Dear English Teacher,
In a 1998 Stanford University study, researchers studied a group of African-American 11th-grade English students, observing how they reacted to reading texts written by African-American authors, in place of the traditional canonical texts by white authors. They found that students who were previously failing were able to strengthen their overall literacy test scores and the majority of students reported that they were able to connect with the plight of one of the fictional characters they read about (Athanese 1998). For English teachers who struggle to keep students engaged: consider crafting your curriculum around your students, their perspectives, and the perspectives they are missing. Frankly, with a few exceptions, traditionally taught canonical literature is composed of texts written by the demographic of the straight, white male. And while a lot of these texts, like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or Orwell’s Animal Farm, are considered “classics” for a reason, it is most important to provide students a window or mirror to challenge their existing mindsets in the classroom. At the same time, any text, diverse or canonical, that is taught should be able to engage the reader with the use of literary elements, such as story structure, figurative language, symbolism, tone, and diction, in addition to themes. Themes of American identity, disillusionment, religion, independence, and gender roles often appear across the board in high school English classes, but these concepts aren’t derived from authors across the boards of race, ethnicity, or sexuality; to truly allow students to understand, explore, and question these principle ideas, teachers should be sure to include the works of diverse authors in their syllabi.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is frequently taught in high school English classes because of its raw depiction of the American South during pre-Civil War times, inherently provoking discussion amongst students; however, “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker can elicit those same vital conversations, through the story of an African-American woman living in the late 1960s, an equally relevant perspective. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck exclaims, “People will call me a low down Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum—but that don’t make no difference. I ain’t agoing to tell, and I ain’t agoing back there anyways,” (Twain 52). Here, Huck is defending his right to act independently from others around him, which is to “keep mum” about Jim, the runaway slave. Twain’s diction to create Huck’s character makes the pre-Civil War American South come alive, with the prominent use of Southern slang. The concept of abolitionism and the strong stigma surrounding the subject in the story allow for students to make connections to other topics like the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, and even the Civil Rights Movement. Additionally, Twain’s novel, while controversial since its publication in 1876, enables students to understand the depth of racism in this country and challenge our current understanding of freedom. Comparably, Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” examines themes about racism and the dark history of America that still lingers. Leading up to the climax of the short story, the author writes, “I can use the chute top as a centerpiece for the alcove table,’ Dee said, sliding a plate over the chute, ‘and I’ll think of something artistic to do with the dasher,’” (Walker). In this story, Dee is the grown daughter of an African American woman in the 1960s. In the clause above, she wants to take several family heirlooms from her mother’s house back to her own, to put them on display. Through Walker’s choice of words, the romanization of these objects, the various parts to the family’s butter churn used during the Civil War, is a sign of neglect to heritage. On the surface, Dee’s character seems very much in touch with her heritage, but the reader soon realizes that she is completely misinformed and disassociated with her family’s real roots. Instead of putting her family’s objects to everyday use, as they were intended, Dee wants to display the objects as proof of her own identity, as if she needs to justify herself. The fact that Dee needs to defend her Blackness shows the underlying racism of the setting. Both Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Walker’s “Everyday Use” explore themes about racism, but “Everyday Use” uses Dee’s character to represent a deeper and more unfamiliar concept; internalized racism. Furthermore, while Twain’s novel portrays the white teenage boy as a protagonist, Walker’s short text portrays the African American mother as the protagonist, which is a newer concept in literature. This allows the reader to connect with a more diverse character, offering unique perspectives and insights. However, many teachers prefer to elevate The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in their classrooms, given Mark Twain’s legacy as a classic author and method of writing many acclaimed novels through social commentary. Meanwhile, Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” can also be regarded as a text that can provoke student discussion and teach American history instead. Walker’s work provides that truly empowering perspective of an African American woman, one in which Black students can use as both a mirror and a window. Additionally, it is important for all students to read texts that are told from diverse perspectives because it is much more representative of the world in which we live. “Everyday Use” explains the struggles African Americans continued to deal with, after the abolishment of slavery and Jim Crow laws. Additionally, Walker’s text discusses race issues invisible to the untrained eye and is therefore bound to shed light on the African-American internal struggle. For us to understand complex themes like internalized racism and unconscious bias in literature, it is important to first view the texts through the correct perspective.
