Required Reading


Catch-22

Catch-22 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was perusing the interwebs the other day, and landed at one of the blogs I frequent called YA Highway.  For their Roadtrip Wednesday post, they included the following prompt: What’s your favorite required reading book?

As a teacher, I’ve had the divine privilege of teaching The Crucible, which is probably my all-time favorite play, and Of Mice and Men is a brilliantly touching piece that has unparalleled relevance in a society that rejects malfunctioning, worn out, or slow members. However, as a student, my favorite required reading was Catch-22.

As a sophomore in high school, I was a year ahead in math, which had always been my forte, and I was in the English class for regular kids. However, towards the end of that year my teacher, Ms. Quarelli, suggested I take the test for AP English, which I did. After grading the test, the junior AP teacher asked me to meet with him during my lunch period.

I nervously shuffled to his classroom after shoveling down a McDonald’s salad shaker (I’ll forever feel betrayed by them for getting rid of my fave). This teacher ran the school paper, so when I got to his room, he was working with other students and I had to wait. And wait.

And wait.

When he finally got around to talking to me, he cut right to the chase.

“Kathryn James?’

“Yes.”

“Are you good at math?” he asked.

“I’m alright,” I replied.

“I’ve graded your test,” he said, “and you scored higher than any other student scored on the grammar portion.”

I started to stand up a little straighter.

“… but you scored lower than anyone on the written part. So you can be in the class if you like, but students who are good at math, like you are, tend to be disappointed in my class. If you decide to take AP English, you probably won’t do much better than a ‘C’, and you might be happier in a regular class.”

“Okay?” was my response.

He handed me the graded test and sent me on my way. As I walked to my next class, I read the comments he’d written on my essay.

The character demonstrates excellent persuasive speaking skills…

is what I’d written in the essay. His comment? “But you don’t.”

And from that moment on, all I wanted to do was prove him wrong. Over the Summer, I did about half of the homework he’d assigned (which was more than I would have done for any other class and more than I’ve done since), and I attended the first day thinking I’d be the only one who even touched it.

Wrong.

In actuality, I was the only one who didn’t complete it. I spent the entire year, struggling through short stories from the text book, AP writing prompts, and too many big words to even imagine… epistemology, metacognition, blah, blah, blah…

And I managed a ‘B’.

As the end of the year rolled around, Mr. Morrill (that’s his name) was running out of time to assign all of the reading he wanted us to complete before we moved on to our next AP English teachers, so he assigned some excerpts from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle”(p. 55).

And for the first time in my life, I wanted to read a book that was hard to read, just because I wanted to. I’d spent an entire school year feeling tortured by peers who had the advantage of two years of honors English that I didn’t have. They’d been reading difficult books for fun their entire lives. I’d hardly been reading; I was just particularly good at making it seem like I’d read books I hadn’t. I’d spent the year struggling with a questioning heart because it would have been infinitely easier (and probably more profitable) for me to get really good at math, and just get by with English. I’d dealt with comment after comment from a teacher who didn’t believe in barring holds.

And yet… there was something about Yossarian’s plight that I saw in my own life.

I felt like I was surrounded by crazies who walked around with crab apples in their cheeks, and I couldn’t understand why they kept crashing into the ocean, when I was doing my best not to crash at all. So… I forced myself through the most difficult book I’d ever read to the most fulfilling ending of any story, and I found that the crazies weren’t quite so crazy and there was some method to their madness. I registered for AP English 12, and took the easiest math class I could receive credit for.

Catch-22 is my favorite required reading book because it was worth reading beyond what was required.

What’s your favorite required reading book from school?

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6 thoughts on “Required Reading

    • I didn’t have to read about the Count for school, but I did recently read it, and it’s become one of my favorite books. I love the paradoxical elegance and ruthlessness of the revenge. 🙂

    • You’re crazy! I hated Crime and Punishment. All I remember is Sobkoviak going on and on about existentialism and something about the main character thinking there were super people who had the privilege and responsibility of transcending the law. That and Metamorphosis were my darkest times in her class (and probably all of high school). 🙂

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