Saturday, February 7

Literary Explorations on Everest...

This is a paper I wrote for my Intro to Teaching class. The prompt was to write about our most memorable teacher, good or bad. I chose to write about my sophomore honors English teacher. Memorable, indeed.

J&R - I think y'all understand my love/hate relationship with this book (and that cursed DVD - I still have it!).

Amy R, Amy T and Blume - Y'all lived through this with me, way back in the day! "Too. Many Muscles." Good times, good times!

As a child, I loved to ask questions. Genuinely curious, I wanted to know the who, what, where, why, when and how of everything. My parents tolerated my endless inquiries to a point, but would grow weary of providing answers and explanations ad nauseam. As a student, I continued to ask questions. The motive behind my questions, however, was of a more self-serving nature: Why do I have to learn this? Why is it important to me? When am I ever going to use this information? The subject that I most frequently asked questions in was English. Concerning the works of fiction we were required to read, I wanted to know why the particular author was worth studying, and more importantly, I wanted to know what literary value the novel had to offer to my educational experience. Never was I more passionate about questioning the value of a book than in my honors English class during sophomore year of high school. It was the year Mr. R made me climb Mt. Everest, and then tried to convince me that it was for my own good.

There are some high school teachers who, in my opinion, are hired more for their athletic prowess than for their classroom instructional capabilities. Mr. R was such a teacher. A track coach, he was a very large and well-built man who struggled to cross his arms all the way across his chest due to the size of his biceps. To this day I cannot understand why anyone would have given him the authority to teach an honors English course. I don’t remember much of what we were supposed to have learned in his class that year. What I do remember is that as part of his syllabus, Mr. R had us read Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer.

First published in 1997, Into Thin Air is the account of what happened during the May 1996 Mt. Everest disaster that resulted in the deaths of eight climbers. In the book, Krakauer, a well-known journalist and outdoor adventurer, explains the training and preparation that is required for such an expedition, as well as the associated risks and dangers. What follows is a detailed description of his journey to the base of the mountain, the subsequent climbs to achieve acclimatization, and finally the awful events that took place on top of the world’s tallest mountain. The story, or rather the tragedy, is extremely interesting, to be sure. But for a sophomore honors English student, it was pure torture.

We read the entire book, all 374 pages of it. Mr. R made us keep our own personal journals in which we wrote entries as if we ourselves were climbing Mt. Everest. He had us study, in detail, what happens to a person who is suffering from hypoxia. He described, in detail, his own plans to one day hike to the base of the mountain in Nepal with his wife. During the entire experience, the questions kept repeating themselves in my mind: Why? Why are we reading this book? What am I supposed to be learning from this? What literary value does this book hold for me, right now, as a sophomore in high school? Why?!

I still don’t know exactly what Mr. R thought he was teaching by having us study this particular non-fiction book, but the memory of his class and reading Into Thin Air haunts me even today. For some reason I have never been able to bring myself to throw the book away, and ten years later it is still sitting on my shelf. I think it serves as a constant reminder to question everything – to question the who, what, where, why, when and how of the things I study and learn, and especially of the books I read.

And even if my questions take me to Everest and back, it shouldn’t be a problem. Been there, done that. Thanks to Mr. R, I’ve got the book to prove it.

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