Walker’s “Everyday Use” is quite a versatile read, and a text that surmounts yet another classic: To Kill A Mockingbird. Teaching Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is beneficial to an English course because of Lee’s canonical status and legacy, and also because of the themes about racism, coming-of-age, and its overall historical relevance; however, again, Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” can provide these same concepts through the lesser-known perspective of an African American woman in the late 1960s, allowing a wider scope of readers to see themselves reflected in the literature. Despite this, English teachers may still opt for Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird because of its explicit portrayal of racism. It is worth noting that Walker’s “Everyday Use” depicts racism equally effectively, yet more implicitly, by showing the internal struggle of how African Americans saw themselves in relation to their white counterparts. For instance, Walker writes, “But that is a mistake. I know even before I wake up. Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in the eye? It seems to me that I have always talked to them with one foot raised in flight, with my head fumed in whichever way is farthest from them,” (Walker). Here, the narrator wakes from a dream and is startled by the inaccuracy of the way she depicted herself in the dream. She talks about how she could never look a strange white man in the eye, which indicates how uncomfortable she may feel around them, given the historical context of the late 1960s. Walker describes the physical stance of the narrator as facing away from the white man with one foot in the air, leading the reader to believe that she is running away or avoiding confrontation. Additionally, Walker uses the words “flight” and “fumed”. Both of these are words associated with the space exploration boom of the late 1960s; perhaps using a rocket as a storytelling device to portray the narrator’s uneasiness around her white counterparts. However the reader interprets it, it is clear that Walker is able to convey a plethora of ideas and themes, intricately woven into a text of just six pages. Although the text is short, it still allows the reader to thoroughly explore the different paths that Walker has laid out and connect them to historical and personal events. Similar to Walker’s “Everyday Use”, Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird delves into the history of racism and efforts made to eradicate it. However, in “Everyday Use”, Walker provides the perspective and narration that Lee overlooked; the African American’s. “Everyday Use” directly addresses how African Americans feel about their place in society, while To Kill A Mockingbird only shows the efforts of the white lawyer Atticus from his daughter’s perspective, instead of the Black defendant’s. For example, Alice Walker sheds light into the mind of one of her characters, writing, “You just don’t understand your heritage.’ Dee said. ‘You ought to try to make something of yourself, too, Maggie. It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it.’ Maggie smiled; maybe at the sunglasses. But a real smile, not scared,” (Walker). In these closing lines of the story, the author channels a lesser-known idea of the late 1960s; after the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans were beginning to see a way forward, a new wave of progress. This idea is mirrored in the passage above, where Dee explains how her mother and younger sister are living in the past and they “ought to try to make something of themselves,” (Walker). Dee represents the new wave of mostly young, educated African Americans while her mother and younger sister represent the status quo of African Americans of the time. Let us note that the kind of racism present in “Everyday Use” is internalized racism, which is a gray area that shows how different the characters interact or diverge from their heritage. This is a perspective that many canonical texts that examine racism, such as To Kill A Mockingbird, tend to overlook. Moreover, Walker’s position as a Black, female author, as well as the countless Black characters in “Everyday Use” and her other works, allows for high school students to be exposed to the realm of diverse authors and the perspectives these authors can bring to the world of literature. Students of minority groups will most definitely benefit from seeing characters that look like them in the stories they read, as feelings of uncertainty and internalized oppression can be reciprocated. Moreover, the time period of “Everyday Use” was quite a revolutionary one for African Americans, which allows readers to connect the text to historical context and what that means for society today. However, the massive concept of injustice doesn’t just appear in narratives and coming-of-age texts; it is important for students to read about the struggles of American society through different types of literature.
