Alas: Required Reading

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All through elementary school, after those disastrous first Dick and Jane episodes, I was able to choose what I read. Sometimes we had to try different categories, such as biography, history, folk tales and fiction, but we were able to choose titles within those categories. We then had to write book reports about each one we read. These were generally delivered in front of the class in such a way as to intrigue the other students without revealing too much of the plot. Most of the reports ended, “if you want to know what happens, you will have to read the book.” It got so we could chant it in unison.

But alas, in high school, I once again was forced to read the same book as everyone else in the class. Fortunately, I still spent my time in the library stacks, slowly reading my way around the alphabet. But the English classes had set curricula for each year: a novel, a Shakespeare play, some poetry, occasional short stories and not much else. As you can imagine, this meant we spent weeks on one book. We were assigned a chapter at a time. A dreadful way to read anything.

Of course, I was incapable of stopping after one chapter and always immediately read the whole book. The classic collision of me and the English teacher came in my senior year when the novel was Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. The teacher was agonizingly slowly leading the class in a discussion of the minutia of each chapter. Then she asked me some question. When I answered it, she said “You can’t know that yet!” I tried to stay silent after that, and she stopped asking me questions.

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