photo by emdot
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me a piece of advice I've been turning over in my mind ever since.
Each April that found me in front of a classroom full of high school juniors, I began my introductory lecture on The Great Gatsby by reciting that first line of the novel. That wasn't the real hook, of course.
As an adult, I might be eager to hear what this thought-provoking advice might have been, but when you're sixteen and the sky outside the window is thick with blue and there are baseball games and prom politics to occupy your thoughts, and you can smell the first faint hints of freedom on the breeze which animates the branches of the trees in the courtyard into arms waving invitations to escape . . . well, a fictional father's advice given to his fictional son nearly a century ago is utter snoozeville.
The first year that I taught Gatsby, I stumbled into what would later become my hook by complete accident. I was talking to my favorite class of juniors that year, and I tended to be more conversational with them. Somehow, before I knew what I was saying, I was telling them this:
The first time I read The Great Gatsby, I was a junior in high school. Just like you. I read it, and although I understood the story, I kind of didn't get it. I was a junior in college when I read it the second time and that time, I completely got it. Why didn't I get it when I was sixteen? As it just so happens, when I read it that first time when I was sixteen, I was dating a boy who would eventually break my heart. He would be, in fact, the only real heartbreak of my life. By the time I read it again in college, I understood Gatsby on a much deeper level because I knew what it was to have my heart broken.
In order to understand Gatsby, you have to have had your heart broken. At least once.
By the time I got to the part about heartbreak, the room usually got very quiet, and the eyes of all of those sixteen year-old girls (and usually half of the boys) were unblinkingly set on me. Sixteen year-olds may not know much about life yet, but unrequited love, heartaches and heartbreaks, and longing so intense you think you might actually lay down and die - this is a language in which they are fluent. The ones who were willing to get caught up, I reeled in - hook, line, and sinker.And now here we are. I'm digging around in the library in my mind, considering the question - "What book captured your heart? Tell about why the first book you loved is the first book you loved." *