In the first part of this two-part series on teachers, I wrote about my introduction to poetry in middle school. Today, I will be recounting my introduction to literary analysis. My eighth grade English teacher, Mr. Korvne, not only inspired me to read poetry for fun but he also taught me to recognize imagery in books.
I still remember the day in seventh grade when I was asked on a test to explain the quote “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind”. This verse from Proverbs 11 inspired the title for a play on the Scopes Monkey Trial: Inherit the Wind by by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. I sat there trying to figure out how houses and wind could be related to the play’s plot. What does it mean to inherit wind? I am pretty sure that I failed that test. There were too many analysis questions and not enough content-based ones.
Although I read for fun throughout my childhood, I did not know how to analyze the language or imagery of a work. When I was asked to analyze a passage from a book, I responded with a summary of the plot. But in eighth grade, Mr. Korvne actively tried to help me understand the difference between an analysis and a summary. He invited my father and me to a mini-conference one morning because I had just submitted an inadequate essay on Jerry Spinelli’s YA novel Stargirl. I thought I had done a good job explaining what happened in the book. Unfortunately, the teacher was not interested in a regurgitation of the plot.
After Stargirl, the class was assigned Lord of the Flies by William Golding. This time, Mr. Korvne brought our attention to the numerous images in the book and how they related to the work’s overall plot. I enjoyed those classes because they opened my eyes to a different way of reading. It also helped that I liked the book. Dystopian fiction is quite popular today, but it was a little-known genre when I was in middle school.
Suddenly, I discovered a passion for close reading. I remember studying for my essay test the day before, with pages and pages of notes in front of me covering in detail each and every image in the book. I’m sure I would be horrified today by the quality of those notes, but I remember being amazed by everything that I had learned. When I mentioned the book to my father, he told me that he had spent spent an entire semester in high school on Lord of the Flies.
Imagine that! I lived with someone who was also familiar with the imagery I was learning to identify in class.
On the day of the test, were were asked to write essay responses to two of three possible questions. I don’t remember what we were asked, but I recall attempting to answer the first two questions. After 50 minutes of class, I had only addressed the first half of the first question! Thankfully, I was not the only one who was unable to finish in the allotted time. Because we were all new to writing in-class essays, Mr. Korvne gave us some extra time the following day to finish up.
But another 50 minutes came and went, and I had answered only one essay questions. I had tried to write absolutely everything that I’d learned concerning the characters in the novel. I remember writing furiously, but not really getting anywhere with my essay. There was just so much to say. I wanted Mr. Korvne to know that I had paid attention in class and that I had finally discovered close reading.
But I only had a 50% (an F) to show for my new-found passion.
I failed the in-class essay test not because I didn’t know how to answer the questions but because I had too much to say. I began borrowing classics from Mr. Korvne’s classroom in hopes of improving my reading skills. My first serious classic was A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. The following summer I attempted to read all of the books on Matilda’s reading list. To this day, I am surprised that Roald Dahl’s 5 year old character was able to read and understand Tess of the D’Urbervilles. It’s definitely not kid-friendly.
Grades can be helpful markers for tracking one’s intellectual development, but they are not always accurate indicators of proficiency. I failed Mr. Korvne’s test because I didn’t answer an entire question, but I had finally learned that there was more to a well-constructed novel than its plot. As instructors, we need to focus more on the skills we are teaching our students than on how well they can perform under pressure. Mr. Korvne was an excellent instructor because he taught me to think about literature in new ways.
The F I received on my in-class assessment no longer matters, but I am currently a PhD student in French literature. Close-reading is my job, and I am damn good at it!