Doctor Demento, Gateway Drug

As high school sophomores, we drama freaks knew Olympia beer was “piss water”, and our discriminating tastes praised concord grape wine above wanna-bes like Thunderbird or the yet uninvented Bartles and Jaymes. Shakespeare and George S. Kaufman put Booth Tarkington to shame. For real comedies and dramas depicted worlds that were tenuous, crazy, and unstable, not unfamiliar to us who were waiting to turn 18 soon and be eligible for the draft. We had watched tv coverage of troops sent home from Viet Nam and a President’s resignation, and in months would see that of the assassinations of Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk. We had discovered Monty Python’s Flying Circus on PBS and would soon discover twin late-night bulwarks against the world’s insanity and its taste for insipid sit-coms or milquetoast dramas:  our antidote? “Creature Features” and “The Dr. Demento Show”.

While Night of the Living Dead and the Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing imports from Britain reigned as staples of my weekend horror film viewing, Shel Silverstein’s readings of his own poems became my FM listening highlights of the week. My friends and I would recite “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout” in our own Sterling Holloway-swallowed-gravel voices, along with other artists’ compositions such as  “Dead Puppies” and “Fish Heads”. Both shows featured hosts who playfully enjoyed the fans, the genres, the creators of films and songs; and the worse the production values, the larger the audience. In fact, it seems to me that the songs and films actively resisted society’s definitions or limits of good taste and, naturally, we  followed.

As I read an essay in last Sunday’s NYTimes in praise of the “scary, silly, and sophisticated” books by Sendak, Dr. Suess, and Silverstein, I thought about the role those “gateway” programs played in forging my literary and dramatic tastes. The article, which reminds us that at one time these “classics” forced readers to ask “‘Is it appropriate for a children’s book to be raising such questions?'”, struck a chord with me because this week in my classroom students were engaged in dialogue about the appropriateness, even for adults, of the subject of Anna Karenina, and the role of literature.

“Aren’t books supposed to make you happy?”

I was delighted to hear my students articulating various points of view, and referring back to Tolstoy’s opening sentence about happy and unhappy families as a basis for their defense of a literature esthetic. I have held for about five years or more now the opinion that a primary goal of high school education is that students graduate with a personally worked out ethics of reading, something along the lines of a reasoned defense for being life-long readers. The culmination of many years of such ruminations might be the writing of an article such as Bill Keller’s mid-life defense of poetry, or a book-length treatise like Edward Veith’s Reading Between the Lines; but where and when does our sense of literature’s purpose begin? I am certain I was observing its sprouting and growth this week, and I am grateful for the glimpse I was given.

I overheard juniors and seniors grappling with the question of the appropriate subject of a book,  sophomores asking whether a graphic novel was blasphemous or reverent in its use of biblical allusion, and freshmen pleading for time to write poetry and read books, bending their definitions of poetry around the uses, tastes, and preferences of every person in the room.  There was an impulse however, as the observing teacher, to influence each of these situations. As will be clear from the foregoing, my preconception allows for any ethical point of view–providing it considers as a staple of the literary diet copious reading. More particularly, I hope the diet is hearty and well-balanced, consisting of lots of roughage and no artificial sweeteners. Honestly, though, I didn’t start eating like that until my forties, and I don’t read like that most of the time even now. Can it be that I am looking to my own students to reinforce my own self-imposed restrictions and assumptions about what is worth while to read? I am so certain about my own convictions that I can be certain I am teaching them, both consciously and unconsciously.

What I must guard against, then, is the impulse to discount any opinion which may run contrary to my own. I have to be silent in the classroom long enough to hear the voices of students who do not yet (and may never) share my convictions about good books. Just because I might have reached the conclusion that books I read ought to cover a breadth of human experience, as Tolstoy’s does, I need to act on behalf of the liberty of young people to disagree, and to shape their own ideas and definitions of what literature can be and should do.

Such disagreement relates to Gordon Pradl’s notion of the usefulness of resistance. By providing a social environment in which, and a text against which, readers may freely respond, we teachers strengthen a student’s ability to resist a given or accepted reading or standard, and to argue more skilfully and confidently. It is enough–and I must trust that it is enough–to select the best words (and images) by women and men which do invite student questions, Tolstoy, Robert Cormier, Gene Yang, and Adam Zagajewski, Anne Overstreet, Sara Zarr, Madeleine L’Engle, and Toni Morrison. Words that spark a conversation so compelling that readers will never forget the feeling associated with the opportunity to define the world for themselves. It may be such clarifying questions that Richard Peck has in mind in his Invitation to The World:  “Novels need to raise the questions no one else is raising in the lives of readers.

