I maintain a pretty big library in my classroom. About half of the books are mine, and the other half belong to the school. One reason they’re there is pragmatic – the physical act of looking at my bookshelves often helps me come up with different lesson plans when I need to bring something new to a difficult class or cranky student.
Having these books at hand is essential to teaching for me. As ideas and arguments are created and thrown around during discussion, I can often walk over to the book shelf, open a book to a certain chapter, and point out that Cynthia Ozick (if present) would take issue with one student, while Longinus would have the back of another. More often than not, these articles and chapters do not actually get read, but the act of inviting students to take part in an ongoing scholarly conversation feels invaluable to me. Also, the act of making connections in the classroom during class keeps me from being bored stupid by the stuff I’m teaching. I like to think that it models flexibility and creativity, but mostly it just kicks boredom.
Another reason my library is here is simply because there’s good stuff to read there. My students ask for books more than you might think. Certain ones (usually ones who are already readers on their own) come in again and again, and I hand-pick books for them based on what they want to read and what I know of their skill levels. I sometimes strike out, but a lot of the time, they come to trust that I’ll not purposefully steer them into Dickens territory when who they need is Danielle Evans. Or the other way around. Part of the reason this works is that I personally favor literature that dwells in the macabre, and these are often the kinds of stories that teens are seeking. They want shock and horror, and some desire a depth of experience beyond Silent Hill.
I wanted that, I remember, but I didn’t know where to find it. It wasn’t until a teacher handed me Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” my sophomore year that I realized I could go deeper and wider than VC Andrews and Stephen King. It was a small town. The book store sold more movies and CDs than books.
Sometimes my classroom books get stolen. It used to bug me less, when e-books didn’t seem to have such a the lock on the immediate future. I’m officially old, and the presence of books is of great comfort to me. Most of these books are ones I have purchased or somehow acquired myself, and sometimes it does irk me when they’re suddenly gone to an unknown home forever. However, there’s one book that is stolen more than any other book. As I write this, I’m looking at the shelf where it should rest, and it’s not there.
I replace Lynda Barry’s Cruddy at the beginning of every year. I don’t assign it or teach it to the class. Two years ago, when it was stolen twice, a student donated his own copy once he was finished with it. Now that one is gone, too.
I don’t even talk about it unless someone asks (and someone always does), and then I honestly report that I was never the same after I read that book. Even though it’s among my top 10 reading experiences ever, I’ve only read it once, and could not possibly (at this stage of life) bring myself to read it again. That’s all I say, really. I don’t say that this book was given to me by my partner shortly after we began dating, and that one reason we are still together is that she knew, even after only a few dates, that it would change things for me. I don’t say that it took three months to finish the book, or that I often just open the book to look at the pictures.
Afterward, the book goes home with somebody, and the students start a sort of informal waiting list among themselves. That’s roughly what’s happened every year I’ve been teaching high school.
I do my best not to let the book go home with someone who is emotionally fragile, because while the story resonates on some super-sonic Lacanian mirror-stage frequency, it also frankly examines the limits of resiliency in chidren; though the ending is not wholly despairing, it’s not a happy one, either. However, once the book has been stolen, I don’t know who has it, or where it will end up.
In my classroom, Cruddy seems to create a need in students that they didn’t know to be present. Even the most hardened non-readers in class will put themselves on the list to read it, if only to say that they attempted it and found it lacking. I’d think it was all about bandwagon if the book wasn’t getting stolen so often. I put Donna Tartt’s The Secret History into the hands of many students, as well. Percival Everett’s Erasure gets checked out a lot, as does Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Kirsten Bakis’s The Lives of the Monster Dogs. All of them always come back, though.
I don’t know. I’ll keep replacing the book. The more Lynda Barry out there in the world, the better.