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So, here I had driven myself to a problematic, interesting crossroads. This was a book that meant much to me, one that I loved and loved to revisit, and one that I had heretofore resisted teaching. I think that all English teaching involves risks, but the risk factors mount exponentially higher when you bring in Discount Ed Hardy any text (music, poem, story) that you love and hope that students will also enjoy. And I felt that the "academization" of Kerouac's work betrayed it to a degree. The prospect of a read-aloud marathon appealed as an attempt to overturn the taint of academeâ€”and to return to a spirit of lightness within that rush of reading a book straight through.
That year's seniors were an exciting and challenging group to teach. A wide rebellious streak ran down their backs, and they brought significant energy into our small school building. When I broached the possibility of our organizing a reading marathon on the anniversary of Kerouac's death, a fair number of them supported the prospect. To be sure, a number of them expressed complete bewilderment, as in "We didn't like the book so much the first time. We're gonna read the whole thing again?" Yes: we shall not omit one word. And yes: we will read all day long. The only breaks occur when we move to a different setting, but someone always picks up the text when another stops reading. And yes, again: everyone in the room gets to read, with no prescribed order.
Here I hoped that we could create an event close in spirit to the exhortations of Frank Smith and his plea for "literacy clubs": "The classroom should be a place full of meaningful and useful reading and writing activities, where participation is possible without evaluation and collaboration is always available. No child should be excluded" (11-12). That year, I taught all members of the senior class, from AP English Literature students to special education students in a self-contained class room. Some students, I already knew, viewed their peers in other classes as "outsiders"â€”and not members of their own literacy club.
We began reading aloud at 7:00 a.m., an hour before school started officially, on October 21, with six groggy, happy readers, in a local cafeâ€”the Paradise. We pushed together two tables, bought a few coffees, and began to read. There was background music that fit in, and a man in a suit sitting next to us maintained his space, unperturbed, as he read the Times.
Then we moved into the school building for the first period class, at 8:00 a.m., and we dug in. I vowed that I would avoid turning on the nasty fluorescent lights all day long. The previous day a couple of students and I had rearranged the room and placed an old, dusty black sofa in its center. When I left for Cheap Ed Hardy home the night before, the autumn-lit room struck me as such a dead, quiet space without students and voices. I wondered what real marathoners think about before they begin moving to the awful prospect of the many miles ahead of them. But now we lit candles all over the room, and incense, and there were jazz CDs mixing in the background noise. At my invitation, a dozen staff members had signed up to read during their free periods. I laid out extra copies of the book and brought in a poster of Kerouacâ€”a photograph that shows him stepping out for a smoke on a grimy NYC fire escape, a big, Beat photo, taken by Allen Ginsberg. I promised the seniors that I would provide apple pies and ice cream at some stage of the reading, since this dessert is cited several times in the novelâ€”and it's "full of vitamins," according to Sal Paradise, Kerouac's narrator.
By the end of the day's first period, we had entered the myth of the American West. By 8:45 a.m. we had almost reached the section in the book when a big party develops in some mountain cabins outside Denver, but I was out of students: second period was a prep for me, and students had not been excused from their math classes. So I lay on the sofa, nearly asleep, and read aloud to an empty room. "What difference does it make after all?â€”anonymity in the world of men is better than fame in heaven, for what's heaven? What's earth? All in the mind". Larry, a hallway monitor and born-again Christian, entered the room, and we read a few pages together. Then Ellen and Lana managed to get free and joined the party.
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