I have mentioned before that I own a number of books I have no intention of reading, but preserve because they remind me of the person who passed them to me. Among the most readable is Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, which was thrust into my hands by an irritated acquaintance, who said…..
Well, put that on pause while I introduce you to my friend, another person thoroughly loathed by a number of my other friends. She was tall, good-natured, and almost utterly without a sense of humor. She had a sense of fun, but jests eluded her. A teacher dedicated to students in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city–I heard a tour guide paid by the city tell passengers on a tour bus that “You can hear gunshots here at any time of the day or night.”–she felt that nothing was more dangerous, and yet more curable, than an inability to read. Over the years, she came up with a number of earth-shaking ideas on how to improve reading among students in underfunded schools. Among her principles were:
I.Stop Insisting That Reading Is Fun
That she herself thought reading was fun was irrelevant. Reading was an essential skill, and should be taught as such. Sugar-coating the message of “You must do this” with “You will enjoy this” led writers and teachers down fruitless and irrelevant paths. (It should be noted that she was extremely conservative in politics and religion, and used to take a bus early Sunday so she could attend a Black Baptist church far, far from the cheap hotel where she lived, because all the White Baptist churches seemed to her to be offering an illusion of easy passage to Salvation. Life had its fun, but you shouldn’t expect it in the things you were required to do.)
II.Stop Wasting Kids’ Time with Inessentials
She could NOT understand why weeks of useful time were lost teaching children the alphabet when they could have been learning to read. “You don’t require them to know the names of every part of the engine before you teach them to drive!” she explained. If you understood the sound made by an F, you didn’t need to know whether it was called f or that tall hook-shaped letter with the line across it. (In spite of this, she would teach the alphabet, and had harsh words for alphabet books with, say, a Goat and a Giraffe on the same page. Kids who needed to know what a G was should not be confused—until later—with a word that sounded as if it started with J.)
III.Include Students of Different Abilities
She wanted all her students to learn; where she taught, fast learners faced obstacles to education, as did slow learners, and average kids in the middle. But how did you bring the slow kids up to snuff before you bored the quick ones, or made the average ones start laughing at both? She envisioned textbooks with the same text presented three times on each page: in big type and short words for one set of students, in small print with longer words for the quick ones, and a base text in middle-sized print for the average students. Obviously, to present the same basic information in three different sizes on the same page meant that the smaller the print used, the more facts you could slide in. This might, she hoped, tempt the slow kids into reading the average kid’s text, and the average kids up into the quick learner’s world. Speeding up each child was her aim, wherever they sent her. (She was a substitute teacher who might be lecturing seven year-olds one day and twelve year-olds the next. The school system found her a little too weird for a steady job. Lemme tell you some time about her plan to teach Plato and Aristotle to first graders.)
She had her hopes and her expectations, but above all, she had her standards. Things ought to be done the right way, and she was not shy about letting people know this. Once she accosted a candidate for the State Senate and made sure he took a long article she had written about teaching children to read without the alphabet. He smiled and put the paper in a pocket, chatting about her theories, and allowing that she made some very good points. I doubt she thought he would read the paper, but the way he led her to think he might made her believe she had met a Democrat who should actually run for President Thorough Conservative that she was, she liked the way he handled a random pushy schoolteacher. (Whether he hung onto her essay so we will see it someday in the Barack Obama Presidential Library, I do not know. And she did not, alas, live to tell me how she voted that year.)
But, as I was saying, she had her standards and she DID read for fun. And one day, she brought me a book which was won the Booker Prize. She had never yet, she told me, read a Booker Prize winning novel she had liked, but this Hotel du Lac was a new low in disappointment.
:Here,” she said, pushing it into my hands, “You read this and tell me how YOU would have written the ending.”
I have not done this so far. But I hang onto the book in recollection of an interesting but misguided soul who thought I could write a better ending than Anita Brookner.