The first major piece of literature I ever taught at the high school level was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic American novel, “The Scarlet Letter.”
Within the pages of this often-parodied book about Puritan adultery in New England is a story rich in symbolism and conflict, mystery and heartache, about an unmarried mother named Hester Prynne, forced to live in shame by her community. The woman is a seamstress in the story, and after giving birth to a girl named Pearl, she is required to wear a red “A” on her dress, indicating she is an adulteress.
The book’s location near a beautiful East Coast forest was inspiringly comparable to the view from my classroom window in the hills of North Georgia. Yet despite similarity with the physical and societal setting of the book, the eleventh-graders at the rural, Christian school where I taught felt like they could not relate and did not find the novel as fascinating as I had hoped.
Their disinterest was coupled with a lack of familiarity with their new teacher that bordered on contempt, and literary discussions were a daily struggle. There were times when quiz scores were high and class periods where the theme of judgmental cruelty sank in, but years from now, when looking back upon my teaching of “The Scarlet Letter,” it will not be the classroom successes that I remember, because, frankly, they were few and far between.
Sadly, what sticks with me the most is how quickly my students forgot the message of the book when a real-life example of Hester Prynne revealed herself at their school.
Several months had passed and I had involuntarily become a rather informal counselor to a teenage girl with difficult problems both in school and at home, a bright student who enjoyed singing, writing and photography. She was neither popular nor unpopular, yet was well-liked in her circle of friends and within the gymnastics team. There was, however, a deep sadness she carried with her wherever she went.
Given my inexperience and carelessness, I was not able to ascertain the true nature of her struggle at the school. I should have perhaps understood that a regular high-school break up does not make teenagers fall to their hands and knees in a teacher’s office and weep despairingly as she did, viewing the end of a relationship as an authentic tragedy.
This young lady had been dumped for the second and final time by her boyfriend, that much I had understood; but what had escaped me was that for her, anything less than marriage to this guy meant a level of shame that would follow her forever.
Just weeks after their breakup, another teacher caught her and a different boy having sex in a storage closet within a teacher’s office.
As usual, when it comes to matters such as these, the societal condemnation was more pronounced for the young lady than for the man. The jokes from my students were quick and merciless. They were frequent, unfair and they were from the very same individuals who decried the unfair treatment of the sexually immoral heroine in “The Scarlet Letter.” No one could mention the student’s name without laughing luridly and suggestively.
I was disappointed, not just in my students, who were all too eager to cast vicious judgment on a peer suffering from difficulties they did not understand, but I was also frustrated with myself. I was saddened that my classes had not imparted to my kids a lasting impression of one of the biggest reasons we study literature.
After the two students were found together in the closet, both of them were summarily suspended for the rest of the academic year, and the boy never returned to the school, even after his time of suspension had been served.
Our modern-day Hester Prynne, however, did return. In the classroom and around campus, she held her head high, and got back to doing what she loved, without allowing the condemnation of others to keep her down.
We do not read literature to improve our vocabulary, strengthen our essay-writing skills, or increase our understanding of foreshadowing and personification, even if those are all helpful outcomes.
We read literature so as to increase our understanding of others, to experience sympathy and empathy, to learn what it is like to walk in the school uniform of another.
Martin Surridge is a former area resident who was a student at Walla Walla University before moving to Georgia.