In most English courses, poetry can take up a substantial slice of the curriculum; poetry challenges readers to examine all kinds of literary elements and themes, perhaps more so than any other kind of literature. “Because I could not stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson is a poem that teachers tend to fall back on because it exemplifies important literary elements such as personification and allusion, as well as providing a key model of literature in the Dark Romanticism period. In a different manner, “America” by Claude Mckay also showcases these literary devices while also utilizing the element of paradox and providing a window into the Harlem Renaissance period, a revolutionary era in American literature for African-Americans. However, let us first examine “Because I could not stop for Death”, where the poet writes, “Because I could not stop for Death –/He kindly stopped for me –/The Carriage held but just Ourselves –/And Immortality–/We slowly drove –/He knew no haste/And I had put away/My labor and my leisure too,/For His Civility –” (Dickinson). As shown in these lines and throughout the rest of the poem, Dickinson utilizes both iambic tetrameter and trimeter, alternating every other line, to provide a gentle rhythm to the poem. She also uses the em dash at the end of certain lines. The em dash, in this case, helps to stress the words at the end of a line that rhyme; “me”, “immortality”, and “civility”. These words also emphasize the personification of death; he is described as a kind and gentleman-like figure. Dickinson refers to death as a character in the poem, which allows her to portray death as a natural being in existence, instead of the terrifying cessation of life. Additionally, death’s manifestation legitimizes the biblical allusion in the poem; the narrator sits with death in a carriage, on their way to heaven. However, because this is not plainly said in the poem, it allows for the reader’s analysis of Dickinson’s beliefs and perceptions of death and the afterlife. On the other hand, Mckay’s “America” demonstrates similar literary features, when he writes, “I stand within her walls with not a shred/Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer./Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,/And see her might and granite wonders there,/Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,/Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand,” (Mckay). In this excerpt and throughout the poem, Mckay refrains from using any form of special punctuation, which is different from Dickinson’s work. However, similar to Dickinson’s manifestation of death, he personifies the United States of America, by referring to the nation as “she” and “her”. This is done because the narrator of the poem refers to himself as “I”, allowing the narrator to distance himself away from the subject he is criticizing. Also shown here is the use of paradox; the narrator expresses that America instills in him great fear yet he proceeds to marvel at “her might and granite wonders there”. This paradox is used to accentuate the love-hate relationship the narrator describes with America; he condemns the bitterness and violence of his country but still he admires her brilliance. To further aid this message, the narrator seems to be alluding to either the ancient city of Atlantis or the “Ozymandias” sonnets written by the English Romantic poet Percy Shelley, as he describes the “priceless treasures sinking in the sand.” The significance of this allusion illustrates the metaphor for all of America’s beauty being swallowed whole because of its countless flaws. While teachers often will choose Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death” to teach various literary elements, given the poet’s established position in the world of poetry and Dark Romanticism, Mckay’s “America” may well be the more fitting text to teach in the classroom. Claude Mckay’s work is a key model of Harlem Renaissance literature, a literary era that tends to be underrepresented in high school English classes. Specific to “America”, Mckay’s view of the United States is a much more three-dimensional one, when compared to Dickinson’s view of death; the narrator of “America” feels torn between the hatred and beauty of his nation, while the narrator of “Because I could not stop for death” only portrays death as a gentle guardian. Additionally, “America” is a more relevant text to teach to students today because it confronts both sides of America’s story. In any given class, students are either taught about the horrors of the United States or the greatest American accomplishments; the two polar opposites are rarely taught together in the same environment, at the very same time. Mckay’s “America” stitches the two concepts together in just 14 lines, all while incorporating allusions, paradoxes, and personifications, allowing the students to reckon with what it means to be American. That being said, there is generally a heavy presence of Western literature in high school English classes. Of course, for schools in the United States, there is a comforting familiarity of teaching American texts that confront American issues, but both teachers and students can gain much from reading texts written by authors from around the world as well.
