It’s a pretty common thing for me to be talking to someone about books and for me to say, “oh, I really hated that book,” and when they ask me why, I say that my teacher ruined it. Sometimes it wasn’t my teacher’s fault and the book just wasn’t my cup of tea, but there are times when I felt like, yeah, if I’d read that book on my own, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to throw it against a wall.
Disclaimer: I love English teachers, I promise, and I’ve had plenty of good ones. I’m not trying to throw any educators under the bus because they’re under appreciated, deserve the world, etc. But at the same time, anyone who’s been to any school anywhere knows that some of the teachers are just not good at their job. It sucks, but that’s the American education system for you.
So, here are 5 books my English teachers almost ruined:
1. Macbeth by William Shakespeare
I think every high schooler is forced to read Shakespeare, and, in my case, that meant performing scenes from the play in front of the entire class. There’s nothing like pretending to be a scary witch in front of fifteen teenagers who already thought I was a huge nerd to turn you against a book.
Luckily, for my final exam I had to write a character analysis on Macbeth, Banquo, or Lady Macbeth. I made one of the wisest decisions of my young life and chose to spend 2 hours of quality time with a certain badass woman, learning about how my body is not vessel. To my ninth grade English teacher: you failed!
2. Watership Down by Richard Adams
This is a book about rabbits, but also about tyranny, communism, and human (I’m sorry, animal) nature. It also contains some great fight scenes, if you’re willing to look past the fact that rabbits can’t organize mafias, and, even if they could, they probably wouldn’t be fighting a group of rabbit bros who are just looking for a place to practice democratic socialism.
Also, on a more practical note, I was in seventh grade and therefore LITERALLY twelve years old and could not possibly understand the complexities of this rabbit book and its political ramifications. And this is another example of a time that a teacher forced me to act out a scene from a book we were reading, except this time it was even worse than before because Macbeth was created to be acted out and Watership Down is, if I haven’t told you already, about rabbits. No twelve year old should be forced to crawl around on the classroom floor screaming about how everyone should believe that a bunny has a sixth sense.
But, I’d like to say, to my seventh grade English teacher: you failed! Standardized testing may have said my reading level was above average, but I was emotionally a child and I loved rabbits, and I especially loved when they had names like Blackberry, Bluebell, and Dandelion.
3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
My teacher actively said “I do not like this book and I only teach it because the administration makes me.” We spent two months writing every single time a color was mentioned on the whiteboard. Did I learn a lot about tracking symbols? Yeah. Did I really need to know that the color green was mentioned on pretty much every page to understand that Gatsby was obsessed with money? No, I did not.
But I was blessed by another English teacher, who came in as a substitute one day and was like “hey, what if Jay Gatsby wasn’t white? Nobody ever tells you he is” and it was like the book exploded. Who knew if anything was true? I could go back on every page and question everything. I love questioning everything! So, to my English teacher during junior year: you were a great teacher for every other book, but for this one, you tried really hard to make me hate it but it didn’t work. You failed!
4. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
This one is a rare case, because this wasn’t my teacher’s fault. My sixth grade English teacher was fabulous and understanding and a lovely person, but having this book on the curriculum was not the move.
If you haven’t read Flowers for Algernon, just know that it’s about a man with a very low IQ who gets surgery and becomes very, very smart. The consequence of this is that a 32 year old man is going through emotional adolescence. The book is heartwarming, and well written, and I consider it among the ranks of Books That Changed My Life. Of course, I can say that now. At eleven, not so much.
My teacher gave Flowers For Algernon to her classroom of sixth graders, just after we’d read The Outsiders, and I was like, cool! It’s gonna be another fun book about familial love and teenagers with hardships. And then it was, um, not like that. The main character, Charlie, talks about sex a lot, and I’m just going to paraphrase the interaction and say that I had a couple of really awkward questions for my teachers about why it was such a big deal that Charlie had sticky sheets.
Granted, Charlie and I both had about the same amount of experience with sex, which they maybe thought made it relatable, or something? That is, until he had sex with his teacher, and then with his neighbor, and I had yet to take sex ed of any kind. It was just all around poor timing. The saving grace is that I went back and reread it in high school, and realized how fabulous a book it really is. And that it’s not actually all about sex, which I had thought because before I read this book sex had been in exactly 0% of every other book I’d read, so to have it shoot up to 5% was a huge increase and really threw eleven-year-old me for a loop.
So, to my sixth grade English teacher, I say: you did your best.
5. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Here it is: THE BIG ONE! The book that every kid reads in school and that every bad English teacher has done their best to ruin. This book is the champion of staying alive. Atticus Finch went to court for the affection of every 14-year-old in America and actually won this time.
I love Scout’s stupid ham costume. I love how the big scary guy is their neighbor, but everyone calls him “Boo.” Get a scarier name, Boo. Most of all, though, I love how inexplicably hot everyone find Atticus Finch. And then, at the end of the unit, when the teacher shows the movie and Gregory Peck comes onscreen… a pivotal moment for all of us.
It’s also a well written novel with a strong message and relatable characters, but I digress. This was middle school, and none of us cared about that. It came down to the fact that the book was fun, and easy to discuss in class, and practically impossible to ruin. So, to my eighth grade English teacher, I say: YOU FAILED!
For closure, here are some books that my English teachers actually did ruin:
- The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (the inspiration for this post)
- Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (the minute my teacher picked the non-Leonardo DiCaprio movie to show us, it was all over)
- A good amount of Emily Dickinson poems
- The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
- The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (I’m excusing the movie from this judgement, because Queen Latifah makes anything better)
- Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
And here are some books they did justice:
- The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
- The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet by William Shakespeare (just because of Portia and Horatio, no one else matters)
- Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and then, right after, The Hours by Michael Cunningham
- A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
- Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
- One English teacher had us watch Apocalypse Now which was cool, because Martin Sheen was in it and I kept calling him President Bartlett. The teacher also did a really good job forcing us to analyze the movie, but then we had to read Heart of Darkness and that really put a damper on the whole endeavor.
So that’s it. Again, I’ll remind you that I loved many of my English teachers despite their ability to ruin books, and many of them did exactly the opposite of that. No hate to anyone who’s out there working hard to make ungrateful children read classic works of literature!!
It’s just nice to tell my teachers that they failed for a change. If you made it this far (against all odds) I’d love to hear what books your English teachers ruined for you. Or, on a nicer note, which books they tried really hard to ruin but you resisted! That makes for a good, resilient book, and I love that for us.