The Books of My Numberless Dreams

High School Literature

Posted on: January 16, 2007

Janelle Martin at Eclectic Closet was asked to list the literature books she studied in high school. Unlike her my memories of what I read in class are much clearer than what I read out of them but not by much. In her comments I felt more sure of my school book memories but as I look back I really only remember one of the books I read in grade 7. I thought Animal Farm was grade 8 but now I’m not so sure…

No, now I believe it belongs in grade 7. My association with each book, at least for grades 7 and 8, is the classroom I was in. For grade 7 (first form) the class was much darker and I was to the far right of Ms. C, our English Literature teacher. Like all of the teachers that ever worked at our school who used to live in England, she sat on the desk rather than on the chair, which we thought quite unorthodox. At the time I did not much care for her, preferring the older, stricter and, to my mind, more suitable and admirable Mrs. M who taught us English Language. (For some reason our class was split in two for Language, half of us with Ms. C while the rest were sent to Mrs. M.)

English language classes were held in the library which was on the second floor of the building a few feet from our class. The lighting was much brighter in there, the atmosphere lighter and airier and it was in the library. I enjoyed the creative writing exercises, one of which was to write about experiencing a hurricane (at least, that’s what I wrote about). I don’t remember the grade I received.

Mrs. M liked me, I could tell. I’m not shy to admit that I was often a favourite of my English lit teachers because my love for the subject was obvious; and they were often favourites of mine. With the hubris of youth I was quite open about which teachers I really liked, and which ones I thought were rubbish. (Unfortunately my grades often reflected this: if I thought a teacher did a crappy job I treated the subject accordingly. I was such a git.)

At regular public school:

Grade 7

The Pearl – Jon Steinbeck
Animal Farm – George Orwell
Sunsong One – poetry anthology compiled for secondary school instruction for Caribbean students

Grade 8

To Kill a Mocking Bird – Harper Lee
Summer Lightning and other stories – Olive Senior
A play I cannot remember the title of but which was written by a Caribben author (I think). The characters were angels and it was set in heaven. I don’t remember the plot but it had racial equality themes (some weird convo about white people actually being various shades of cream black people being chocolatey brown). We loved it and, along with the teacher, decided to learn the play and enter into the parish-level performing arts competition. I was cast as a character, and practised, but never actually made it to the performance.
Sunsong Two

In grade 8 we were assigned the same Lang. and Lit. teacher — Ms. C. I gnashed my teeth, pouted and grumbled, determined never to warm to this teacher who could not match the brilliance of Mrs. M. By the end of the first term I loved her to bits. Ms. C was an exciting, invigorating teacher whose voice boomed across the classroom. The first assignment I did for her was disastrous as I did not know how to properly write dialogue among other things. I nearly cried. I did improve: later in the year a descriptive essay I did on the vice-principal (who scared the crap out of me) got 19/20. (Ms. C never gave full marks. Yes, ridiculously, I remember insignificant crap like that. I could tell you most of the grades I got in undergrad :grimace:.)

Ms. C was active in the local theatre scene and also wrote her own stuff, I think. I saw her some years later at the airport in Kingston but never said hello as she seemed busy and, anyway, I didn’t think she’d remember me, having only taught me for two years.

Grade 9

Old Story Time – Trevor Rhone
I read a play on Joan of Arc and, according to google, the most likely author is George Bernard Shaw. (I can’t remember.)
Jumbie Bird – Ismith Khan
Sunsong 3

I transferred to an all-girls boarding school in the bush for grade 9. My mother was laid off from her job after the company was bought and, I’m guessing, things were a bit up in the air as to where she would go next. None of this was shared with me at the time. Some of my friends at church asked what horrible deed I had done to deserve such a fate. One helpful soul warned me about lesbians, what they did in the dark night, and what I should do to defend myself should I be accosted. I was 12 at time and suitably horrified.

Along with these I also read some of what my new classmates had been assigned in grade 7 & 8. These books were kept because in grade 11 (fifth form) questions would be given on them in the CXC exams (‘O’ levels).

Annie John – Jamaica Kinkaid (An infamous novel because of the hinted moments of lesbian play. Girls stalwartly declared it was a “nasty” book because of this, one for which they certainly did not care for.)

Harriet’s Daugther – M. NourbeSe Philip (I had no idea she was Canadian until now!)

