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Last Call for Literature 101, Featuring Miss Haley

Susan Notes: Ohmygoodness. An English teacher who doesn't 'teach' the novel. I whooped for joy.

You have to love a teacher who says I do what I want to do. Not what the state tells her to do. And then proclaims I'm the world's greatest teacher of Macbeth.

I wonder how many potential readers have been brought low by the Teaching of the Novel. I confess to having taught a novel about half a dozen times in my 20-year career. In my first year, following someone else's plan, I taught (gasp) Silas Marner and Johnny Tremain; in a community college I taught Lord of the Flies and Go Tell It on a Mountain. I wish I could contact all those students and apologize. I did better at a technological university, teaching Black Boy and The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History (aka On the Steps of the Pentagon. I made the latter choice when Harper's published Mailer's work just before it was published a novel. My choice caused a firestorm among my colleagues who kept muttering, "But is it literature?" Well it was a new concept: the nonfiction novel. The good professors shut up (and my student cheered) when the book won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. Later, in a high school honors English class, freshmen and I explored Ordinary People together. Only On the Steps of the Pentagon and Ordinary People were successful--because I didn't talk about structure at all. Actually, I talked very little. I put the students in charge of all discussion.

In my other years teaching students grades 3-12, I never taught the novel. I encouraged the reading of novels--constantly. But never in my professional life--even when I taught the novel--did I utter the words setting, rising action, etc. My contention is that few people who become lifelong readers read that way. And inspiring lifelong readers is my goal.

Hazel Haley says a lot of sensible, even wise, things. I love a teacher who admits that some people like Mickey Mouse and Danielle Steele: it's better than nothing.

What are the chances of a teacher entering the sytem today lasting 69 years?

What are the chances of that teacher lasting 20 years?

Five?


By Billy Townsend

LAKELAND -- When you've taught mostly English at a celebrated level for 69 years, it's hardly surprising that people might have an interest in your opinions of teaching and literature.

The Ledger sat down recently with Hazel Haley for something of a survey course on her philosophies of reading and teaching and virtually anything else she felt like discussing.

Q: What's the one piece of literature that you think teenagers should be exposed to?

A: That's a challenging question. There's not any great classic or any great moral example. But if I'm teaching teenagers, I might want them to read about Holden Caulfield in "The Catcher in the Rye." Sometimes I hesitate to recommend it, and they say, "Why, bad language?" and I say, "No. You're so close to it. I'm not sure that you appreciate that it's truth." This is pure truth about teenagers.

Also, a book that made a difference in my life was by Wayne Dyer. And somebody recommended to me his book called, "Your Erroneous Zones." Now, be careful with that. It's "Your Erroneous Zones" (laughs). It deals with your self-concept. And I have -- my children have a hard time believing this -- I have been so shy, retiring, self-effacing most of my life because I didn't feel I was good enough to be a part of the real world. As a mature woman, within the last decade or so, he really changed my life and enabled me to take a different look at myself. So I'm not sure I'd recommend that for young people, but I'd recommend it for anyone who has a hard self-image to deal with.

Q: And, of course, that's not even a work of fiction.

A: No, it's not in the world of fiction. And of course, sweetheart, I don't teach literature like anybody else. I do the technical stuff almost in a secondary way because the kids couldn't care less about that. They have to be force-fed it. I wish a lot of teachers knew that. But I try to teach it and tell them that it's about us, that it only became worthwhile because it's about us. All the great literature is about us. And so any of the classics that have survived that are of high interest, I would recommend almost without reservation.

My greatest reservation about my adorable children, and we talk about this, is their lack of interest in knowledge. They are not interested in a body of knowledge. They want to pass the test. They want a good grade. They want to get in a good college. I've said this until it's a cliche. But I want them to have the background of knowledge that is so rich, for your whole life, that you can get out of books. It's your understanding of your world and other people. I feel so strongly about that.

Q: What approach do you take to teaching novels?

A: I require my children to read nine books in a semester. That's three books each six weeks. They may read anything they want to because I want 'em to love it.

If they want to read "Mickey Mouse Has a Party," fine. It's better than nothing. Better than nothing.

