see.’ (Sounds like he’s describing half the cast of The Real Housewives of New Jersey!) As readers quickly learn, Miss Havisham has plans for Pip – and for Estella. From the moment he sees her, Pip is smitten with Estella, beginning the on-again-mostly-off-again romance of “Pipella.” And Satis House contains even more secrets than the Big Brother home. In the rest of the novel, students learn to “expect the unexpected” as they wonder whether this “bachelorette” will ever present Pip with a rose – and whether they will witness the ‘most dramatic rose ceremony ever.’”
Oh, good Lord. It’s like a car crash, and I can’t look away.
This is not a quote from People Magazine. I’m not reading Us Weekly with my sandwich. This quote is from an article published in The English Journal, the flagship journals of the National Council of Teachers of English. The professional journal of record for English teachers. The article, about one English teacher’s revolutionary and apparently newsworthy discovery about teaching Great Expectations as if it were a reality television show comes on the heels of a controversial and much-pilloried essay question about reality television on the spring SAT, and I’ve about had it.
Apparently, the powers-that-be in education have simply thrown their hands up in the air and decided to admit publicly that they believe kids are so stupid they couldn’t possibly appreciate great literature on its own merits. Novels such as Great Expectations are clearly too difficult to teach today’s youth, so the best possible reaction is boil the novel down, render down the complexity and texture and spoon-feed what’s left to students as a complement to a full schedule of reality television. I was appalled. Angry. Insulted – not just on behalf teachers, but for students. Right now, when education is in a sad state of upheaval, what with politicians yelling at teachers, teachers yelling at school boards, conservatives yelling at liberals – now is the time to raise expectations, not lower them.
Students know what’s going on in education right now – hey, even movie stars have something to say about teaching in this debate – and they are watching us to see how to react to the crisis in education. If all we have up our collective sleeves is analogies to reality televisions, well, then, I don’t know how to ask them to trust me with their education. When the SAT essay on reality television appeared on the spring SAT, my students – and many others, apparently – were appalled. And they have every right to be. Within three days of the test date, the New York Times reported that, “comments on the now-infamous prompt — which included the question, “How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?” — had stretched across nearly 40 pages on College Confidential, a popular website on college prep. A student quoted in an article that ran in the Washington Post summed it up perfectly: “I guess the kids who watch crap TV did well. I was completely baffled…” I could only apologize and empathize with my students when they complained to me on the Monday after the test was administered, but I was truly embarrassed.
Sandwich forgotten, I started scribbling rebuttals in yellow highlighter all over the margins of the journal and looking around the room for someone to yell at in the absence of the article’s author. We should be teaching students to appreciate Pip, the main character in Great Expectations, because he mirrors their experience of the world. He is a young person struggling to become an adult in the face of adults who treat him unfairly, the trials of poverty, and the pain of unrequited love. Pip certainly has more in common with my students than the experience of some New Jersey housewife in possession of more money than sense, a man vetting a house full of Barbie-doll bachelorettes, or twelve washed-up celebrities stranded on a deserted island. Pip’s story is my students’ story, and I fear for the future of education if we allow a generation of students to believe that they are too stupid to understand their own stories. I thrust my sandwich into my lunch bag, rolled up the offending journal, and stormed back to my classroom. That’s it. Hell hath no fury like a teacher pissed off and determined to prove a point.
Later that day, copies of Great Expectations hit the desks with a loud smack, and the groaning starts immediately. I am fluent in the dialect of adolescent groaning; I get the gist of their complaints and choose to ignore it. They pick the books up, feel the weight of the text in their hands, and flip the book over for the summary. I like to watch my students in these first few minutes alone with a new book. The weaker readers are a little anxious, and even the stronger ones are wary, but everyone is searching for some indication of what the next month of reading will look like.
Turning to the first page, I begin to read to the class.
Here’s where the benefit of a thorough and comprehensive curriculum really pays off. Because Core Knowledge schools teach capital-H History, and not history as an afterthought in social studies class, my students know about Victorian England. They know that the Industrial Revolution was run on the backs of children and the poor and that the writing of Dickens was part of the force that changed that for future generations. They have learned about the rigid Victorian class structure, that a poor boy like Pip has no real hope of changing his fortunes – his expectations – without someone like Miss Havisham as his benefactor. They know why Magwich was in Australia, that it was a penal colony, that when I talk about “The Fall of Man,” I am not talking about a bunjee jump challenge on the reality show Survivor, I am referring to Adam and Eve’s fall from innocence.
And really, that’s what Great Expectations is about. Pip loses his innocence when he first visits Satis House, Miss Havisham’s mansion, and mean ol’ Estella informs him that he’s just a common, laboring boy. Before this moment, Pip was just Pip. Pip’s childhood is not luxurious or even particularly happy, but he is content, relatively safe and innocent in his private little Eden on the marshes outside London (save for regular beatings with The Tickler, of course). Until the day he is sent to play with the aforementioned mean girl, Eve – I mean Estella – who metaphorically smashes him over the head with the apple of knowledge.
Pip loses his innocence on that day, and is pushed out into the big, bad world , ready or not. Every adolescent, even the most reluctant homebody, gets smashed over the head and has to depart Eden at some point. Some call it The Fall of Man, some the Fall from Innocence, but I just call it middle school.
Every one of my students will face this fall, and now that they know it’s coming, they are on the lookout for it in their own lives. Divorce, a parents’ illness, the death of a sister – sometimes it’s easier to talk about difficult issues through the prism of Pip’s life and his experiences. My students struggle with these trials every year, and sometimes stories such as Pip’s help them cope with experiences that can make them feel quite alone in the world. Over the years, my students have connected to so many parts of Pip’s journey, all without the benefit of turning the novel into a reality television show. Books like Great Expectations have the power to show us things about ourselves, particularly when we are able to connect with a story and give ourselves over to a character’s journey.
All due respect to Mr. Bucolo, the National Council of the Teachers of English and the Real Housewives of New Jersey, I think I will stick with my methods this year: a genuine love of the novels I teach, cultural literacy to give context to the texts, and decidedly great expectations for my students.
Jessica Potts Lahey is a teacher of English, Latin, and composition at Crossroads Academy, an independent Core Knowledge K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. Jessica’s blog on middle school education, Coming of Age in the Middle, can be found at http://jessicalahey.com.