How Moby Dick almost ruined me as a reader
I don’t like this book. I don’t care that my high school English teacher thought it was one of the best books written in the English language. Bah!
My junior year English teacher, Ms. Eckstein, was a very small woman who tried to make herself taller with very high shoes and a hairdo that added 6 inches on top of her head. The day she introduced Moby Dick and forced us to begin reading it at home, on our own, I was certainly unexcited, if not dreading the experience. I was not disappointed. I found the book boring, and fell asleep several times trying to read it.
What’s more, when she introduced Moby Dick, she ranted that her famous test on Moby Dick would be very, very difficult. She admonished that no one, but no onecould pass her test if they had not thoroughly READ and DIGESTED Moby Dick (Yes, she really said that. I sat there in class picturing eating pages).
We were a good class. I liked my classmates. In the halls and at lunch, we talked about trying to read and DIGEST Moby Dick. Most of them were doing better than I was. They were muddling through, somehow. Desperate, I turned to two tools every student knows: Cliff Notes and Masterplots. Both literature tools contain summaries of books, and also pieces by literary critics. So one could read lots about the book without actually having to suffer through reading it.
I should mention that I lost respect for this teacher. Clearly she loved literature, but I never got the feeling that she liked teaching, or her students. Kids know stuff like that, right? So that once when she took me aside and said I could, with some effort, be an “A” student in her class (I was an “A” student in most classes except math), I politely told her “No, thanks. I am happy with my B.” Why? Because I did not perceive that I would gain any value, any learning, from earning her A.
Time went on and Moby Dick test day came. I was relieved when I saw it was an essay test. Yippee, I thought to myself. Because I know how to write. And I can make it sound smart and good.
That’s what happened. I wrote brilliantly. When it was the day to get tests back, Ms. Eckstein held up my paper with its A on it, and was full of sweet and sickening praise for my work, as the ONLY A in the class. Remember, I never read the book. I knew it. I looked around the room at classmates. They knew it. But, no one said a word.
I think in retrospect, we all got a little lesson out of this Moby Dick fiasco. It was not a lesson about choice, or truth, or goodness. It was about playing a game when we didn’t like the rules.
She shoved lots of books written by dead white men down our throats that year. I hated them all. I could not wait to get to summer and get a break from reading. Wow, did you hear that…a little girl who had been growing up loving books was saying she was hating reading…… Something is wrong with this picture.
THIS is why I became a reading teacher, and a professor of reading and language arts. I told new and old teachers alike, how kids need choices. Yes, they need choices in what they read. They need to find books they love. They need to find books where they see themselves in the story.
The great C.S. Lewis (author of the Narnia books) said, at least in the movie about his life (Shadowlands), “We read to know we are not alone.”
Ms. Eckstein was wrong. Her teaching was poor. I had other teachers who were great. She wasn’t one. She killed, for a time, my love of reading. NO teacher should ever do that to a student. Never.
It took me years to find my way back to books and loving reading. I still get those bad feelings Moby Dick gave me sometimes when I open a book. Every reader has the right to open a book. They have the equal right to close the book. The world is full of good books and readers can find the one – the special one – to love.
Reader choice helps to make lifelong readers. That’s our goal as teachers of reading. If we fail to make students want to read, we have not done our job.