I do not teach a novel. I think I'm the only one that doesn't do that. Because in my observation that deals too much with the technique rather than the reader, and so it's not worth my while.

I make those three books those children read as painless as possible. I just say write me a page, and I give them a made up question. No grade. I just check it off that you read the book. And then for one book, I suggest that they read something worthwhile, and we write a major theme in the class on one book as it relates to themselves. And so I encourage catholic -- little "c" -- catholic reading. Does it do any good? (She shrugs.)

Q: I guess it depends on the kid.

A: I don't let my children say, "It all depends." You can't say that. Because everything doesn't (laughs).

I've had children write me to say I became a reader after (Haley's class), that books became important to them. That's a major thrill.

I got 4,000 books in this room that I've accumulated. And the kids don't read 'em much. (Laughs). They say, "Some of these are old." And I say, "Sweetheart, that doesn't make that much difference. It doesn't have to be yesterday's book."

But I think it's good for them to have a feeling of books around them. And I don't check them out. Help yourself. Bring it back when you get through, or if you want it, keep it. And I wish they did it more. But they tell me very openly that they spend a great deal of time on their computers and the Internet. They are an indoor generation.

Q: What are the books, over the years, that kids have responded to?

A: A lot of "To Kill a Mockingbird." That's a big favorite. And for the girls, Danielle Steel, they like a lot. Quite a few like "The Catcher in the Rye." Some of the boys like science fiction. But I'm not very good at that.

Q: If you were on a desert island, and there was one book you could have for pleasure, what would it be? Can you pick one?

A: Yes, I'd read "Pillars of the Earth," by Ken Follett. Or Pat Conroy. I can't read all of Conroy, but I would read "Beach Music" or "The Prince of Tides." Those are both super books.

Q: I read (Conroy's) "The Water Is Wide."

A: (Frowns) I didn't like it. And I can't read "The Lords of Discipline," either. It's too evil. Too much bad stuff. I protect myself from really ugly stuff. Recently, I read "The Kite Runner," by Khaled Hosseini. Some of my friends recommended it to me. They debated because they know I don't like ugly stuff, and there's so much pain in it.

I wouldn't take anything for reading it, although it nearly killed me. I strongly recommend it. It is beautifully, beautifully written. But it is full of anguish, full of sadness -- sad stuff relating to the human spirit. It'll break your heart. It made me cry, and I don't cry a whole lot.

I grew up a reader. And remember, that's a long time ago. And I read everything there was. Books, that is. I wasn't big on magazines. I remember I read so many children's books they opened up the adult side for me to read out of because I'd read all the children's books.

So as a young reader or high school reader, I would find an author I liked, and I would read everything that guy wrote, whatever the genre, if that guy was into it. So I had a spectrum, reading all of John Jennings' books, reading all of Hugh Walpole's books.

That's not your era.

But they're wonderful, historical novels, which I really liked and still do, pretty much. But I'm not anywhere near the reader I used to be. My eyes are OK, thank goodness. But in reading time now I grade papers. And so I get a book, and I put it by me, and I say when I finish this set (of papers), I'm going to read for an hour. And then I don't. And so I'm not really a qualified reader anymore.

But I've hardly read anything, sweetheart, that I didn't feel I was enriched by reading it. I don't care what it was. I've read every type of book, every popular book, except science fiction.

I just want to be sure it meets my standards for good writing -- picture-making, good imagery, correct, varied, well-organized. All that stuff I teach, and occasionally my children meet those standards. Occasionally, I have a good writer.

Q: Does the state choose what subject matter you teach?

A: We have a prescribed course of study. They give you areas you're supposed to cover. For instance, they tell me I'm supposed to teach a research paper.

It's not worth the time anymore. You can buy a pamphlet at college and learn what I take three weeks to do. And that's gotten worse and worse with the FCAT and No Child Left Behind.

All that stuff has become so demanding that there's little time for education. That stuff has nothing to do with education. And there's little time for that stuff that's so important to the kids.

