Tag Archives: American Literature

The American English Teacher Rereads a Clean Copy of Beloved

I’ve posted a slightly different version of this piece before, two years ago and some change. It seems appropriate to post this revision now in honor of Toni Morrison, whose fiction has over the course of my adult life completely changed my heart and my brain in immeasurably powerful and positive ways.

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The American English Teacher Rereads a Clean Copy of Beloved

My classroom copy is copiously marked in three or four colors of highlighter and underlined and bracketed and annotated with pen and pencil seven different ways to Sunday. I’ve read and reread and reread this novel perhaps eight or nine times now, but this time I choose a clean, elegant copy over my raggedy-ass classroom copy and it’s like reading it for the first time again. I’m a sucker for fine editions and could not resist this one. I can smell the ink. I can feel the lettering engraved into the spine like braille, or like the text carved into a tombstone, Beloved. And my reading this time is not cluttered by my previous readings, marked up by some earlier version of me who thought he had answers. I complain sometimes about the time I lack to read new work because I am always rereading to teach. And yet, with this gem, I might be happy if it were the only book I could ever read until I died. Every time I read it I find new things to love and new reasons to mourn or hope, and I understand more deeply how tragic our history, how tenacious our ghosts, how all the repair work in our country that needs doing (now more than ever before) springs from this, from this.

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#234: On Rereading a Clean Copy of Beloved

My classroom copy is copiously
marked in three or four
colors of highlighter and
underlined and bracketed
and annotated with pen and pencil
seven different ways to Sunday.
I’ve read and reread
and reread this novel perhaps
eight or nine times now,
but this time I choose
a clean, elegant copy over
my raggedy-ass classroom
copy and it’s like reading
it for the first time again.
I’m a sucker for fine editions
and could not resist this one.
I can smell the ink.
I can feel the lettering
engraved into the spine
like braille, or like the text
carved into a tombstone.
And my reading this time
is not cluttered by my previous
readings, marked up by
some earlier version of me
who thought he had answers.
I complain sometimes
about the time I lack to
read new work because
I am always rereading to
teach. And yet, with this gem,
I might be happy if it were
the only book I could ever
read until I died.
Every time I read it
I find new things to love
and new reasons to mourn or hope,
and I understand more deeply
how tragic our history,
how tenacious our ghosts,
how all the repair work
in our country that needs doing
(now more than ever before)
springs from this, from this.

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#61: The American English Teacher Makes An Epic Gaffe While Trying To Be Inclusive

Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz

Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz

He’s teaching a poem during the study
of 17th century American literature
by Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz,
a brilliant poet, Catholic nun,
living in what was then called
New Spain, and crafting these
beautiful poems about the power
of intellect and about surviving
a broken heart.
He’s teaching one of those poems,
yes, just as he began the course with
a study of Native American myth,
because he wants to expand
the notion and broaden the borders
of American literature.
And Mexico is a part of us, he thinks,
not only because our ancestors
stole a great deal of it,
like they stole nearly everything
on and in this great continent,
but because 37 million Americans
are native Spanish speakers and
a few of those are learners
in his classroom.
So he’s given the poem to students
in English on one side
and in Spanish on the other side.
He reads the English and afterwards
says how wonderful it would be if someone
would volunteer to read the Spanish.
A lively and enthusiastic Latino boy
reads the poem out loud, faltering a little,
but more or less, he gets through it effectively.
But the boy, despite his more than adequate
performance, admits immediately after
that he understood none of what he’d just read.
And when the American English teacher
follows up by asking a girl, one of his best
students, but also a girl of color,
if she understood the Spanish
better or worse than the English,
she says to him, in all seriousness,
“I don’t speak Spanish.”
And the lesson he learns
in his effort to be inclusive
is that just because the work
is in Spanish doesn’t mean it will
make more sense to a Spanish speaker,
and just because a student’s ethnicity
matches the language of the culture in question
doesn’t mean the student speaks said language.
And so in his effort to be more inclusive,
he has perhaps alienated a kid
who can’t read his own language and
another kid who can’t even speak it.
Live and learn, he thinks.
Apologize, live and learn.

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