Artist of the Boring

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photo Hawthorne

Even after almost a decade of teaching, I still have my share of Oh, shoot moments.  In fact, I had one of those recently with my junior composition class. My intentions were pure, my ambitions lofty, but my sense of audience was faulty.  The objective was to teach the students to write an analytical essay using a short story. Some of you are yawning already, but hang in there.  I chose a Nathaniel Hawthorne story since I knew the students would soon cover Hawthorne in their literature class. Some of you are now wide awake again because that name sounds vaguely familiar, even though you can’t quite remember his claim to fame.  And although that name rings a bell, it’s not a tiny, joyful bell that one associates with images such as fairies or daffodils, oh no. It’s one of those giant, I-think-somebody-just-died cathedral bells that conjures up visuals of mourners dressed in black and lined up by processional two’s, staggering along in the deep grief of mourning. This may be because he wrote The Scarlet Letter, that legendary work that made four weeks of an otherwise gleeful year in your high school memories an earthly purgatory.   Personally, I love Hawthorne, but I’ve always been cut from a different cloth, so most of my friends overlook this failing and love me in spite of my Puritan idols.  But it wasn’t my love of old Nate that possessed me to assign one of his short stories; I did it to educate the children.

My junior comp class is comprised of sixteen students, and fourteen of these are boys. From the moment I placed a copy of “The Artist of the Beautiful” on their desks, they seemed disengaged. For those readers sporting XY chromosomes, you probably rolled your eyes the second you read the title. These fellows were too polite for that, but the moment they figured out the story was about a man who creates a butterfly, well, let’s just say Hawthorne lost all credibility as an action writer.  If he had just worked in one small scene in which that blacksmith guy had picked up an anvil and pounded that little wimpy guy over the head then we might have salvaged the experience, but a fellow who spends page after page trying to create a delicate bug?  Give them a break.  Most of my male students come from the mindset that if you can’t tackle it, trap it, or blow it out of the woods with a rifle, then why bother?  And if you’re going to invent something, it ought to involve C-4, axle grease, or bacon drippings or you’ve just wasted your time. And life is far too precious not to make the most of it by shooting something.

A legacy any South Georgia boy would be proud to leave behind

A legacy any South Georgia boy would be proud to leave behind

But they weren’t the only ones to pay for this inaccurate assessment of demographics. Twenty minutes into grading the essays, I knew that one red pen wouldn’t be enough, and I looked in my drawer for reinforcements. An hour into grading the essays, I knew that one revision wouldn’t be enough, and I started reshuffling assignment dates.  Two hours into grading the essays, I knew that one Advil wouldn’t be enough, and I started rooting through my desk for those handy cyanide tablets I keep for emergencies or for those parent teacher conferences gone awry. Three hours and a couple of tissues later, I finally emerged from literary hell.

These are all you need to grade a set of papers

These are all you need to grade a set of papers

So when I handed back the papers, I confessed my poor judgment and made them a deal: they would salvage the Hawthorne papers through a revision, and I would pay them the due respect of dredging up a future short story that involved blood, guts and a corpse or two. After the suffering they had endured watching that Owen guy breathe life into an insect and the agony I had withstood watching it die on sixteen papers, it was the least I could do.  You’re never too old to learn.

© 2013 – Traci Carver

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13 responses »

  1. I feel your pain; I taught high school English for twelve years, and I was always amazed at how many things could go wrong despite the most intricately prepared of lesson plans. Robert Burns was definitely right about the best laid plans… I commend you for your efforts on behalf of our nation’s youth and thank you for sharing your stories!

  2. Loved this post! Such is teaching the classics to a group of guys who would rather be on their tractor or in their deer stand. Been there. Learned my lessons and this captured it brilliantly!

    • I read Moby Dick in college, and I haven’t chosen to revisit it. I did enjoy Billy Bud, but Hawthorne wins hands down. Poe is better still. Now there’s a messed-up, interesting writer.

      • I used to be a big Poe fan, but then I got over him. I guess all the messed up stuff started to wear on me. Now, I’m more of a Dickens guy. (BTW: I was never made to read any Dickens in high school or in college; how crazy is that?)

      • I’m covering Great Expectations with my freshmen right now. One of my fellows made the comment: “This wasn’t half bad.”

  3. I must admit, my eyes never quite stopped being glazed. LOL I didn’t have to read Hawthorne with all the high school hopping I did. I do have to say that the cyanide tablets in the drawer are a good idea, though! Handy, too, for the right/wrong moments. 🙂

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