Monday, November 17, 2014

Do the classics get better as we age?

One of my favorite classes in high was (not surprisingly I'm sure) my freshman English class. With Mrs. Reardon I experienced for the first time Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Lady or the Tiger, The Lottery, The Odyssey and countless other important works of literature. One of them, To Kill a Mockingbird, quickly turned into a favorite of mine. In fact, I revisited it again in college and wrote my undergraduate thesis on its critical response. 

Near the end of our time in Mrs. Reardon's class she mentioned that she and a fellow teacher had recently discussed whether or not To Kill a Mockingbird was wasted on high school freshmen. Were we really capable of digesting all of the complicated themes and grown-up world ideas as 14 year-olds? Of course we thought we were, and we told her so.

Since that first reading more than 20 years ago, I've read the book several more times, and Mrs. Reardon was right. With more life experience, the book means more to me each time I read it.

Fast forward to last week. With my American Literature class at the homeschool co-op where I teach once a week, we began discussion of Willa Cather's My Antonia. Cather is one of my favorites too. I find her prose lovely. It really makes me want to visit Nebraska and see those rolling prairies for myself (one day).

If you're not familiar with My Antonia, the basics with regard to the point I'm making involve a narrator named Jim looking back on his time growing up on his grandparents' rural Nebraska farm, particularly around a special friend he made, Antonia, who was the oldest daughter of Bohemian immigrants on a nearby farm. There is some question of whether Jim falls in love with Antonia (it makes for good class discussion).

But, years later, Jim is a successful New York City attorney, and his job requires some travel across the country. On one trip out west he arranges to visit his hometown. He's heard bits and pieces from Antonia and about her over the years, but it's been decades since they've seen each other. He borrows a horse and buggy and drives out to the farm where she lives with her now-husband and nearly a dozen children. Antonia is surprised and happy to see him. Jim relishes their time together catching up and meeting her children.

Jim is struck by how time and hard work on the farm have changed her appearance, though her personality has remained very much the same. After their visit, Jim returns back to his life in New York City and his wife.

During our class discussion last week, I had a Mrs. Reardon moment when I almost let slip out of my mouth, "Read this book again right after you've been to your 20th high school reunion!" I thought better of it, both because as homeschoolers they may not ever attend a high school reunion and also because they might have had the same indignant reaction my classmates and I did.

I imagine that, like To Kill a Mockingbird, My Antonia would have not had such a profound effect on me in high school. 

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