Sunday, November 05, 2006

A Letter I'll Never Send

Okay, so my husband and I get an Entertainment Weekly subsciption for Stephen King's essays alone--and I was just stunned with his last article and wanted to respond and got all excited about posting to the EW forum and, it turns out, I've got a ten line minimum to post there. AS IF... So I thought I'd post it here, and then you all could see that for once I actually dealt with a celebrity other than the Yarn Harlot without going all Goofy "ahuyuk" and slack about the mouth. Or fingertips, whatever the case may be.


Dear Uncle Stevie:

I just wanted to say that twenty years ago, when I was young and arrogant, I would have disagreed with your stand on audio books to the point of loud, sober rantings in public. Today, after fifteen years as a public school teacher with a clientele that, for the most part, has never had a nursery rhyme read to it, I'm moved to write my my very first celebrity e-mail in order to say "Brother, canyagimmehallelujia!" (Yes, I just borrowed your own phrase from The Talisman. Forgive me.)

I teach English at a public high school in Sacramento--our test scores are dismal, and this year, after being spoiled with Advanced Placement Seniors, I've ended up with three out of five classes that seemed to have crawled out from under the rock that's under the ass of the third demon to the south of Hell. I've had to teach them grammar, and it's been almost unbearable. Besides the fact that I feel like a f*&^ing sellout because I've always felt that grammar was, perhaps, the last thing students should have to learn in their crowded classrooms, I've discovered that the reason I need to teach them grammar is that NO ONE has taught them grammar, and the whole 'differentiate a noun from a verb' idea in order to not sound like a moron when you've picked up new vocabulary is as foreign to my students as... as writing anything longer than a phone number on the back of someone's hand.

I usually love my job, but this year, with this group and this subject matter, it's been one long flogging with the shut-the-hell-up stick, and I thought I was going to have to call it quits and become an old, fat, over-educated waitress in order to feed my children, when a combination of ego and desperation caused me to do something new.

I started to read them a book. More specifically, I started to read them my book. I've self-published a couple of (in my words) trashy vampire novels that I dearly love. I tell my students this because A. It does them good to know that books aren't written by strangers in a tower with special magic powers, B. That pathetic ego thing I've already mentioned and C. It gives me something to say to them besides 'I miss my children when I'm here' and 'Shut the *&^* up.' In the last couple of weeks my Juniors have started to ask me to read to them--I'm pretty sure it was to get out of grammar, and eventually, I broke down because, hell, I wanted to get out of grammar, and the results were...

Magic.

It was magic in the way I had always imagined teaching would be when I was going through school, because I chose this profession because I love stories--all stories. Stories to me are the heartbeat of the human condition, the poetry of our collective souls. I don't care if they are told at campfires (and you should hear the apologetic introductions to Native American literature in our modern textbooks--the politically correct scholar, at least, is ashamed of having not given entire cultures credit for literature simply because it was not scratched into tree pulp with oak-gall dye) or on the big glowing box of worship that dominates the living room, or on the shiny paper of Manga novels. Well, the majority of my students had never been exposed to stories for the hell of it--for no reason other than to hear a character speak and to love them for their voice. They have, in the last two weeks, been better behaved than I've seen them since August. If I say, "We need to get through this today so we have time to read on Friday" the world spins in order to finish work that they hate (and are, oddly enough, getting better at). At first I thought the magic was caused because they were told, point blank, by me, that the books were about 'elves, vampires, and sex', but since we've been through the first chapter, with no sex in sight, and they have also been told that the first scene is male/male (and believe me, if there is a more homophobic corner of the world, I don't want to visit) and that I'll be skipping the racier parts, I'm thinking that they simply like the story. They like hearing a practiced speaker with some inflection read something that is dear and intimate and beloved. They're starting to hear the heartbeat of humanity that we've been trying to play for them for eleven years and that they've refused to hear.

So when you say that audio books are an art-form, I believe you. When you tell me that they are storytelling at it's finest, I'm right on board. And when you say that they expose a novel's flaws, I want to weep, because believe me I wish I could go back and edit my own work just one more time so that these students get the best storytelling experience I can give them. I'm starting to truly believe in my heart that they deserve it.


Thanks for the excellent work, Mr. King--you should tell EW that my husband and I have kept up our subscription for your essays alone.

Sincerely

Shannon T.R. McClellan

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I came over from the EW site to read your letter and I'm glad I did. Your description of the students' awakening interest is strong evidence in support of the value of reading aloud. I also liked your idea of showing the students that writing is not magic, and that any of them could aspire to write. Keep writing. I have a feeling you could write some very moving stories about your students. Thanks for sharing the letter.

Betty

Starfish said...

Loved the letter. Who doesn't love being read to? It brings me back to my childhood. Funny that just tonight I uttered the words "I love books". I said it as I was leaving Barnes & Noble, and in my bag? Lisey's Story by Stephen King.

NeedleTart said...

Funny (or not so much) I have worked with learning support 5th graders and said to my suppervising teacher, "I wish I could take each and every kid in here and sit in a big, comfy chair with them in my lap and just read to them." Congrats on finding a way to reach a whole class.

The Lady in Red said...

You should seriously send him that letter. That was beautiful, and only a shows a sliver of why you are a great teacher (not to mention human being.) You rock Shanny!

Rae said...

" ...that seemed to have crawled out from under the rock that's under the ass of the third demon to the south of Hell."

OMG, how do you know the people I work for??? ;)

I'm coming back up for air from work. Slowly. You can't resuscitate the dead too quickly or they'll turn into zombies or something. But slowly I'm coming back. Nice to read your posts again. ;) Will be back.

Coach Susan said...

Hi there. I crawled over here from NeedleTart's blog and boy am I glad I did. You are cool and so is your blog and so is the mark you are making in this world. Bookmarking you today. See you again soon.

Roxie said...

Words are magic, and your stories are enchantments that transport. Good on you!

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