A friend of mine in the primary ed racket mentioned today that she was reading a story to some second graders, and had to call on kids to read it at a couple of points, because she had to stop to collect herself emotionally. I’ve not read the book in question, but I certainly recognize the situation, and it even happens occasionally here in Mondoville.
Because most of my lit classes focus on pre-1800 stuff, I’ve never had occasion to teach Oscar Wilde’s work, but if I did, along with standards like Importance of Being Earnest and “Ballad of Reading Gaol,” I think I’d want to teach his fairy tale, “The Selfish Giant.” And this would present a problem, I think, because I’ve never been able to get through the story without tears. I’ve tested this hypothesis as recently as half an hour ago — same result. I read it to the Spawn once, at bedtime. Once. (It didn’t help that afterward, Mrs. M teased me about it, rehashing the ending until I had to tell her to stop. She didn’t mean any harm — as I said, she was teasing — but I just couldn’t hack it.)
Although I teach a little Arthuriana from time to time, it’s typically the lighter stuff, like Marie de France’s “Lanval.” And that’s probably just as well — because if I ever had to cover the end of T.H. White’s Once & Future King, where Arthur speaks to Tom of Warwick Revell, I’d lose it in class as surely as I do when I read it in my favorite chair.
One I have taught, with the same… um, personal difficulty… was Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes, which I used in a course on fantasy lit. (I was kind of proud of that course, because I focused on writers the kids didn’t know that well — Fritz Leiber and Peter Beagle, for example. My parents were still alive when I taught the book, but Dad had just been through his third round of cancer surgery, and as I read the scenes late in the book where it becomes evident just how much of a hero Charles Halloway is, and how he races with the boys at the very end? Wow. Yeah, I had to stop for a couple of minutes during that discussion.
And then there’s King Lear. I’m inclined to agree with Northrop Frye when he says in The Educated Imagination that there will never be a play better than Lear — there may be plays as good at some point (and indeed, he says Oedipus Rex has been one such play), but they will have to be very different things. But the sheer desolation of Lear bearing the dead Cordelia and howling because (as Edgar unwittingly predicted) there are no words for the worst — I can sometimes make it through that when I lecture. But not always. “Never, never, never, never, never.”
I’ll admit I get a little embarrassed at moments like the ones I’ve described; I’m aware that these are fictions, and that at 52, I probably shouldn’t get teary about a children’s tale. But I do. And after that day that I lectured on Bradbury, I apologized to the students for reacting as I did. And one of the students said, “It’s OK, Dr. Moore. If you can get that passionate about this stuff, maybe we should, too.”
And perhaps the student was right. And I find pleasure in that, and hope my friend does as well.