An example of a commonly taught American classics is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a novel that is rightfully acclaimed because of Fitzgerald’s use of symbols and motifs, themes about disillusionment, and the author’s execution of great prose. On the other side of the world, the short text “Pink”, written by Japanese author Tomoyuki Hoshino, also incorporates all of these elements, while also offering a unique plot structure and an idiosyncratic storyline. As discussed earlier, texts like The Great Gatsby appear as regulars in English syllabi because teachers welcome the familiarity and security provided by a canonical author’s presence in their classrooms, while being able to teach fundamental literary concepts. Reading the classics may be a safe choice, but students today may have a difficult time connecting to the mature, white, upper class characters illustrated in texts like Gatsby. Oppositely, Hoshino’s “Pink” depicts characters that are down-to-earth, showing the universal struggles that everyone, especially the adolescent reader, faces. The protagonist of “Pink” feels as if she is aimlessly floating through life, a feeling that I, as a high school student, can resonate with strongly. On behalf of many modern-day English students, we would rather, frankly, read about conflicts that we understand firsthand. Having our own struggles being reciprocated in the literature that we read can normalize stigmas and bring students together. For example, Hoshino’s “Pink” reads, “‘And as I got rid of more and more toxins, I could spin as much as I wanted without getting sick. And it was the most amazing feeling. Like it wasn’t me who was spinning, it was some larger force that was spinning me. And it felt good not having control, giving it all up to whatever it was. I don’t know how to put it. Maybe it’s like life taking over, so you can just go with it, naturally. Like letting go and feeling easy, feeling . . . peace,’” (Hoshino). Here, a young man opens up to the protagonist, explaining why the physical act of spinning is liberating. Hoshino exercises his strength for symbols, by using this young man to represent a form of human desire; we yearn for control yet at the same time we don’t want such a heavy burden sitting atop our metaphorical shoulders of existence. This is a theme that many people grapple with, especially the younger generations, who are more open to discussing stigmatized mental hardships. Everyone wants to find themselves but the uncertainty of it all makes us wish for a predetermined truth. That being said, the passage above can also be perceived as a confrontation to the concept of religion. The protagonist and the society depicted in “Pink” fall into this haze of disillusionment and spin together, literally, in hopes of being taken under the wing of “some larger force,” (Hoshino). In The Great Gatsby, the post-WWI, pre-Great-Depression time period is responsible for the dreary attitudes, heedless partying, and lost dreams of the characters. Just as Fitzgerald’s Gatsby does, Hoshino’s “Pink” encapsulates the collective cynicism of a large group, while layering deeper themes about self-doubt and the pursuit of one’s existence; however, because there is no explicit year given, Hoshino’s text doesn’t rely on a time period to execute this curiosity, making his text even stronger. He writes, “..they could all go back to before they’d twisted their bodies in wicked prayer and find some other way to free themselves from a world become a living hell, and so she vowed that once they’d gone back all those nineteen years, they would take the world in their hands again and make it theirs at last; on and on she spun, every revolution a prayer in reverse.” Here, the change in prose is clear; in the last entire paragraph, there is only one period, as the sentences are linked by just semicolons. The seemingly standard plot structure is transformed by the stream-of-consciousness-like ending that speeds up the time in the story, as the thoughts of the protagonist messily run together. Again, this passage highlights the paradoxical concept of religion; wanting to control yet wanting to be controlled. The cloud of disillusionment hangs quite heavily over this excerpt as well, as Hoshino employs imagery to illustrate the cumulative resentment and disappointment. Additionally, the fact that Hoshino effectively conveys all these nuances through the underrepresented perspective of a young, Japanese woman makes his work even more worth teaching. As an Asian-American student myself, just reading about a protagonist who looks like you connects you to the text on a deeper level, than merely themes and literary devices.
