Why High School Teachers Don’t Understand American Literature

Looking back through different documents from American literature, you would think that your teacher covered everything that you needed to know. You talk about Jamestown and Columbus, then you jump to the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, Emancipation Proclamation, then to Emerson and Thorough, Poe and Twain, and at the end, an easy final. Simple as that. In my high school I didn’t even take British Literature. To this day, I don’t know a whole hell of a lot about Shakespeare. Like nothing. But that isn’t the point. My teacher really didn’t teach me American Literature, even though he taught me all about the list above.

See, my teacher followed the curriculum. He taught us how America came to be. In reality, without any of the big documents, or without the early literature of the comings to America, we wouldn’t have what we do today. And for that, I respect him. What I disagree with is everything else that was written during this period. He, like many other teachers, only pushed the most important, most well-known pieces of literature of their times. I really didn’t realize it until I did a little research.

Looking at a poem from the 1860’s, I saw something that I had never seen before. I saw a new feeling, if you will. The writer of “the Picket Guard,” Ethel Lynn Beers, wrote about what everyone was thinking during the Civil War, in that all lives matter. Every journalist during that period wrote about the big stuff. Gettysburg, Bull Run, Antietam… That’s what you hear about. You see big death tolls, huge victories, and mighty generals, but you don’t hear about what the regular class is thinking about. The lone picket guard, fearing for his life out in the woods. Wondering about his family, and wondering why he’s fighting in the first place. She says, “And he thinks of the two in the low trundle-bed, /far away in the cot on the mountain./His musket falls slack; his face, dark and grim,/Grows gentle with memories tender,/As he mutters a prayer for the children asleep,/For their mother,—may Heaven defend her!” The soldier is thinking of his family. Like many, many other soldiers, it seems as though this one is young, but old enough to have a family.

Beers continues on, saying “The moon seems to shine just as brightly as then,/That night when the love yet unspoken/Leaped up to his lips—when low, murmured vows/Were pledged to be ever unbroken;/Then drawing his sleeve roughly over his eyes,/He dashes off tears that are welling,/And gathers his gun closer up to its place,/As if to keep down the heart-swelling.” This is the type of literature that you don’t see in the history books. You don’t fully understand how these people felt until you read something like this.

I don’t speak for all high school teachers, but I know how mine was. I’ve talked with people, and I know how theirs is, too. They never learned about what people felt during these tough times, and to me, that’s what American Literature is all about.


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