What does literature have to do with life? Why should I have to read poems and short stories that have no bearing on my major subjects?
These are the questions I have to grapple with every day, faced with 25 (mostly) wide-eyed freshies. I teach the only required English class that they’ll have to take, so for some, this will be their first—and last—glimpse of literature.
How do I teach them to love words as much as I do, to find beauty and meaning in the precise arrangement of a sonnet, to feel a thrill over the word “exquisite”? (Me at age 6, true story. Only I thought it was pronounced “e-quiste.”)
I want them to love literature so much that they’ll stay up reading until three in the morning. That they’ll carry the book with them in their head as they eat breakfast, go about their day, even until they go to bed. That years from now, they will remember lines like “Love has its reasons whereof reason knows nothing” (Blaise Pascal, quoted in Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time”) and use it to bolster an argument.
Words have sustained me ever since I was a child. Every Sunday, we went to National Book Store where my sisters and I were each allowed to choose one book to buy and bring home. I was told that my parents read to me every night when I was young. As soon as I learned to read, it was my turn to read to them.
Even now, good grammar is one of the things that I look for in a partner. I’m not a grammar Nazi by any means, but I get so distracted by poor spelling and grammar that I mentally correct the flirty texts I receive.
I’m thrilled every time I receive a love letter—in this day and age of instant communication, the time and patience required to pen a handwritten missive gets me every time.
But I was talking about literature. Words have served as my constant companions. When I was 12, newly arrived from the United States, I couldn’t speak Filipino, so I didn’t have any friends. I spent every afternoon after class reading by the entrance of my school while waiting to be picked up.
I remain an inveterate reader, someone who always brings a book with her. You never know when you’ll need to wait for something, or someone, and having a book always passes the time.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t wish that I could live inside a novel. I like real life—with its unexpected twists, its crushing disappointments, and its sudden serendipities—just fine. I’m even in love with it sometimes.
But this is what I wish I could say to my students: You don’t need to love poetry and prose in order to pass this course, but I hope that somehow, over the next few months, I will manage to transmit my love of literature to you, because it will serve you well all your life.
Often, I find myself smiling in satisfaction as I listen to my students read and argue over texts. If I do my job well, then they’ll soon find their own way.
Isa Lorenzo’s favorite authors are Jane Austen, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Margaret Atwood, F. Sionil Jose, Ellen Sicat and Zadie Smith.
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