A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry

Grade 10 & 11

King Richard III – Shakespeare
A Brighter Sun – Samuel Selvon
Selected works from A World of Poetry for CXC
Some short stories from A World of Prose for CXC

King Richard III is still firmly entrenched as one of the best works of literature I have ever read. I’ve stressed enough how I found Selvon’s first novel soporific. Read it to fussy babies they’ll drop right off, guaranteed.

Mrs. W was my English Lit teacher from grade 9 onwards, and for Language in 10 & 11. In grade 9 I found her a terrific bore and though nothing could kill my love for the written word I felt sure that this would be the first year my Language grade would be higher than my Lit. (I was right, I think.) Coincidentally our grade 9 Language teacher, Mrs. shoot I’ve forgotten her last name, was also from England, here in Jamaica to teach for a year. I’m sorry I’ve forgotten her name as she actually made learning grammar and punctuation rules exciting, giving us craft projects, bouncing from the desk to pace in front of the class and basically making us fall in love with her. She took us down to the school farm to relax in the fields on her last day and some of us cried.

Her husband was our grade 9 Physics teacher and a popular target for mockery although I can’t remember why now. He provided lots of gossipy excitement that year as it was suspected by the school population that he was carrying on a serious flirtation (at the very least) with the third British teacher Ms. Jelly Bottom (Geography), our nickname for her. (Her bottom was huge and jiggled a lot.)

Grade 12 & 13 (6th form)

As You Like it – Shakespeare
Hamlet – Shakespeare
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
Songs of Innocence and Experience – William Blake
Selected Poetry – Derek Walcott
A Streetcar Named Desire – Tennesse Williams
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born – Ayi Kwei Armah
Waiting For Godot – Samuel Beckett

I had to go to Kingston for 6th form. My boarding school did not have one and the only one in my hometown of Montego Bay was for boys. The A-level Syllabus was divided into three parts: pre-20th century, 19th century (yeah never got that either) and 20th century. Each was taught by three different teachers. I liked the one for the first, worshipped the one for the second, had absolute disdain for the third. She showed little dedication to her work. At the time there was (and still is) conflict between the teacher’s union and the government about their pay. As students we dealt with the consequences of this, strikes and so on, from grade 10 or so onwards but she was the only teacher it affected to such a degree that she rarely came to classes. If she did it was often at hastily decided times rather than the ones scheduled (and then she’d show up late). The only book she ever really taught was the Williams. I don’t even remember touching the Armah with her; it was Mrs. B, the one I worshipped, who came to my group’s rescue (English students were split into two groups) and covered the book with us in extra classes. The third’s teaching of Walcott was was a joke and the Beckett was even worse.

To this day I haven’t touched anything of Beckett’s because the woman’s hastily put together plans, printed handouts on “absurd” theatre (or whatever it was) and hastened critiques filled me with little else but confusion. I felt Beckett must be hopelessly obscure and too intellectual for me to grasp. (I left the class thinking he was French for several years. God’s sake.)

What made it even worse was that she neglected one Group A (the one I was in) for Group B because the latter had students from her alma mater and they were more understanding about her shenanigans. Like I gave a bloody hell about her kid and her problems. I got a fucking B on my ‘A’ levels and I’m fairly sure it was because of my Walcott essay. (Thanks a lot you hack!)

The End

What books did you study in high school? Did any of them match the ones on my list? Maybe this could become a meme of sorts.

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11 Responses to "High School Literature"

All I remember is A Christmas Carol, Macbeth, A Farewell to Arms, To Kill a Mockingbird, and possibly Animal Farm, but I only took English up to grade 10. I think we did most of our work out of textbooks. It’s a bit of a blur, except for Macbeth, which was charmingly drilled into us.

I’m guessing that To Kill a Mocking Bird will be the most popular one, followed by Animal Farm. Everyone seems to have read those two in school.

English Language and Math is a required subject at all schools in Jamaica until grade 11, which was, for most, the end of high school. (Some, like my boarding school, required Literature as well.) Since English is only one subject here I could see why you get all that text book stuff.

No Atwood? *shock* *horror*

I’ve never read A Christmas Carol. I should get around to it.

I read my first Poe in junior high and fell in love with his work. It was Masque of the Red Death. I remember reading Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson in that same literature class. High school cemented my love of Shakespeare when we read and studied Macbeth. We also read Of Mice and Men, A Farewell to Arms, and A Tale of Two Cities in that year. Great stuff and I enjoyed every one.

Interesting timeline you have created regarding books covered in High School. Of those on your list,only one matched those which we covered — “Animal Farm”. I can recall a lot of regional Canadian Lit being covered. At that time, I had an aversion to it. Since then, I’ve grown to appreciate the regionality of literature — the associated colloquialisms,familiar geography, etc. Lovely header you have chosen!

