Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Arguments with My High School English Teacher

I adored my English teacher in high school, Mrs. Reed. She was smart and articulate, and her native intelligence wrapped around everything she said like a fur-lined cloak on a cold winter day. She was an older woman from the old school of English lit, so through all the classes I took from her (four years worth!), there was an emphasis on the classics.

I look back at that time in my life and feel lucky I received encouragement from the three women who mattered to me the most at the time: my girlfriend (Victoria), my mom, and Mrs. Reed.

And man oh man, I would argue with all three of them! You could say I was a bit hot-blooded back then when it came to books.

Now I did not argue often with Victoria. Victoria was not a girl you argued with, especially when it came to books and writing. Partly because she was so much smarter than I was, partly because it was hard to argue with someone who was so damn pretty. And her writing was extraordinary. She would write me poems that would leave me breathless.

But I digress.

Mrs. Reed and I got along fabulously, except for one little book: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. Mrs. Reed loved that book. She loved the moralistic tale, the turning of events, and the irony.

I hated it. Mainly because I was a young man, and, when it comes right down to it, Ethan Frome might as well been set in New York City with a pink martini glass on the cover. It was chic lit. Wordy chic lit.

With snow.

Mrs. Reed claimed the book was a great study in irony and had merits because it did not have a happy ending. She was confused that I did not like Ethan Frome, because we often talked about sugarcoated books and their emptiness.

I agreed about the irony, but I also pointed out that the book seemed less of a morality tale, and more of base projection. And not cleaver projection either.

The test for Ethan Frome rolls around and I get a C+. One of my worst test scores I have ever received. Ever.

“What happened?” she asked.

“I stopped reading the book.”

“What? But you correctly answered key questions about the ending!”

“I guessed; the book is so predictable.”

“I am disappointed in you, Mr. Pacheco.”

Oh man, okay, I admit, I felt a little bit bad. For three seconds. Because, we were talking about ETHAN FROME here, folks. The book is a TORTURE DEVICE for BOYS and YOUNG MEN.

“Tell you what, I will read Ethan Frome when you read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven.


Thus ended the great Ethan Frome controversy. I never did finish Ethan Frome, and I am sure Mrs. Reed never did read the The Lathe of Heaven.

By the way, there is no point to this blog post. How can I follow the Great Synopsis Post with Über Commentary, which followed the Great Interview Post? I cannot.

But I can relate one thing. Boys in high school who read books like The Lathe of Heaven would rather get the WORST TEST SCORE EVER, than read Ethan Frome. Looking back, however, I treasure that argument. I think about Ethan Frome, and smile wistfully, putting me in the 0.00000000008% category of Men Who Smile Over Ethan Frome (per males born in the US from 1909 to 1999). Mrs. Reed, I tip my wine glass to you.


  1. I don't think a sleigh wreck is irony--I think it is necessary. Sleighs? Dear God.

  2. LOL, a torture device for boys and young men? Must have been chick lit.

  3. Le Guin writes good stuff.

    What do you think about the Wizard of Earthsea movie compared to the books?

  4. Ben! Don't SPOIL the SURPRISE ending! It's a total nail-biter. NAIL-BITER, I say.

  5. Dave,

    I have not seen the actual anime movie yet. The Sci-Fi Channel series... ug.

    I feel they boofed it.

  6. Yep! I agree. "Boofed" is a kind way to describe it.

    I did not know there is an anime version. I will check it out. It will be interesting to see if they are more true to the story.

  7. Dave, Anthony:
    I still see red when I think what they did in that mini-series with my beloved Wizard of Earthsea. Those books are among my all-time favorites, and they gutted her story and characters and turned it into smarmy, predictable, soulless crap. Le Guin wrote some pretty scathing stuff about it herself.

  8. um, sorry for erupting hit a nerve, I'm sure you can tell.

  9. I get the feeling that a lot of the books on kids' summer reading lists are better suited to girls. Too bad. This might be turning a good number of boys off reading.

  10. Unfortunately I wasn't much of an English student in high school. My nose was buried in my latest electronic project that was going to revolutionize the world as we know it. :-D

    But what I do remember, was that the books she had us read were tortuous devices designed to show how little we really knew about life. They seemed to have no relation to my cares and concerns at that age, and I think that was a big mistake. It turned me off from reading until on my own I ventured into the library and found Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, and other sci-fi writers.

    There was one her books that I did fall in love with, but that's probably because that's what I wanted to do with her books. Can you guess? Yep.
    Farenheit 451

  11. ahhhh, now Anthony, dear: you've written a powerful ode to an amazing woman! what a delightful piece; you've sure made me smile :) I bet she's proud of you, too...

    As for "boy" books, I look long & hard for them. I think there are a lot out there, but a teacher's gotta be open to them. I personally like to start off distopian lit with Ayn Rand's novella, Anthem -- I've had a lot of students (both male & female) really get into that book & subsequent discussions...

    and, you know, i've never read the Wizard of Earthsea books; I think I'm missing out...

    (LOL Doug -- I commiserate with you)

  12. I can still remember Mr. Cox (male version of your Mrs. Reed) trying to guide us through the symbolism of Zenobia's pickle dish.


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