Hoshino’s “Pink” wasn’t exactly a head-to-head collision with major religions, but reading texts that directly confront faith is crucial to precipitating discussion in a variety of classes. Exemplifying this is Andy Weir’s “The Egg”, a short story used in many literature classes, ranging from sci-fi electives to philosophy, due to its insights on human existence, God, and the purpose of life. Comparably, Octavia E. Butler’s text “The Book of Martha” embarks on similar pursuits, yet additionally explores even deeper concepts such as individual versus society and the meaning of happiness. The reason why “The Egg” is commonly referenced in so many academic settings is because Weir is able to approach massive ideas with language and style that is easy for most to understand. Despite Weir’s repute, however, Butler’s “The Book of Martha” emerges as the stronger text; Butler’s text is a much more relevant and versatile read, and therefore more fit to be taught in modern academics. An instance where this arises is when Butler writes, “‘Can the dreams teach—or at least promote—more thoughtfulness when people are awake, promote more concern for real consequences? I want them to enjoy themselves as much as they can while they’re asleep, but to be a lot more awake and aware when they are awake, a lot less susceptible to lies, peer pressure, and self-delusion.’ ‘None of this will make them perfect, Martha,’ God said,” (Butler). Here, God gives the protagonist, Martha, a chance to change the world in any way she so desires to. On the surface, this passage touches on very familiar concepts; surely, most people have wanted to directly change the world, wishing for anything from materialistic wants to the vanquishment of worldwide injustice. However, very few are able to articulate what exactly they would change, if the world were in their hands; this is precisely what makes the protagonist so incredible. In being able to eloquently present her solution to change her fictional world for the better, Martha’s character challenges the reader to bluntly question their own world. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Martha’s solution, Butler’s text is sure to provoke the spirit of “what would you do?”, candidly forcing the reader to confront their relationship with not only themselves, but more importantly the world around them. Oppositely, Weir’s text centers around the individual, instead of the society. Towards the end of his short text, Weir writes, “‘The meaning of life, the reason I made this whole universe, is for you to mature.’ I said. ‘You mean mankind? You want us to mature?’ you asked. ‘No, just you. I made this whole universe for you. With each new life you grow and mature and become a larger and greater intellect.’ ‘Just me? What about everyone else?’ ‘There is no one else,’ I said. ‘In this universe, there’s just you and me,’” (Weir). Through the unique second-person perspective, the narrator, God, reveals that there is just you and Him in this entire universe. And while the story is surely intriguing, Weir’s writing, as shown in this passage, fosters the phenomenon of inward thinking. Of course, this concept is not a particularly novel one; the idea of being “the chosen one” or “the one and only” has existed since the birth of religion. That being said, Weir’s text does not induce the same critical thinking that comes from self-to-world connections; it only feeds the idea of one God and one man, an idea that modern society does not connect as strongly too. As this text is often taught to younger generations, the self-seeking message of “The Egg” further pushes for the stereotype of the egotism that is supposedly observed in GenX-Z. Modern society also generally accepts that there is no single truth to existence, making Weir’s text all the more outdated. Additionally, Octavia E. Butler’s “The Book of Martha” is the more capable text because throughout, the author unrelentlessly defies our current understanding of God. In the story, God’s physical appearance changes, based on what Martha unconsciously decides to see Him as. God first appears as a white man, then becomes a Black man, then finally a woman who looks similar to Martha. This is yet another instance of relevancy in Butler’s work; by today’s standards, it is socially acceptable to wonder if God is Black or female. As high school students, we understand that learning about history and religion is key to understanding certain readings, but sometimes, it is perhaps even more engaging to read a take on classic concepts with a modern twist, like Butler’s “The Book of Martha” . And for all of the diverse readers investing in this read, it is pertinent that the author is able to provide a plethora of possibilities and diversities, not just the status quo or tradition. As explained analogously in the previous paragraph, students benefit from seeing themselves, or perhaps, not seeing themselves and seeing others, in texts read in school. However, to teach some of the secondary themes of “The Book of Martha”, such as female empowerment, teachers tend to resort to traditionals texts like Louisa Alcott’s Little Women.
