Teaching on a Tight-Rope
Teaching my novel to my own students is an experience I shall never forget - thrilling yes, but only in a manner tantamount to a dream
where I am walking a tight-rope stretched precariously across a ravine filled with rapacious creatures, all without the comfort of a safety net. Or perhaps clothing. Or both.
Not too long ago, both the English Director and the
Superintendent of the school district where I teach English and Creative Writing recognized the value of my students reading my novel, The Legend of Mickey Tussler, in class. All of us acknowledged the unique nature of such an endeavor and proceeded with alacrity. “Your students will benefit from ‘asking
the author’ about the creation of plot, characters, writer’s craft, etc.” my supervisor said. “And be given immediate, first-hand feedback. It is priceless.”
The superintendent was equally ebullient. “Frank, this is a wonderful opportunity for both you and your students,” he gushed. “They get the privilege
of hearing you speak about the creation of the story they are reading and analyzing it and you will be able to ascertain valuable insights into my own
story as seen through the eyes of some hesitant yet inquisitive minds in return.” Hearing their spirited sentiments buoyed my own zeal. Yes, this would
be a blast - an extreme alteration of the traditional classroom milieu - the pinnacle of an English teacher’s customary practice. What could possibly be more fulfilling?
Cue the tight-rope.
The first wave of trepidation came by way of a
diffident, slight girl who occupied the very first seat in front of me.
“But what if we don’t like the book,” she asked in
tremulous tones. “We don’t want to insult you Mr. Nappi with what we say?” I was able to ameliorate her concerns easily enough. I simply explained that we would spend some time analyzing my book in class, similar to the way we had done
Huckleberry Finn, Ethan Frome, and The Great Gatsby. In
an attempt to further assuage her angst, I shared that I had spoken to students from other school districts who read the book and although much of what we talked about was of the critical variety, I was still emotionally in tact and no students who voiced displeasure of any kind suffered any form of malediction. She was satisfied, but I was unmoored; the report of the shot she had fired resonated in my ears like the clashing of cymbals. What if they really
don’t like it? I thought. Then what? My apprehension burgeoned exponentially and I felt the need to flee but alas, it was too late; I was in too far.
The rope was already stretched, and I had taken those first few steps. I could not bear to look down.
So I inched along warily with both arms stretched out and discovered, much to my delight, that the experience was indeed everything that those who had conceived the idea said it would be. There were some dissenters of course, those who invoked the teenage mantra of “why do we have to read anyway?” and a handful of others politely suggested that I failed to capture their interest. Truth be told, it hurt a little. Most of my students, however, were thoroughly engaged and genuinely intrigued by the process by which an idea becomes a novel. They asked provocative questions and offered insightful comments about the characters and the thematic issues explored in the novel. It was beautiful; these young readers were provided with a window into
the world of the creative arts and they peered in, learning many of the intricacies germane to creative writing. And if that were not enough, teaching
what I had written years before made me fall in love all over again with my characters and the circumstances in which I placed them.
I was halfway across the ravine with nary a wiggle….but then the rope began to sway.
One of my students suggested that they write reviews of the book for me as a culminating activity. These reviews ranged from high praise to tepid interest to outright disdain. Again, the more pejorative ones stung a bit, but I was grateful nevertheless for their candor, insight and observations.
I was struggling a bit now but still had my footing.
It was only after some of my students had posted their reviews on sites like Amazon and Goodreads, that I felt my knees begin to slacken and my feet give way. The less favorable assessments stung more in print and I learned that someone with ill intent suggested that I was “compensating” students for positive reviews, even though those posted represented a fairly mixed lot. I found myself under siege, my character and integrity impugned
unjustifiably. I also found myself questioning my decision making abilities; why did I agree to let my students read my book in class? It exposed me in ways that no teacher should ever be.
I made it to the other side of the ravine, but I was
hanging by my hands.
Some weeks later, I received several emails from both students and parents, thanking me for being “brave” enough to teach my novel. Suddenly I felt better. Maybe I could do it again, I mused, with another one of my novels. Not a bad idea I suppose, except for the nature of my latest - a
mystery/thriller called Nobody Has To Know, the dark and somewhat daring story of Cameron Baldridge, a popular high school teacher whose relationship with one of his students leads him down an unfortunate and self-destructive path.
Hmmm. I may have to pass this time. That’s one
tight-rope that could easily become a noose.