On paper, my first class of the day is a challenge: 16 boys and 5 girls who struggle in English, most who will go to work after they graduate this year. Some are in special education classes or speak a language other than English at home. Some have had run-ins with local law enforcement. Some are athletes who talk about the misery of football practice and the joy of playing the game. Some miss school when deer season opens or to take care of a sick child.
In person, the class is a delight. They are unfailingly polite to me and kind to each other. They never complain about the difficult British literature we read or about the frequent essays I assign. When we discussed Chaucer and John Donne and Jonathan Swift, they made me feel like the most interesting person in the world.
Then I decided to teach a unit on Jane Austen.
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My students are becoming adults in a world where powerful men perpetrate sexual harassment and assault with impunity for years, where the mounting tally of women tweeting “MeToo” exposes a pervasive rape culture, where John Kelly’s benighted comment about women being “sacred” in a past that never existed is a measure of the chasm between what men believe and what women actually experience.
Jane Austen seemed like a good place to raise those issues.
More than any other topic, Austen writes about the power dynamics of human sexuality. Her unhappy women characters are abandoned by scoundrels, mocked by uncaring husbands, forced to choose between a loveless marriage or destitution. Her happy women marry men who treat them as partners.
Austen’s prose is difficult even for our honors students, so my non-college bound students read excerpts and watched Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility” and Joe Wright’s “Pride and Prejudice,” two film adaptations of the novels. The class was hooked immediately.
“Promise me this is going to end up happy,” one boy dressed in camouflage said at the end of the first day.
My students liked Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, the sisters in “Sense in Sensibility,” but they fell hard for Elizabeth Bennet of “Pride and Prejudice.” Sassy, smart-talking, take-no-prisoners, speak-truth-to-power thorn in Mr. Darcy’s side, she is the kind of woman the girls say they want to be and the boys say they want to find. If she is not quite a contemporary woman who wants to be treated as any man’s equal, with a voice that is heard, a mind that is respected, and a body that belongs to her and no one else, Lizzie Bennet is her own person despite the constraints of her social class and time.
That resonates with rural Southern students growing up poor.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that boys generally prefer “boy stories”—adventures starring male protagonists. I had worried that my students would tune out a woman’s voice or resist seeing the world through a woman’s point of view.
But like most “truths universally acknowledged,” that turned out to be an assumption that didn’t play out in reality. Without my saying a word, they connected the dots from Austen’s stories to the current accounts of sexual harassment and misogyny dominating the news.
I should have trusted them. The young men and women in my first class of the day already know what so many adults have forgotten: how to let a story different from your own open your eyes and heart.
Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org