Alcott’s Little Women has held a special place in the hearts of teachers ever since its first publication in 1868, mostly due to its progressive notions on concepts like feminism and domestic life, as well as its prominent use of symbolism. Another classic author, Virginia Woolf, is also hailed by the world of literature as a pioneer of stream-of-consciousness; however, her novel Orlando is overlooked by most English curriculum. Nevertheless, Orlando establishes similar liberal stances, when compared to Little Women, but it additionally delves deeper into the painstakingly relevant themes of societal norms and gender fluidity, all while engaging the reader with various literary elements. For instance, an excerpt of Orlando reads, “Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, often of the most incongruous, for the poet has a butcher’s face and the butcher a poet’s; nature, who has so much to answer for. To sew it all together, memory is the seamstress and a capricious one at that,” (Woolf). Here, Woolf’s narrator denounces the doings of nature. The narrator relies on metaphor, when describing how nature crafts people unfairly, out of “clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite.” This line suggests that people don’t have any control over their identity, as the narrator goes on to claim that people are being confined to a metaphorical box, one in which they are expected to stay. Woolf then employs the metonymy, when she writes, “the poet has a butcher’s face and the butcher a poet’s.” Poets, and all careers in the arts, are often viewed as poor, naive, or emotional; this is similar to the way society has traditionally viewed women. Oppositely, butchers, and all careers in labor, are deemed as the strong breadwinners; this is comparable to how society has traditionally viewed men. Woolf is proposing that a poet can have the face of a butcher and vis versa, which is a direct critique of societal norms. Considering that the narrator lives as both a man and a woman, this theme of gender fluidity that appears in this passage is ever so unique to Orlando. But despite the progressive nature of Woolf’s novel, teachers may still remain drawn more so to Alcott’s novel; on top of other things, Little Women also includes historical relevance and gives context to the women’s rights and gender equality movements. Yet while Little Women empowers the female characters, it tends to tear down the male counterparts and polarize the genders; in Woolf’s Orlando, the gender fluid protagonist experiences both genders as human and therefore equal, a more realistic way to depict a fair society. And as a queer author herself, Woolf brings a completely different perspective of gender roles to the table, a concept that is more widely accepted today. Further, Little Women may also come off as too idealistic and perhaps even naive for modern readers today. This can be observed in the following passage, where Alcott writes, “I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle—something heroic, or wonderful—that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all, some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous; that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream,” (Alcott). Here, Alcott writes with an uplifting tone that suits the narrator’s passion for making a change in the world. The author’s diction helps to execute this, as she uses the words “splendid”, “heroic”, “wonderful”, and “astonish” to paint an optimistic picture. She uses metaphor when she writes, “before I go into my castle”, by representing the narrator’s apparent legacy as a grand, monumental endeavor. However, this passage shows how the narrator’s pride goes overboard, as her perspective of the world is extremely romanticized; the narrator believes that she will become rich and famous, avoiding domestic life, which, while it is empowering to a certain degree, is a theme that doesn’t challenge the reader. Little Women is also told from the perspective of an upper class white woman, who dreams of fleeing household responsibility and the hands of men, a concept appealing to readers of the late 1800s, but not particularly revolutionary to our current society and certainly not of modern students’ wild interests. Still, the concept of feminism is one of importance, an idea that questions the independence of women, or lack thereof.
