Literary Hub

Teaching High Schoolers to Talk Equally About Joy and Pain

In this monthly column for Lit Hub, I’ve been sharing the experiences of high school English teachers across the country—the joys, the struggles, what keeps us coming back to the classroom—trying to get to the heart of what Andre Dubus would write on his chalkboard at the first meeting of his classes: “Art is always affirmative, because it shows us that we can endure being mortal.” This column is an affirmation that teaching is eccentric, wild, and sometimes beautiful.


It is an unfortunate truth that our bodies suffer. As Virginia Woolf wrote in her essay “On Being Ill,” a body is a fragile thing: it “blunts or sharpens, colors or discolors, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February.” To live is to enter an “unending procession of changes, heat and cold, comfort and discomfort, hunger and satisfaction, health and illness, until there comes the inevitable catastrophe; the body smashes itself to smithereens, and the soul (it is said) escapes.”

Heavy thoughts. Yet another unfortunate truth is that the children we teach in high school are not inured to pain and illness. However young, many of them have lived an entire life of hurt—physical and mental—without us knowing. We should speak about pain, and our mortality, in the high school classroom. To do otherwise is to lessen the gravity of living.

Catherine Reed teaches a Literature and Medicine course at The Ethel Walker School, an all-girls boarding school in Simsbury, Connecticut. The English department chairperson, this is her 3rd year at the school, and her 30th year teaching. She also teaches a 9th grade Rites of Passage class, an 11th grade Honors American Literature course, and a Writing Portfolio class, but we spoke most about her Literature and Medicine course, which is offered to seniors. The subject is certainly not easy, but it is apt and necessary for an honest classroom.

Her love for English initially came from her parents; she calls them “happy professors” who “still teach and both will soon be 80.” But she also had good English teachers as a high school student. She remembers her 10th grade English teacher, who “was interested in what we had to say about things other than the books we read (which were great). I loved what we read in his class, including all of Moby Dick. That was the first time I felt that teachers could be human, real, worthy of attention.” She recalls how her senior year teacher read passages aloud from Things Fall Apart “with volume and fury.”

Great teaching, I’ve noticed, begets future teachers.

Reed thinks “that most adolescents are ready to talk about all serious life matters, including suffering.”

Reed taught in France for many years, where she “learned to take poetry and drama much more seriously,” a result of needing to prepare students for the American literature exams. She has brought that love back to the states, and has found that certain poems stir her students. “Rachel McKibbens’s poem, ‘Minneapolipstick’ was an invitation for one of my most talented young poets to write about her own identity. The poem is a tribute to Prince, about whom she knew nothing, but McKibbens’s gratitude for making young, queer life visible spoke to her.” Reed has also been drawn to older works that have come “back into relevance—Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (partner violence, female solidarity, financial dependence), O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (alcoholism and opioid addiction), Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (health insurance apocalypse, proliferation of auto-immune diseases, blame), Hamlet (anxiety, depression).”

Those works speak to her interest in stories about our bodies and our struggles. Her Literature and Medicine course is inspired by one, Arnold Weinsten, her father who taught at Brown to medical students and undergraduates. Reed tailored the content for high school, and the result is a course that should be taught at more schools: a genuine opportunity to engage the difficulty of being alive in this world.

Her students in the course choose “a disease or disorder and put together a list of fictional, poetic and dramatic texts to read on that subject.” Reed sees the goal of the course is “to show how writers depict illness, wellness, doctors, patients, and mortality in their works, but also to more fully understand suffering and its consequences.” Senior year seems like the right time to have this difficult conversation. If we believe that high school is a preparation for the messiness of life, we should acknowledge that health concerns, illness, treatment, and care are significant parts of that life. Great literature can reveal the acute pain of others—and perhaps reveal our shared struggles.

Reed tells me that last year, some of the best projects in the course were by students who examined literary portrayals of anxiety, deafness, and addiction. Some students examined Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon while reading texts from Sophocles and Ovid. Some students who take the course are interested in medical school, while others are drawn to “how art can depict suffering and facilitate empathy.” Her class recently visited the Yale Art Museum “to look at these themes in visual art; the girls wrote about what moved them and connected it to Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

This year students read a graphic novel, Stitches by David Small, “that prompted one girl to make her own graphic novel about her father’s death just before school started.” Reed thinks “that most adolescents are ready to talk about all serious life matters, including suffering. I am always moved to hear what they say about illness in their families, or that they have lived through themselves.”

Reed believes “wholly in the power of literature to transform us into better people, better citizens. I fear that people who do not read forfeit their greatest personal power: the power to know what it means to be fully human. How can we ever change the world if we do not?” I appreciate Reed’s mixture of honesty and optimism: “English teaching is a glorious profession. It is, of course, poorly paid, garners no prestige and very few accolades—and it is truly, endlessly exhausting. The papers! It can also be wrenching, especially when you care about your students as you should. It is also, however, a daily encounter with the best that life has to offer, and I feel very, very lucky, indeed, to be able to do that.” That luck means reading and teaching about joy and pain—truly, affirming what it means to be human.

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