Many months ago I wrote a post about Garret Keizer—a teacher, thinker and writer who lives and works in the Northeast Kingdom. Keizer was a very popular teacher at Lake Region High School in the Kingdom for seven years and wrote a moving book about the experience, No Place But Here: A Teacher’s Vocation in a Rural Community. I’ve met him but I don’t really know him. I do know some of his former students, adults now, who remember him with great fondness and respect.
Recently, after a fourteen year hiatus, Keizer returned to Lake Region to substitute for a teacher on a year’s leave (and to earn health insurance for himself and his wife!). He explored his latest experience in the September Harper’s Magazine in an essay: “Getting Schooled: The re-education of an American teacher”. The article is perceptive about the state of education in the rural United States, as well as in education generally. What upset Keizer wasn’t so much what had changed as what had not: “What has not changed is the degree of poverty and social dysfunction suffered by students in the region.”
One particular insight interests me and I’d like to share it here. Looking into the reluctance of his students to read, he’s not surprised when an assignment to write a paragraph on “Where I Read” produces more than one description of how hard it is to concentrate in a house “where people are always yelling.” But even at school, where the place and time for reading are provided, most of the students don’t want to be left alone with a book. He doesn’t remember being as discouraged fourteen years earlier by how few students really wanted to read.
What he discovered when he got into the guts of great literature with them is well worth quoting in full.
Not surprisingly, [the] literature brings its own transcendence, especially when we get to drama and poetry, which I have injudiciously put off until the spring. I discover how much the students enjoy reading aloud; girls vie for the part of Emily in Our Town; the unlikeliest boys take a shot at Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” I come to suspect that it is not reading they hate so much as reading in isolation. The same radical privacy that I see in books, my mind’s way of eating its lunch alone, is what turns their stomachs. I learn of two girls in my class who got through Ethan Frome by reading aloud to each other over Skype, not unlike George Gibbs and Emily Webb chatting between their upstairs bedroom windows, just with different kinds of windows. They are acutely social creatures, these kids, and it is a slow learner indeed who fails to grasp that fact even as he prattles on about building a more social democracy.
Here’s another thing I didn’t see happening, but it did and I wonder when and how I missed it. Like Keizer, I grew up loving to be alone—to read, to think. It was an important feeling, this need for aloneness. Solitude was a good thing. It was an important part of being human.
Somewhere along the way, people have become more social, perhaps almost to a fault. (e.g. the compulsion to text!). Young people need noise and company to do nearly everything. It’s a whole other world, probably neither better or worse than mine. But definitely other.