Carl V. it’s nice to see someone else who had such a joyous HS lit experience; so many people seem to find, in the best of circumstances, only tolerable. I’ve never read Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson (but I did see the tv series 😉 ).

Welcome Literati and thanks for the compliments. A lot of my list is regional (Caribbean) so I could see why there wouldn’t be many similarities. I’m glad you had a better experience with the dreaded Can lit outside of class.

Ah Hah! You speak of Ms Cri***** at MBHS! I also had her and no, she never gave me a top mark either. And she continues to sit on the tables from what I hear, her eyes sparkling with excitement, reciting poems. I spent 5 years there, moving to the UK for 6th form and University.

1st form/7th grade:
Animal Farm, I wish! Not so lucky. But yes, the good ol Pearl and Sunsong.

A Raisin in the Sun came in 2nd form, NO Shaw, Austen, Blake or Williams at any time! But lots of Shakespeare. And I’m doing Ayi Kwei Armah [Beautiful ones] at University now for the 1st time.

We did To Kill A Mockingbird in 3rd/4th form, and we watched the film in which Boo was the highlight [some girls had fallen in love with his character?!] we did The Schoolmaster in 5th form which was slightly creepy. We also did A Brighter Sun and Old Story Time.

Then I went to the Uk and suffered under British Feminist poetry that was horrific to me compared to lively West Indian fare [including Atwood], Wuthering heights, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber [chosen by the very same fragile teacher who refused to say ‘cunt’ when it appeared in the book], and the usual dose of Shakespeare.

Roseanne, how nice to meet a fellow MBHSer! I do speak of Ms Cri indeed and am so glad to hear that she’s still there teaching.

How odd that you never did any Austen or Blake or Shaw at all. And even odder that Boo was a love object…? This isn’t the black & white film with George Peck is it? (Can’t be!) I don’t know anything about The Schoolmaster, I’ll have to look it up.

I’m not familiar with any British feminist poetry at all [including Atwood]. Too bad about the ‘cunt’ thing though, especially since I thought that was neither here nor there for the British? Very fragile indeed. Ha!

It sounds as if you did a lot more Shakespeare than I did. Thanks so much for commenting.

Hi Imani & Roseanne,

I also went to MBHS in the 60-70s. I also did the same books that Imani did. I also had Ms. Crick. She has since passed on. Yes, she never gave full grades. We called her Red Riding Hood because she massacred our papers at all times. In 6th form, I did a few Shakespeare- Lear, King John & Winters Tale, then Austen- Sense & Sensibility, Emma, Mayor of Casterbridge, Blake, Shelley & Wordsworth. 5th Form-To Kill a Mock… Julius Caesar, Chaucer. 4th Form- Austen-Pride & Prejudice & Midsummer Nights Dream. I did not enjoy P &P at the time, boring because of the language and manners. 3rd form- The merchant of venice, Jane Eyre. 2nd form-Greek Mythology. First Form-Mowgli. Somehow, we were not taught to read a lot in class, but to read indepth. I found garnering the skill to read critically made me devour books. I must say that the parish library saw me at all times of the week. I thank Ms. Crick for instilling that love of reading in me. I am now an English teacher and a Reading Specialist. I love it all. I also taught at CC for a while where I taught some of the same books, but I developed a love for Caribbean, African, and African American literature. Whatever I learned then behind those walls and under those trees have carried me far and wide.

Peace.

Thanks so much for commenting Blossome, and for letting us know that Ms. Crick is no longer with us. It’s heartening at the same time to know that she’s been teaching at MBHS for so long and was even then making a great impression.

I managed to dodge Hardy in 6th form as the teacher did not pick his Tess though it was on the syllabus. And that reminds me that I forgot to include The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne on my 6th form list as well.

I always tell my North American counterparts about how we read in-depth at our school rather than ploughing through literary periods every term. I never did use the public library for anything except one-on-one lessons for the Common Entrance exams.

Thanks again for sharing your experience. 🙂

I’ve always been such a reader that I really don’t have much idea what I read for school and what I read on my own. Only if I hated something (Beowulf!) do I remember sitting in a specific class working on it . So Beowulf was junior year. Julius Caesar, my least favorite Shakespeare play was sophomore year. Other than that, no idea!

Ahh, Beowulf is one of those books I plan to read, some day. And maybe Julius Caesar but I have so much fun with various film/tv adaptations I’m pretty much content on that score.

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