One of my all time favourite books (I’m talking top three here) was recommended to me by a student. The book is ‘House of Leaves‘, by Mark Z. Danielewski and is hard to describe, it’s so complex and mind-bending. All I can say is whenever I meet someone who’s read it (which is rare), we settle down for a conversation with hushed awe.
I am recommending this book to others all the time, acting like it’s my discovery and I’m so cool and clever to know about it, but deep down I know it was gifted to me by someone far cooler and cleverer than me. Students seem to have a wealth of knowledge about obscure and experimental books. Another is ‘When I Was Five I Killed Myself‘, by Howard Buten, and ‘The Boy With The Cuckoo-Clock Heart‘, by Mathias Malzieu (a neat little gem of a book that won’t be obscure for long, they’re making it into a film). I am rarely disappointed by these recommendations and am always jotting down notes on stories and writers that are new to me. Yes, I’m the teacher which means I’m supposed to know everything but in a whispered aside, I don’t. Shocking, I know.
Anyway, this is what I love about teaching. Every year my own reading goes off in a different direction because a student has talked passionately and convincingly about a writer or book in class, sometimes even shedding new light on my past reading. Here are a couple of things my students have gifted to me this year:
1. Robert Hass. A poet of tender and acute insight. My favourite poem from ‘The Apple Trees At Olema” is ‘Variations on a Passage in Edward Abbey’, where he equates the movement of a sand dune to the feelings of grief. I haven’t tackled ‘My Mother’s Nipples’ yet, so can’t comment.
2. An astute insight into the short story ‘Boxes’ by Raymond Carver: of course the protagonist can only become a man and succeed in his own relationship when he lets his mother make her own choices. This gets to the truth of his journey. I’ve been discussing this story for four years in class, and it took a student more plugged in than me to hold up the light and show me the way.
3. An anthology called ‘Telling Tales’ that integrates my student’s stories with illustrations by children (http://tellingtalesanthology.wordpress.com). A group of writers with a clear vision and the determination to carry it out no matter what the obstacles (even a whale decorated with a snowman).
4. ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal’, by Jeanette Winterson. A bible on why we tell stories and how they can be woven by real experience.
5. Important information for any teacher, old or new — rice crispy cakes really are the best end-of-semester Easter treat.
Of course this is not a comprehensive list and the semester isn’t over yet, but this is a thank you to all the students who continue to inspire me, and finally, thank you for the rice crispy cakes, there’s nothing quite like a sustained sugar rush to get a class rolling.