If for this teenager Dr. Demento’s radio show was a gateway drug to the silly, scary, sophisticated inebriation of the written word, how are young people today getting hooked on the hard stuff? Books, graphic novels, SLAM poetry, music lyrics: some of these have traditionally been in students’ control.  Does the term “controlled substance” deserves to be reexamined? Who is in control of what we read? Is there a proper substance for academic reading in secondary school? One might argue for an appropriately stuffy canon of books that deal with the human condition as tragic dramatists or metaphysical poets do; but I urge you to let them read Shel Silverstein alongside a Shakespearean sonnet or The Chocolate War before Paradise Lost. Students, fascinated by the ethics of truth-telling Tim O’Brien’s “Ambush”, will discuss, write about, and read further in relation to the topic in Kant, Bonhoeffer, and The Bible, in search of words that support their point of view, or that suggest how they are to construct a view they hadn’t yet considered.

“The novel is called The Last Safe Place on Earth because there isn’t one”. – Richard Peck, Invitations to the World: Teaching and Writing for The Young, Dial Books NY 2002.

Image Source: Getty Images (in Keller’s NYT article)


4 Responses to “Doctor Demento, Gateway Drug”

  1. September 24, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    My favorite post title so far, definitely. And I liked this teacher’s-eye view of the stuff in that NYT piece, which seemed pretty limited in its scope. I wonder where the love for both “Kitchen Nightmares” and Masterpiece Theatre fits into this…

  2. 2 Susan Berrend
    September 25, 2011 at 2:30 am

    Isn’t Kitchen Nightmares arranged in a rising/falling action sort of way? It all builds to you ‘don’t now why you should be in this business,’ to ‘look, we fixed it all for you’, happy happy, joy joy? (That is, until the review episode that revisits the now closed restaurants). Students are hooked on Dexter, Glee, America’s Next Top Model, Project Runway. How can reading get linked to these as they are certainly playing more and more into their overall viewing time.

    I sadly, have never run into any student who has watched Masterpiece (once Masterpiece Theater). I still own my adoration of Derek Jacobi because of watching I, Claudius at a way too impressionable age.

    • September 25, 2011 at 8:11 pm

      Our impressionable ages: I am sure my enjoyment of Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Michael Crichton related to high school drama, music, and reading – they were writers who crafted film, stage dramas, or novels whose structure involved awareness of rising/falling action. Nanny 911 is similar to KN – the teacher instills certain principles such as “simplicity” or “who’s in charge” and “consequences” for choices/actions. Although students aren’t in touch with our “Masterpiece”, I know some who watch Pride and Prejudice or have seen “King’s Speech”; Kevin Spacey as Richard III and Sam Waterston as Lear (in footsteps of Jacobi and McKellan) ahead in New York this season, making me think there is value to be had, if we can show them where to look.
      Linking reading to where they are now has been what I call lately “building bridges”. If teacher builds it, she needs to know what students read/watch/know. So I have urged them to try the building – creating links from their own experience to a text. In theory, then, a student hooked on Runwaymight connect Wilde’s history of clothing and textiles in Dorian Graywith her own interest in fashions, and dig into how Wilde treats beauty.
      I suppose I select (or offer choices) of texts that deal with complex and broad-ranging details which come down to relationships with family, friends, God, nature, or oneself; then we provide connections until they make connections themselves. Conversely, when students took an interest in lying recently, I selected other poems, philosophy, and fiction that raised ethical questions, and let them choose from among them. I was thinking this a.m. of writing topics, and maybe this is also possible: compare your life to a video game – which game would you choose?
      Runway and KNcan be used for arts and math and science connections (economics, esthetics, gastronomy) as well as business and social principles. I have noticed communication, forgiveness (and loving enemies!) as themes in some TV (as well as the theme “the world is a better place with Anthony Newley songs), which link well with academic texts.
      But my personal issue/fear is I operate on the principle that my job is to lead them to read books they wouldn’t ordinarily read, because they don’t yet see a connection to their extracurricular life. (they wouldn’t have chosen it for themselves) That can easily equate with a “classics” only approach. While I have been bringing graphic novels, newspaper articles, modern essays and poetry into class, I must still hope they find their own Derek Jacobis, as I found my Olivier, my James Earl Jones. In Kitchenthere is an opportunity for viewers to identify with a side: management or staff. Somehow our allegiance is tested or we decide to join forces and become successful. We, too, can practice these strategies for success in our homes, businesses, relationships! At the least, if reading becomes a part of the ordinary day, and poetry is somehow seen to be linked to something as simple as the enjoyment of a meal, our students may go on a picnic of their own, saying “a loaf of ****ing bread, a jug of ****ing wine, and thou.”

    • September 25, 2011 at 8:23 pm

      Specifically, yes, we could identify a narrative structure to any of the well-crafted reality or scripted dramas on TV. Similar problem-solving could involve students in listening to NPR stories (short reports or segments of “This American Life”). Then we could ask them to try something of the kind with their own favorites: Glee, a “HALO: Reach” game. Then what? I suspect we hope for a kind of transference – that they will begin to impose or seek patterns and structures in plots of their personal reading/viewing. And in a highly evaluative/synthetic mode they might come to see patterns in their own lives which could be shaped into memoir, reminiscence, and autobiography. In my heart I probably hope that one might trace one’s own journey through the matter one reads/views, so that self-discovery, self-learning occurs.

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