Why do we teach what we teach? What happens when a story we love isn’t greeted with enthusiasm by our students? I used to defend the choices in our curriculum with vehemence. “They’re good for you,” I might say to a class full of girls who found Odysseus tedious. Of late, I’m empathizing, even joining in the occasional eye roll at an epic hero.
I grew up with the classics, a mostly Western and white collection of stories by men and, more often than not, about men. Fortunately, the literature available now is more diverse. Yet I cling to the idea of my students knowing Greek mythology, as its allusions remain plentiful in contemporary culture. I like the idea of students encountering Shakespeare and learning to navigate form and figurative language. And 19th-century novels, in all their splendor, are a fierce vocabulary workout for any reader. In my school, we offer a distribution of classics and more contemporary fare. I have always argued that a great teacher can make a “classic” relevant with the right approach.
Now, I feel my convictions wobbly beneath me. Am I overly attached to the stories I grew up with? Should we still be teaching those stories in a girls’ school in our #MeToo world?
It can be hard to share a great work one loves with other people. Part of me wants to keep it for myself. Yet I loved sharing the Little Women film with my daughter on Christmas because she played Jo some years ago in the musical. This story feels as if it belongs to both of us — I have a Madame Alexander Jo doll on the shelf of my office to remind me to be brave, to dare. I suspect lots of girls and women think Alcott’s sister-story belongs to them.
Curiously, despite my desire to hold a story close, I have been in the business of sharing novels for almost 40 years. Of late, I have been thinking about the men in the literature we teach:
- Odysseus, who takes a long time to get home from Troy, sleeps with everything in a skirt on the way, and doesn’t seem to learn about not challenging the gods;
- Macbeth, whose ambition corrupts him;
- Oedipus and Creon, whose unbridled hubris fills me with fury;
- Hamlet, whose depression paralyzes him and keeps him from acting.
These protagonists are not men I want my girl students to admire. They are part of the Western Canon, but the meta message is a recipe for the kinds of men I want my girls to avoid loving or working with. Of course, not all my girls will love men; there’s that.
Yet the women in those stories are troubling, too:
- Manipulative Athena.
- Too patient Penelope.
- Silent Jocasta.
- Adamantine Antigone.
- Wicked Lady M.
- Weak Gertrude and mad Ophelia.
When the women are heroic as Antigone is, they die. With the exception of Athena and Lady M., too often the women are more passive than I want my own girls to be.
Then, there’s Jane. My ninth-graders, recently, have not loved Jane Eyre as I did. They find Jane insipid. She does not speak to them. They have brought their 21st-century lens to a story I found transformative.
The summer before eighth grade, I devoured Jane Eyre. I loved her resilience, her refusal to bow down to ugly John Reed, the nasty cousin, her righteousness at Lowood at the hands of evil Mr. Brocklehurst, her tender friendship with tubercular Helen, and the love she felt from Miss Temple. Education was her ticket out of poverty.
I loved the ways in which Jane’s story mirrored events in Charlotte Bronte’s own life. I nurtured a quiet obsession for the Brontes, reading all the sisters’ novels, eventually imploring my husband to stop at Haworth on our way to Edinburgh on our wedding trip, so I could explore the parsonage and indulge my fantasies of shouting, “I am Heathcliff” on the moors.
Fortunately, I did not marry Rochester or St. John or Heathcliff, controlling men all, who sought to possess the women they claimed to love.
My girls are fierce and feisty, and I want them to be, so it seems to me I should be less surprised that the ninth-graders have turned on Jane. We live now in a #MeToo society. Charlotte Bronte’s vocabulary and syntax are complicated for 14-year-olds raised on Instagram and the straightforward style of John Green, but it is more than that. I teach in an all-girls school where we offer a steady diet of empowerment with a side of resilience at every meal. Our girls learn to use their voices, to advocate for others, to stand up, to change the world for good.
“Why didn’t someone call child services for Jane?” one of my students demanded.
“It was written a long time ago,” a classmate scoffed. “They didn’t even have child services.” True. It seemed impossible to my well-taken-care-of girls that such abuse could be heaped on helpless Jane with no intercession from a caring ally or the state.
The girls are irritated by Charlotte Bronte’s long sentences, her erudite vocabulary, the descriptive passages of the natural world that I adore.
“Look, girls,” I exclaim, “see how this description of what’s going on outside mirrors Jane’s emotional state?” They are not impressed.
I want to explain that for Jane to evolve, she must triumph over suffering, but even as I form the words, I bite them back. This is too old a narrative to continue to offer adolescent girls. If we want to refute stories of oppression, we must interrupt how we teach texts we have taught for decades.
“Do you see her longing for equality, her ambition?” Their faces remain blank in the face of my enthusiasm. Longing is insufficient. They crave action. They like Bertha better than Jane; she is locked away in the attic but manages to escape and bite people and burn things. She is not fettered by societal norms that repress women like Jane.
I wonder if I took them all to see Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, would they be charmed? Is Jo more palatable than Jane? Less of a victim? More of a survivor? I think so, but Jo, despite the cold and poverty she endured like Jane, was part of a family. She was rich in love. Jane flew solo — until the end. Were both these characters created because of rather than in spite of their authors’ fathers’ fanaticism: Patrick Bronte, a zealous clergyman; Bronson Alcott, an obsessed Transcendentalist willing to sacrifice his family’s health for his ideals? Men again.
Virginia Woolf, at the beginning of the 20th century, nailed it. Writing to claim her voice, to fight her demons, she prescribed the resources women require to create, to be independent and fulfilled: money and a room of one’s own. And still, she walked into the sea with stones in her pocket, unable to continue to battle the depression that chased her all her life. Plus, she was molested as a child by her older brothers…left unprotected, hurt by men.
I feel anguish that too much artistry seems to emerge from deprivation, that depravity incubates endurance. I want models to offer my girls that will help point the way, that do not suggest one must suffer to be a genius. I want to teach the old texts, too, but not fall into old patterns in which men dominate women — in work and in love. It’s time to examine, to renovate, to encourage my girls to become their own muses and to write the works girls need to read.