Similar to Little Women’s author Louisa May Alcott, Kate Chopin is commended as an important female writer, who helped shape the modern literature we read today. The short story “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin is considered one of the greatest short stories of the 20th century because of its the author’s position as a forerunner of the feminism movement in literature, as well as her immaculate use of imagery and theme of dependence throughout her short story; on the other hand, Masatsugu Ono’s lesser known short story “Bad Seeds” should be regarded just as strong a text because it utilizes the same literary elements and additionally layers multiple themes that allow the reader to explore a more modern take on feminism and what it means to be independent. In her text, Chopin writes, “She said it over and over under the breath: “free, free, free!” The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes. They stayed keen and bright. Her pulses beat fast, the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body…And yet she had loved him–sometimes. Often she had not. What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in the face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being!” (Chopin). The most notable use of literary elements in this excerpt is imagery. With phrases like “coursing blood warmed” and “the vacant stare and the look of terror” are excellent examples of how Chopin is able to sculpt the vision of the reader. This imagery that takes note of the protagonist’s physical state is singularly significant to the imagery that occurs after, describing the protagonist’s internal roller coaster. Chopin uses the phrases “possession of self-assertion” and “strongest impulse of her being” to contrast with the physical imagery, which paints the full, vivid picture of the character’s being. Furthermore, the protagonist’s sudden joy, after mourning her husband’s death for some time, goes to show how oppressed she felt during their marriage; this brings up the theme of female independence. However, this polar opposite switch from sorrow to almost euphoria isn’t particularly keen to the development of the plot; while there is beauty in the speed of the change, the reader has a harder time connecting with the protagonist and is less likely to understand her final perspective. Still, English teachers may want to fall back on this beloved American short story because of its classic take on first-wave feminism and ability to exercise exemplary prose. Today, “The Story of an Hour” is able to embark on historical relevance, but for modern-day high schoolers, perhaps a more realistic depiction of female independence, or dependence, is more compatible for the classroom. Ono’s “Bad Seeds” does just that; a slightly longer read than Chopin’s, yet it really aims to break down the complexity of the female role. For instance, Ono writes, “The children knew that some adults at the school weren’t happy about them calling Chiyoko sensei. There was no reason for them to call a mere custodian that. And no one was less deserving of the title than she. Of course, Chiyoko would never make them call her that. It would have been better if they hadn’t. When the children had taken their laughter and shrill voices home with them, Chiyoko got down on the dusty floor in the empty hallway and looked down through the cracks. She saw a flower there. It looked like a yellow carnation; another time, a purple hydrangea; another time, a pinkish-white magnolia. Sometimes it was brightly coloured and strong-looking, the kind of flower she had seen only in picture books, the kind that always grows in exotic tropical jungles,” (Ono). In the beginning of the passage, the first literary element utilized is colloquialism. It is important for the reader to understand the colloquialism of Japanese culture and conversation; in Japan, people will say “sensei” or “san” after someone’s name shows respect to said person. Chiyoko believes that she is unfit for the title, which is likely due to the fact that she is constantly surrounded by others who do not respect her. Here, the children insist on calling Chiyoko “sensei”, even though she is just a custodian. The fact that this kind of specificity is provided within a text is due to the fact that the author is Japanese. Having a setting in Japan, Japanese characters, and cultural references allows for high schoolers to learn more about other cultures in their English class, which is something that is not done enough. Throughout the story, it is unclear whether the flowers, mentioned in the passage above, are physically present, but one thing is unambiguous; Masatsuga Ono uses his strength for both imagery and symbolism to illustrate the protagonist’s relationship with herself. Ono describes the flowers and their sinister presence by mentioning particular flowers, such as “yellow carnation” and “purple hydrangea”. Such great detail allows the reader to visualize the flower taking different, colorful forms. From start to finish, the flowers appear mysteriously in almost every scene, as if to haunt the Chiyoko. As for symbolism, the flowers represent how the protagonist has tried to forget her misery and invalidate her own feelings. Additionally, the flowers represent how Chiyoko has been dependent on other people, mostly men, her entire life, and how her life fell apart, after these people abandoned her. Flowers have often represented a woman’s sexuality and femininity in literature, which the author nods to as well. And while this story doesn’t explicitly empower the female character, due to its multivocal tone, it explores the reasons for her neglect and lays out all sides to the story, which allows the reader to take the lead on discussing who is responsible for the conflicts. Multivocal tones come by quite frequently in modern writing, but readers should also be equally familiar with narrators are a crucial part of the story, with deliberate perspectives on the story in which they tell.