But I do what I want to do. And you know I'm spoiled because I don't really belong here (at her age). I hope I do what I think is best for the kids, and the kids give me pretty good marks, and they met some of their standards. I teach writing well. I know how to teach it. But yes, they give us a course of study, and we're required to account for what we've done. As a matter of fact, I think teachers have to document on the computer what they do every day, academically.

Q: You're Hazel Haley. Couldn't you tell them to take a hike?

A: Yes. (Laughs.) Well, they had a computer in my room for a little while -- this whole school's computerized -- and I put it back there by the refrigerator out of the way.

And it wouldn't make ice so I had to get rid of it. (Laughs again.)

So somebody does that for me. My grades go on by computer, and a darling friend puts them on there for me. I don't live in this world.

Q: Tell me about "Macbeth."

A: I'm the world's greatest teacher of Macbeth. I could teach Shakespeare about "Macbeth" (laughing).

Q: What makes you so good?

A: It's full of adorable, double-meaning, brilliant language. I teach it word for word. Those poor kids. (Laughs.) No, I think I sell it to the kids. I met somebody at church recently who I taught 25 years ago who said he couldn't remember anything else, but he sure remembers "Macbeth."

I want the children to understand the magic. They come to me and say, "I can't understand it." And I ask, "Why not, sweetheart?" And they say, "It's in Old English." And I say, "No it's not. It's in modern English. Early modern English. The reason it's hard for you is that it's 400 years old." So we have to look at it with that in mind.

So I hope I teach it scholarly. I hope I teach it as an academic experience. But mostly I want to encourage in them an awareness of how to find out what's there (in the play). Half the world just thinks Shakespeare's great and has no idea of the riches that are there.

There's a quote that says, "He was the greatest chronicler of the human condition the world has ever known."

And yet we really don't know this man. There are eight years out of his life that he just simply was off in a spaceship that nobody knows where he went or what he was doing. Those were Shakespeare's lost years. And so we look in the sonnets to see what they tell us about this guy. But you don't learn any more. He's a man of mystery. And so I try to make the children understand the eerie magic of this writing, of this guy.

Q: You've said that you don't like to read books with darkness and pain anymore. But there's nothing darker than "Macbeth." Do you enjoy it because it's a universal story rather than something unique to our time?

A: I teach the violence in it almost simply as a device that works in the construction of the play. That's an interesting question. It's an academic experience for me, maybe. But I'll have to think about that.

I really love to teach it. I know how to make them hear it.

I think the best compliment I had was from a mama, whose son was a baseball player, who said, "I never thought I'd hear Rob say, `That Macbeth was a cool dude.' "

Q: Is it your personal favorite play?

A: Yes. Just because I know it so well.

Q: Have you ever done much of your own creative writing? Did you want to write as a child?

A: No. Never. Not even poetry. Kids write that dreadful poetry. I'm not good at children's poetry. They say, "Miss Haley, will you read this?" And I say, "No, I won't sweetheart. I don't like amateur poetry."

When you become a mature person, you do a lot of your own thing. And I just say, "Sweetheart, I can't read this. Don't ask me." The kids always ask me for a reference, and I say, "Sweetheart, I've written 10,000 of those. I don't do that anymore. Ask somebody else." You know there are a lot problems with getting mature, but it has some advantages.

Q: Any particular favorite poets?

A: (William) Wordsworth. I just believe in a lot of stuff he believes in. He was such a nature freak. Found his whole world's meaning in nature. It wasn't that he is an atheist or a nonbeliever, but he found God and religion in the wonders of nature. The things he believed in made a huge difference for me. He's my super favorite.

And I don't teach him anymore. I don't get to it. I run out of time. I have one semester to teach 1,500 years of British Lit -- plus how to write. I teach composition and British Lit. in 4 1/2 months. So this course is a survey course. I hit the high spots, and I take the time out for Shakespeare because I owe them Shakespeare. I don't even get to teach my beloved Wordsworth.

He was the only one of those Romantic poets that lived to be an old man, and he didn't do anything so red hot after he was 50. Byron and Shelley and Keats all died young. So we are to assume that the wonderful romantic poetry is a product of the youth.

— Billy Townsend
The Ledger
2006-04-30


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