I haven’t posted a blog in almost a month. This is due to my overwhelming popularity and everyone inviting me to their cool parties all the time…by which I mean I’ve been busy performing improv, failing to get caught up on sleep, and teaching the future leaders of this world. More the last one than anything. It’s still weird to think that I’m only 23 and I’ve been an official, full-time teacher for nearly a year and a half (and I am official, too–I have an email address and I wear ties and everything!). And although I am no veteran yet, I have already discovered several things about teaching High School English that I wouldn’t have suspected. This blog will be the first in an arbitrarily occurring series (so, this may be the only one that ever happens) in which I address the Secret Responsibilities of Being a Teacher…so, the stuff they don’t warn you about in college (which actually covers just about everything that happens to me).
Secret Responsibility: It is your job to help many of your students realize that they don’t actually like Edgar Allan Poe. Like, at all.
I don’t know what kind of superfun Poe unit kids are getting in middle school, but I’ve heard a lot of students say that Poe is their favorite author or poet. And this is without being prompted, usually. So on those special days when I say “today we are reading Edgar Allan Poe,” I see heads perk up, eyebrows raise, and mouths curve into grins. (To be fair, I also hear a lot of groans, but some kids groan at everything, like they’re cavemen or sleep-deprived bridge trolls.) Then, I make their dreams come true: I hand them a copy of one of Poe’s stories or poems! And I then gather, either verbally or through facial expressions, that this is not the Edgar they know and love.
At this point I should clarify that I am not talking about all students, because many students love gothic literature/literature that features the grotesque and strange through long descriptions, rich with sensory imagery. Also, that I am not only talking about students–I’m sure there are plenty of adults that have fond high school memories of Edgar Poe as just the weird, creepy author who gave them a much-needed break from the marathon metaphors of those hipster Transcendentalists.
So, I guess what I’m saying is–by showing students why they should appreciate Poe as a game-changing author (his elevated style of writing, unusual choice of words, phrases, and expressions, his use of long and complex sentences, use of sentences with interruptions, mastery of poetic devices, use of unreliable narrators…), it is easy to make some students abandon their literary hero.
Because in spite of our hazy memories, or that John Cusack movie, Poe’s writing is less of “BLOOD” “DEATH” “BURIAL” “BIRD” “DEATH” “MURDER” and “GROSS STUFF” and more of “trepidation” “tintinnabulation” “pasquinaded” “doggerel” “galvanic” and “Ultima Thule.” In plenty of English classes around the country you could probably reveal a supposed Poe fan as an actual Poe-ser in no time by simply asking him or her to read (and enjoy) “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
To be fair: I’m not trying to sound elitist, because I certainly don’t want to read “The Fall of the House of Usher” either. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever just read Poe for fun, to be honest with you. I enjoy some of his writing, but I’ve only ever read it or reread it for the purposes of teaching it as best I could.
This article isn’t meant to suggest that students who don’t like Poe are dumb for thinking they did. Not at all. This is a friendly warning to English educators: through the power of education, you’re going to ruin the idea of Poe for a few kids. But that’s what happens–sometimes learning information changes your opinion. Like, when you discover your parents lied to you about Santa. (Or when you learn that Santa isn’t real–that kind of changes your opinion on Santa, right?) Or when you learn our Founding Fathers were more deist than Christian, and lots of them owned slaves. Or, when you graduate from 8th grade and realize that Metallica really isn’t that good, and Kirk Hammett uses the wah-wah pedal too much. OR, if you learn Poe’s not as accessible as you’d like–it’s okay to not like him so much.
So, teachers, don’t be afraid to teach Poe as thoroughly as you can, and to make his complex gloominess as interesting and relatable as you can, but be ready to see his true style break a few hearts, and then to hear them beating under the floorboards.