Guest Post by Jackie Catcher
“Inferno?” I asked. I looked up at Sean*, a skinny freshman with small gages in his ears and a bleached blonde buzz cut. His punk skater image matched the rebellious reputation of the book he had recently finished: The Perks of Being a Wallflower. This was the first time he had come to me with a book request for his independent reading.
“Yeah, you know that book about hell.” I couldn’t help but chuckle—when Sean came into my classroom he associated books with being in hell, now he wanted a book on hell.
“Um, yeah, let me find it. Dante’s Inferno?” I repeated again. I tried to mask my surprise but could hear my voice crack with the title.
“Yeah, that one,” he said straight-faced. The image of my tired college English professor popped into my head; the threadbare sports jacket he wore as he droned on about Inferno; I remember feeling like he single-handedly had pulled me through all nine circles of hell.
Sean owned the video game adaptation of the book, which had sparked his interest. I handed him a copy, warning, “This is a hard read. Even if you get through part of it, that will be impressive! I read this in college.” I felt the need to somehow soothe his frustrations even before he started.
“Ok.” He brushed off my warnings.
Every day I watched Sean crack open Inferno and slowly make his way through the convoluted English translation. And every day I expected Sean to walk into my classroom and abandon the book. But he didn’t.
“How much does he really understand though?” asked another teacher after I brought up Sean’s accomplishments. She made a good point. Not only was Sean in my academic class, the lowest level in my tracked high school, he had also scored partially proficient in reading on the New Hampshire state standardized tests over the past two years. Even if Sean didn’t understand the book in its entirety, I believe he gained just as much as any freshman English major dissecting the poem.
Sean might not have delved into the intricacies of the epic poem, but he took away a sense of confidence and pride that can only accompany struggle. Many students lack the reading stamina Sean exhibited, an essential skill for success in post-secondary schooling. Students can be quick to abandon books, and I have found that it isn’t until students become more developed, advanced readers that they understand the value of pushing beyond the first ten or even one hundred pages of a book to get to the “good stuff.” Despite Sean’s distaste for reading prior to this year, his hunger for a challenge paired with the independent reading initiative allowed Sean to build his stamina and prove himself as a reader. As Sean said, “I kept telling myself it’s just a book. You can keep reading.” Reading Inferno stemmed from his curiosity and transformed into an undertaking of pride.
Sean’s experience with Inferno didn’t include deep literary analysis and his takeaway would most likely make my stuffy college professor cringe, but I’d argue that Sean learned the lesson Dante intended: perseverance and hard work lead to significant achievements.
*The name has been changed to protect the identity of the student
Jacqueline Catcher is a first year teacher at Exeter High School in Exeter, New Hampshire. She teaches Academic and College Preparatory Freshman English and an upper level elective writing course using the workshop model. She can be reached at email@example.com.