Perhaps it was because Charles Dickens was quite an ill-disposed man himself, but, regardless, many of his famous stories are told through the eyes of a contemptuous narrator, who is usually a character in the story. This is shown in his novel A Tale of Two Cities, another classic read because of its dark themes but also because of Dickens’ unforgettably cynical tone, diction, and omniscient narrator. However, if teachers are looking for a shorter text to fulfill the same literary necessities in the classroom, they should consider teaching Santiago Roncagliolo’s “Stars and Stripes”; this particular text uses very similar tone and diction to Dickens’ novel, while telling the story through the eyes of a young Hispanic man, a perspective that is rarely taught in the classroom. A passage from A Tale of Two Cities reads, “Every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imagin-ings, a secret to the heart nearest it,” (Dickens). In the section above, Dickens is able to set a pessimistic tone and depressing mood because of his word choice. Here, his diction consists of words such as “creature”, “constituted”, “secret”, “darkly clustered”, and “encloses”. It’s worth noting that each of these words on their own do not attain any definite connotation; however, the beauty of this excerpt is the way Dickens can knit these words into phrases that then yield a cynical tone. For instance, when he writes, “every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret”, the words “constituted”, “secret”, and “creature” are not necessarily negative ones, but in this line, the author puts these words together to imply that humans are perhaps not above all other animals, but instead creatures among them, and that they are bound to be secretive and self-serving. The narrator in A Tale of Two Cities is a plot device, as he is all-knowing yet still a character in the story itself. The high school English syllabus may gravitate towards A Tale of Two Cities not only because of its literary elements, but because teachers know what to expect from a classics author like Dickens. And rightfully so, because a book that has been praised for decades and deemed timeless will extract the same, predictable reactions from students. But to challenge the curriculum, the teacher, and their students, a text like “Stars and Stripes” can teach the same plot devices and tone concepts. Additionally, because the author and protagonist of the story are both Hispanic, the story will be told in a different way, a way perhaps unfamiliar to some students. Nevertheless, this diverse and modern take on a cynical narrator plot device will be sure to engage and provoke healthy discourse between students. In “Stars and Stripes”, the author writes, “Carlitos said all the words he could in English, for example ‘Hershey’s’ or ‘Chuck Norris’, and when he did, he chewed on the syllables until they sounded the way they did in movies….It isn’t that Carlitos was trying to take anyone in. Just the opposite. I never knew anyone as authentic. He was incapable of pretending anything he didn’t really think, though he really didn’t think about too many things. If we became friends, it was because neither of us had more ideas than were strictly necessary,” (Roncagliolo). This excerpt is an example of the many times that the narrator describes his childhood best friend, Carlitos, while subtly backhanding many of his characteristics. Similar to Dickens, the narrator of “Stars and Stripes” uses his diction to reflect his understated annoyance for Carlitos; here, he uses the words “chewed”, “incapable”, “authentic”, “opposite” and “necessary”. If one looks at words or lines individually, the narrator is merely recounting an image of Carlitos for the reader to understand. However, when something positive is said about Carlitos, there is always a backhanded compliment incorporated before or after the sanguine mentioning. It’s worth mentioning that the narrator never explicitly admits to disliking Carlitos, yet he twists the meaning of words that, otherwise were without any particular favoritism, to tell a different tale underneath the words on the paper. Furthermore, at the end of the short text, the reader realizes that Carlitos’ character was likely a plot device, used to show the insecurities and flaws of the narrator. The narrator’s dislike of his best friend was a symbol of genuine unhappiness on the narrator’s part, instead of Carlito’s poor characteristics.
All things considered, there are many reasons that support the benefit of more diverse texts in the classroom; diverse texts can execute the same literary concepts and themes, as well as provide further insight on these themes, given the author’s minority distinctiveness. As a case in point, African-American author Claude Mckay’s poem “America” is undoubtedly capable of teaching elements of personification, paradox, and allusion, while painting the full picture of the American identity, when compared Emily Dickinson’s classic poem “Because I could not stop for Death”. Similarly, queer author Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is able to connect the reader to the modern concept of gender fluidity by confronting the issues of gender roles, making Louisa Alcott’s Little Women’s take on domestic life seem outdated. Teaching the classics continues years of literary tradition and familiarity, but many of these canonical works can be replaced with contemporary and diverse texts. The bottom line is, the responsibility of the teacher is to engage and challenge the mindsets of students, instead of giving them what they are familiar and comfortable with; diverse texts are able to do just that, which makes them the ideal addition to the classroom.