Finding the Truth in 10th Grade English Class by Sarah Darer Littman

Last year, after my congressman (who serves on the House Intelligence Committee) argued that the NSA had broken no laws, only to be contradicted a few months later by documents obtained by contractor Edward Snowden, I decided to re-read George Orwell’s 1984.

I last read it 36 years ago, during one of the most influential years of my reading life, 10th grade honors English with phenomenal teacher Suzanne Price.

What particularly set my synapses alight that year was the Utopia/Dystopia unit, in which we read Utopia, Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies.

After revisiting 1984 with an adult eye, I decided revisit some of the other books on the syllabus.

The 60th Anniversary edition of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 includes an introduction by Neil Gaiman.  “This is a book of warning. It is a reminder that what we have is valuable, and that sometimes we take what we value for granted….”

Gaiman highlights the three phrases that make possible “the world of writing about about the world of not yet”:

What if…

If only…

If this goes on…

The last question is one I use with my writing students when we talk about world building. I ask them to take something in today’s society and extrapolate into the future. It’s always one of my favorite sessions.

One wonders how Ray Bradbury would have survived in today’s high stakes testing environment. In his essay “The Story of Fahrenheit 451,” Jonathan Eller writes,  “Ray Bradbury never really figured out how to learn in a lecture hall or a classroom environment. The printed word seemed far more real to him, and the pages of countless library books formed the core of his education.”

I can think of so many successful, creative people for whom the same is true. It’s why, when I hear Common Core ELA standards architect David Coleman disparage narrative fiction and personal exposition with the comment “As you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a s*** about what you feel or what you think,” I feel like a modern day Montag trying to escape from the Mechanical Hound, and that the children’s book writers and illustrators I’m gathered with at the retreat from where I’m writing this post are like Mr. Granger and his group of book memorizers hiding out in the countryside, trying to preserve the memory of story and why it is so important in our lives.

“We’ll pass the books on to our children, by word of mouth, and let our children wait, in turn, on the other people. A lot will be lost that way, of course. But you can’t make people listen.” Granger tells Montag near the end of Fahrenheit 451. “They have to come round in their own time, wondering what happened and why the world blew up under them.”

You might think my passion for books and stories is because I grew up reading them and now I write them. But recently, as I sat in synagogue listening to my rabbi’s sermon, I realized how storytelling is integral to my faith. It’s how we accomplish לדור ודור  “from generation to generation.”

“Stories are a comprehensive, encyclopedic treasure of the spirit of the nation, reminders of is concepts, beliefs and opinions from many different periods that have been crystallized in its folklore. They contain segments of its communal and individual life, whose soul was originally transmitted orally, in conversations with other people, then it was written and stored as a treasure for future generations. The form of the story and its contents were transmitted together, but the nation was the real creator of those stories.” Mordechai ben Yecheskayl. Sepuray Mahahseyot. (Tel Aviv. D’vir Publishing Company, 1927)

Why does Coleman have such antipathy to story? Rereading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and checking out Brave New World Revisited for the first time helped me find answers to that question.

In the preface to the 1946 edition of Brave New World Huxley wrote,  “a really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced because they love their servitude. To make them love it is the task assigned…to ministries of propaganda, newspaper editors, and school teachers” – not, I hasten to add, the teachers of the Nerdy Book Club, who encourage their kids to love reading and to think critically.

But maybe it’s not because of such sinister motives. Maybe it’s due to what Huxley, in Brave New World Revisited, calls the “Will to Order” – the “wish to bring unity out of multiplicity.”  Peter Greene at Curmudgucation wrote a great blog post about that could explain why an education system created by tech billionaires is doomed to fail:

“I’ve lived most of my life around engineers and their modern offspring, computer systems guys (as an English teacher, I’m a bit of an anomaly). And here are two things I know about folks in those fields:

1) They love neat, pretty systems.

2) Human beings often fail to behave the way they think human beings ought to behave.”

I, too, have spent a lot of time around engineers and computer guys, and so couldn’t help smiling and nodding.

But as anyone who has spent time as a parent or an educator knows, children aren’t easily ordered into neat, pretty systems, even in the smallest of units, the family.

I’m leaving this retreat with renewed vigor, to write more stories and to fight for the right of our children to read them in schools and libraries. Literature contains the collective soul of our nation, and the books I read in tenth grade taught me what Neil Gaiman said so eloquently in his preface to Fahrenheit 451:  “Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.”

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Sarah Darer Littman, is the award-winning author of Confessions of a Closet Catholic, Purge, Life After, and Want to Go Private? Her latest YA novel (still in search of the right title- stay tuned!) will be published by Scholastic Press in Spring 2015. Sarah teaches creative writing for Writopia Lab in Fairfield County, CT,  and is an adjunct professor in the MFA program at Western CT State University. In her spare time (!) she’s an opinion columnist for CTNewsJunkie.com.  You can find her online at http://sarahdarerlittman.com, on Twitter as @sarahdarerlitt, and on Facebook