There was a time when high school students were taught to love literature.
I was at the public library the other day and eavesdropped on a conversation at the front desk between a woman librarian and a junior high school-aged boy. I was privy to the transaction that was his renewal of the due dates of three books: Monsters, Hatchet, and Guitar for Dummies. I’m sorry to say that I’m ignorant of the authors of these tomes. Don’t get me wrong, I think that when kids read anything it’s better than not reading at all; so I don’t begrudge the young man his taste in what is likely horror fiction; and I certainly applaud his self-taught musical interests. But as the old cliché goes: times have changed.
When I attended Our Lady Queen of Peace grammar school in West Milford, New Jersey, some forty-odd years ago, the Franciscan nuns subscribed to a paperback book club called “Scholastic Book Services,” where students could buy paperback books for 50 or 75 cents. Every few months the new list came from the publishing company, and we put in our orders and turned over the few bucks of our hard earned newspaper route, lawn-mowing, or babysitting money that would get us multiple titles.
A couple of weeks later the janitors dropped off the shipped boxes at each classroom, cut them open, and the nuns covered their large desks with tall stacks of shiny, new paperbacks: Mark Twain, Washington Irving, the Brontës, Harper Lee, Jack London, Stephen Crane, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Fenimore Cooper and Daniel Defoe.
Sisters Bridget or Alberta or Gemma (there were a number of them doing this in different classrooms) removed the packing list and consulted their own record as to who ordered what, and drafted a couple of the brighter teacher’s-pet-type girls to assist them in distributing books. The rest of us got on a line that snaked to the back of the classroom. There was no fooling around on line; after all, this was Catholic school. As we passed the desk the list of our individual purchases was read, and we picked copies of the appropriate titles from the tall stacks.
There was definitely a literary divide between boys and girls books. The guys preferred adventure fiction such as The Call of the Wild and The Last of the Mohicans; the gals Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights or To Kill a Mockingbird, all those with sympathetic female characters. There were also big stacks of The Diary of Anne Frank: most of the girls had a copy; none of the boys did. The boys read and traded The Red Badge of Courage and Treasure Island, or anything else about war, Indians and pirates. And about the closest we got to erotic stimulation was the scene in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer where Tom kisses Becky Thatcher’s “ruby-red lips”.
A couple of years later when I went on to John S. Burke Catholic High School in Goshen, New York, we had a summer reading list. We had to read four out of six listed books (again, paperbacks that were ordered) and in September were tested on them for 25% of our first English grade.
That summer before freshman year I remember reading John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony, Kipling’s Captains Courageous, Hiroshima by John Hersey, and a swashbuckling historical novel about the French Revolution with the odd title The Scarlet Pimpernel, and by a woman with the aristocratic-sounding name: The Baroness Orczy. I didn’t know who the Baroness was, but I recall a couple of rainy days when I was certainly engrossed in her novel.
Also at Burke Catholic High School I had a tenth grade history teacher named Sister Margaret Phillips. This was 1970, and post-Vatican II. The nuns of the high school (unlike my grammar school nuns) had made the transition to the “new habits” that we are familiar with today. They were also permitted to wear high heels. Sister Margaret was tall and statuesque to begin with, and in those heels she was about 6’2” or 6’3”, as tall as an NBA point guard.
She enjoyed enthusiastically reading aloud to the class as we followed along in the text, an anthology of selections from antiquity. She boomed out the speeches of Cato or Cicero. The Commentaries of Julius Caesar were a favorite. “Listen to this, boys and girls!” she commanded, as she strode before the class, holding the open book in her left hand, gesturing wildly with her right, and those heels clicking the floor: “The men of the 7th legion were unnerved by these tactics, and it was just at the right moment that Caesar came to their rescue. At his approach the enemy halted and the soldiers recovered from their alarm…” I doubt that Sister Margaret Phillips would have thought much of Monsters, Hatchet, or Guitar for Dummies.
As I scan my shelves, I can spot a handful of dog-eared survivors of those years. The Call of the Wild and that thin copy of The Red Pony with a list price of 75 cents. Another of those ancient page-yellowed paperbacks is one more Jack London book, a collection with the kid-grabbing title of Stories of the North (50 cents). Maybe tonight before it finally falls apart I’ll reread for the twentieth or thirtieth time London’s best short story: “To Build a Fire.” I’m not much of an optimist, but I think that if I choose to have that pleasure, I will again. And again.
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