There are days when being an English teacher feels like the worst fate known to mankind.
Yesterday was one of those days. I was literally jealous of the guy who wears a chicken suit on Rockville Pike to advertise for a tire store (still haven’t figured out the connection on that one. But I kind of want to go check out the tire store just to see why their mascot is a tuxedo-wearing chicken. So maybe their ad campaign works after all). And when you’d rather be standing on a corner in a chicken suit in 30-degree weather, you know you’ve hit a low point in your career.
The problem? I’m teaching The Great Gatsby. Which I love. A lot. My copy looks like it’s been through the wars because I’ve read it so many times. The margins are covered in notes and half the lines are underlined or highlighted. And this is only my second year teaching it.
I was actually very excited to teach eleventh grade because I love The Great Gatsby so much. And A Streetcar Named Desire, which is also in the eleventh grade curriculum. I’d taught ninth grade for years, and was ready to scream if I had to deal with Romeo’s whining again. Like I was getting WAY too excited when he kills himself by the end. I still love To Kill a Mockingbird, but I was kind of rooting for George to hurry up and kill Lennie so Of Mice and Men could be over. Which meant that it was time for a change.
So I was looking forward to the opportunity to share one of my all-time favorite books with kids and instill that same love of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece that I have in their young, impressionable minds.
Except they hate it. Like the way I hate the Cowboys, Delaware, and people who ride their bikes into oncoming traffic.
Okay, that’s misleading. The ones who are actually READING it hate it. But they’re in the minority. Because a huge percentage of them admitted yesterday to not even having read the SparkNotes, let alone the book itself. And I teach honors classes.
I don’t understand that. Granted, I’ve had my nose in a book for as long as I can remember. And I keep reminding myself of Nick’s father’s advice to remember that others haven’t had the same advantages that I’ve had (namely, in this case, parents who instilled a love of reading in me from early childhood). But to be honest, I prefer my favorite literary characters over most of the real people I know. No offense, but if I had to choose between Rhett Butler or Mr. Darcy and you, you’d probably lose.
Then again, I have a theory that the best men in all of history were written by women—I’m starting to feel like there’s no one out there who can live up to the men that Margaret Mitchell, Jane Austen, and Charlaine Harris have created. Yes, I’m lumping the author of the Sookie Stackhouse books along with those literary giants. Because I love Eric Northman. I’d marry that fictional vampire in a heartbeat. Sorry Edward Cullen—I don’t like my fictional vampires all emo and sparkly.
This might be why I’m still single.
But I digress.
Back to Gatsby.
I had a college professor who said you needed to read The Great Gatsby every five years. Okay, that professor was the biggest tree-hugging hippie I’d ever seen, and I’m pretty sure he came to class high every week. And he taught film studies. And I think he lived in his mom’s basement. And he used to go off on hour-long rants about how Walt Disney was just as bad as Hitler. Actually, I wasn’t a big fan of that professor.
But he was right about Gatsby.
I describe my first novel as being about the quarter-life crisis. When you’re in your mid-twenties and are suddenly one of the “adults,” but aren’t quite ready for all of the social responsibilities that that title entails.
And that’s what Gatsby is about. Nick basically, at thirty, leaves home to go live at the beach for a summer, rather than marry the girl his family and friends all expect him to marry. He’s jaded, and he feels a disconnect with most of the people he meets. And he gets wrapped up in a party culture, of people who drink illegally to avoid reality and who think they’re immortal because they’re young and they don’t understand that the choices they make now are going to affect them for the rest of their lives.
How could any teenager NOT love that book?
One of my favorite parts is when Jordan Baker describes to Nick why she doesn’t have to be a good driver. She shrugs when he tells her she’s an awful driver after almost hitting a pedestrian, and she tells him that she doesn’t have to pay attention, because other people are good drivers and they’ll stay out of her way. Nick asks what will happen when she meets another bad driver, and her answer is merely that she hopes that doesn’t happen.
That attitude is why teenagers get into so many accidents. It’s why they think it’s okay to text and drive (okay, I’ll admit it, it’s why I still text and drive more than I should). It’s why they think they’ll be okay when they drive too fast. And it’s why the final tragedy of the book is inevitable. How different is that from all the little celebutantes like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan driving when they’re smacked out of their minds?
It amazes me every time I read Gatsby that Fitzgerald so perfectly captured the emotions and logical fallacies that define my generation in a novel that was written nearly ninety years ago. And every time I read it, I’m both inspired to write more, and I’m a little discouraged because I know that I will never be able to so beautifully define the fragility and mistaken bravado of the human condition.
Hopefully the new movie version will help. I think Baz Luhrmann (of Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge fame) will do an amazing job at capturing the wasteful opulence of the 1920s. And Leonardo DiCaprio will be great as Gatsby, not just because I love him (and I do. A lot), but because I think he’ll be able to portray that element of Gatsby’s character trying too hard to be someone that he’s not far better than Robert Redford did in the definitive movie version from 1974.
But a small part of me kind of hopes that the new movie isn’t THAT good. I mean, I want it to be great and do justice to this incredible book. But I don’t want teenagers to think that seeing the new movie is an acceptable substitute for reading the book.
Until it comes out, however, I’ll continue beating my head against the brick wall of teenagers who think they’ll live forever and who see reading as a waste of time. But I’ll keep trying because, as Fitzgerald put it, “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald may have never been a teacher, but that line alone tells me that at least one other person out there understood the feeling of futility that I’m experiencing right now. And the reason why I’ll keep trying and vainly hoping to instill my students with an appreciation for this amazing novel, even when it feels like I’m accomplishing nothing more lasting than Nick does when he erases the obscenity from Gatsby’s steps.
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