I don’t mean to trigger any painfully awkward flashbacks, but when you think back, what do you associate with high school? Memorizing your phone’s T9 keyboard so you can send covert text messages from your pocket, or perhaps the more analog version of passing purposely obscure messages on torn-up bits of notebook paper? Trying to make “accidental” eye contact with a crush during homeroom? Maybe just lots of crying?
What about the assigned reading—the “great American classics” and the thick volumes of collected works that featured depressed British people, dense language, and epic poems for which you later devoted a handful of classroom periods to watching the off-putting film adaptation (looking at you, creepily motion-captured Beowulf)?
Unless you went to a very progressive secondary school, the chances are high that your curriculum was comprised of predominantly white male writers. Shakespeare, Salinger, Fitzgerald, Dickens, more Shakespeare … just to name a few of the popular selection. I don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t any merit to these renowned writers; they are, after all, renowned. However, consider the general population of high school students in America.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, there were about 50.7 million public school students who started or returned to school this fall in America, and white students only accounted for 24.4 million, while the remaining 26.3 million were students of color. When you also take into account that a little less than half the population of students aren’t male, you have an enormous group of adolescents that are going to find themselves underrepresented in the traditional assigned reading list.
The Young Adult genre is a popular one when it comes to coming-of-age stories. Who better to relate to a story about teens than a teen, living the hormonal craze in real-time? These stories provide a helpful escape for angsty kids in new bodies, dealing with disproportionate reactions to adolescent plights, as the characters they are reading about are experiencing similar turmoil. While some titles may be marketed as depicting a “universal” teenage experience, does that ever really apply to everyone? Probably not. Catcher in the Rye might be the saving grace for some readers, but it certainly doesn’t portray everyone’s experience. Sure, you might’ve had A Raisin in the Sun appear on your reading list, but is that one book really enough for the millions of non-white high school readers?
That question circles back to the original issue: There isn’t one master text that can appease every single identity-seeking teen in America. The solution isn’t to write one, or to cross Salinger off the list; it’s to create a diverse reading list, one that can encompass a number of experiences in a number of titles. This way, not only can multiple students of varying backgrounds have the opportunity to relate to a story, but the others will be given the ability to witness a life different from their own.
A very depressing article was published in TIME Magazine in 2014, stating that a whopping forty-five percent of seventeen year olds read for pleasure only once or twice a year. This is a dramatic rise from the 1980s, when only eight percent of kids reported that they rarely cracked open a book for fun. This increase of book-resistors is suspiciously in tune with the availability of time-guzzling technology which has led most kids to be/become addicted to smartphones, rather than page-turners. The point is that most of the literature the average teenager will consume is determined by what’s on their high school reading list.
If these curriculums stay true to their standards and continue to exclude a readership comprised of people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, or anyone else who doesn’t fit the straight-white-cis bill, they will not only be doing a disservice to all the kids who can’t relate to these texts, but they’ll be preventing the ones who can from gaining a well-developed perspective of the world outside their high school halls never featured in the pages of their school literature. These students are left with their own limited ideas of what other lives are like, and they run the risk of falling victim to what Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie, calls the “single story.” In her TED talk, Adichie warns, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make the one story become the only story.”
There are educators and students who not only realize this, but are trying to do something about it. A high school in Needham, Massachusetts has already set a revised reading list into motion, inspired by high school senior, Zerinee Depina, who brought up the issue with the English department’s chair by suggesting alternative titles. The administration took her seriously, and after some research and discussion, eight new books were added to the list. Hopefully, other American high schools will begin to follow suit.
The Diversity Council has also created several lesson plans that feature important areas such as disability, immigration, race, gender, and social class.
Imagine that still-warm packet of reading material, fresh off the photocopier, flush with a variety of names that many students wouldn’t know until college, if ever. Imagine less coming-of-age novels that take place in an upper-class boarding school, and more that take place on numbered streets, in faraway countries, in the minds of the underdog shunned by society? How about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, where a dorky Dominican boy tries to overcome a family curse in a story filled with cleverly-footnoted observances? Or, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, a book brimming with authentic perspective about the history and culture of a Nigerian village?
There are hundreds of devourable texts out there, stretching beyond novels into graphic narrative works, essay collections, and poetry chapbooks that offer students an outlook other than the ones currently gathering dust on the unupdated reading lists. It’s understandable that not every book that might deserve a spot on the Ideal List will win a slot, as it takes time to fully digest and discuss a piece of literature. Maybe the solution is to introduce shorter works between the novels, in order to maximize the content while still allowing time for classroom discussions. This could prevent students from becoming overwhelmed and not appreciating the works at all.
High school serves as the primary foundation for molding the perspectives of the young minds who will eventually inherit our world, so a rich literary curriculum matters. There is a need for more diversity in both authors and content to more accurately represent not only the world student readers are being bequeathed, but also the readers themselves. What books would you suggest belong on a revamped high school reading list?