My one good English Teacher in school

posted in: Creation, Publishing, Writing | 0

This showed up on TPV recently, and the comments got me thinking about English Teachers.

I read a lot.  Both past and present tense.  When I was ten, my elementary school’s library arranged to give me a ‘special’ award because I’d torn through an extremely large percentage of their fiction section.  I was reading at the assembly when they announced it and my name.  I literally stumbled up on the stage when nearby teachers pushed and pulled me in that direction, and didn’t figure out what or why until after I got off stage and read the certificate.

But English Teachers and I never got along.  It was probably foreshadowing for my side in the literary vs genre debate that rages even today.  I have nothing against literary, in itself.  If authors and readers want to focus on art for art’s sake, okay.  Fine.  Cool even, if that’s how you roll.  But insisting anything that doesn’t is trash makes you an asshole.  Period.  I harken back to my DragonCon article, because it’s the same thing.  Fans love being fans.  Fans don’t look at other fans and judge them into the ground for not loving their own exact brand of fandom; to fans, that you’re a fan is enough.  That’s cool enough.  Literary fiction ‘fans’ judge, and judge harshly, and that’s the problem.

This was the problem I had with English Teachers in school; especially during high school.  They either weren’t engaged, merely interested in punching the clock and cashing their paychecks; or they would look at the books in my backpack and pronounce them trash.  Yeah, because God forbid someone read what makes them happy.  Thirty years of that attitude has lowered reading levels quite a bit, so I think we’ve established their position sucks.  Mine at least has the advantage of encouraging folks to read.

The one English Teacher that was different though . . . he was very different.  He’s a large part of what helped keep me on the path I’m on now, the one that’s taken me here.  Let’s say he was Mr. Vargas.  First day of class, he marched in and announced he didn’t particularly want to be there anymore than we did, so we should all just keep our heads down and get through it.  We’d spend Monday and Tuesday ‘paying the bills’ by going through the crap the school district required of every English class.  You know, the nuts and bolts of grammar and so forth.

Wednesday and part of Thursday, we’d watch a movie.  Yes, a movie.  And what we watched was the great part.  Terminator.  2001.  Aliens.  Blade Runner.  Dune, with some selected fast-forwarding by  him so it’d fit into two class periods.  The Wrath of Khan.  The Philadelphia Experiment.  I’m probably forgetting a couple; I’m certain I’ve forgotten at least one, but you get the idea.  These were the kinds of stories that make literary mavens shudder in horror.  There were definitely people in the class who looked at it as easy street.  But even allowing for all that, I haven’t covered Friday yet, or whatever was left of Thursday when we’d finish the movie.

That’s when we’d discuss the film.  And I mean discuss, analyze, decode.  Everything boring missing-the-point English Teachers insisted we had to do with Shakespeare or Charles Dickens, Mr. Vargas did with us on stories we liked.  Mr. Vargas was a very large part of what brought me to a true love of being involved in storytelling.  Up until then, I’d been a consumer; he opened the door to creating.  He pulled back the curtains enough to show me that things happened beneath the hood of a story, and cool things at that.  It wasn’t a magic or mystery infused process; that on at least some levels it was a step-by-step procedure that could result in magic and mystery.

You and the pointEnglish, the art and craft of writing, doesn’t have to be boring.  But when one insists it can only be taught in a boring way, surprise; students hate it.  I remember some of the teachers and literary proponents screaming and crying when Romeo + Juliet (the DiCaprio / Danes version) came out.  “This is not Shakespeare!” they shouted, like those street preachers with megaphones yelling at passersby who just want to be left alone.

Missing. The. Point.

Teaching is supposed to be reaching to students, connecting to them, and guiding them along the path of knowledge.  So-called ‘modern’ teaching insists students have to walk the path without aid; requires them to make the journey to knowledge.  Horse, water, drinking.  We’re talking about kids.  American kids at that.  There’s a reason we call them children, even teenager children.  They don’t know any better.  But even if it’s adults taking an English Class, there’s no reason to make the subject indecipherable or dense to the point of alienation.  It’s bad.  It’s why people check out and disengage when ‘English’ comes up.  Literary proponents are making it boring.

Mr. Vargas was the exception.  I learned more in that class than in any of the others I had in my entire scholastic career.  How Terminator was more than just an action film with suspense elements.  How Aliens was more than scifi horror.  Why Blade Runner is considered a masterpiece.  We’d discuss, and he’d interject with those leading questions and ‘casual’ observations good teachers are experts at dropping, and light bulbs would ignite all across the classroom.  He made storytelling accessible, something that is rare in modern education, and definitely in modern ‘review’ and ‘criticism’.

There’s an Englishman, an actual man from England, named Sir Ken Robinson.  He’s a proponent of educational reform, which is a job I didn’t even know one could have.  One of his talks was to the TED conference (he’s done several, actually), and he made a number of excellent points.

The link should jump right to the 15:00 mark, but I’d encourage you to watch the whole thing.  Or, rather, listen to it; his words are the important part.  In brief, he discusses Gillian Lynne at that point in the talk; how her school wanted her to sit down and be like everyone else, and how Gillian was in fact a very special person.  How many special people, how many millions of special people have been stomped into being ordinary by ‘modern’ schools?  Too many, I’m quite sure.  Watch the section in the Youtube link; it’s worth four minutes of your time.

When people ask me why I’m pro-genre, it’s because the point of storytelling is to entertain.  Not bore.  It’s supposed to be a process that invites the audience in using enthusiasm and delight, not whips and demands.  If I have to drag my audience to me, as Literary mavens expect Literary works must do, I’ve failed.  They should be so enthusiastic they’re eager to come.  That doesn’t happen when they’re unengaged, disinterested, and tuned out.

There’s room in the world for all kinds of writing, all kinds of storytelling; but it’s not an accident, secret, or mistake, that the most popular kinds are that which the audience loves.  Being an indie means you write what you love, which is usually what your audience – your fans – love too.

And it’s a beautiful thing.