Boone! Dear sweet mountainous Boone with your little streams and vibrant pubs – once again will I wear expensive sandals and hike on your trails, fearing the snakes that will never come. Oh glorious city!
In case you couldn’t tell, I am excited to be teaching in North Carolina again this summer. Also I have been reading a lot of the Chronicles of Narnia. The two things are related, I promise: once again the Duke TIP program has decided to put me in charge of a summer class called “From Wonderland to Hogwarts” (or “Wonderwarts” if you’re yelling the class name across the Appalachian State University quad). My students will be high-achieving seventh-and-eighth graders. I know that their exuberance will be boundless, though dampened initially by the amount of reading I will assign.
“Nooo,” my students groaned when my TA Kris and I dumped these books onto their desks last summer. As a relatively new teacher, I feared I had ordered too many, and had a private moment of despair.
But by gum, in three short weeks, a good majority of them had finished not only “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” but also “The Magician’s Nephew”, “Ella Enchanted”, “The Graveyard Book”, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”, “The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm”, and “Enchantress from the Stars”. My Wonderwartians composed fanfictions, essays and (surprisingly dark) fantasy stories. They wrote hasty parody plays and hammed it up in the haunted auditorium. Although the subject matter was, to their parents’ dismay, not exactly something that would help them prepare for the ACTs, I did legitimately see their writing improve.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed teaching junior high school students. I may have been slightly reclusive in high school, but high school me had nothing on middle school me, nerdery-wise. Though I had a posse of very funny female friends, I was popular with the masses only when it came time to answer Quiz Bowl questions during Social Studies. To be frank, I was scary-looking. I had not yet learned the art of washing my face. I didn’t believe conditioner was useful for anything. I was blessed with not only buck teeth but vampire teeth, an extra set of them that came down like fangs on both sides and were bound to my lower jaw with thick rubber bands.
In addition to or probably because of this, I was dangerously into fantasy literature. “Escapism,” I thought, “what a splendid way to evade my torturous existence.” (I was terribly dramatic.) Pern! Acorna! Xanth! I became a rapacious reader, raring to Find Out What Happened. There were never enough books; even our wonderful sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Landy’s extensive library would not satisfy me.
I assigned so many books because I figured, or hoped, that these kids would be the same. I was right (although yes, many of them were cooler than me). One girl in particular would finish, say, The Graveyard Book in half a day. I would quiz her and she would sigh the entire plot back at me in detail. Well, FINE, you just KEEP READING the GAME OF THRONES book you brought, I’d say to her, EVEN THOUGH IT’S NOT AGE-APPROPRIATE. And DON’T TELL ME WHAT HAPPENS. Well, Daenerys Targaryan, she’d say… I would go LA LA LA, and she would cackle wickedly.
For my class, my own kingdom, I tried to choose wisely. As a rule, I picked the ones that stuck with me and shaped me – not morally, though the Chronicles of Narnia books certainly tried, but aesthetically. Tolkien’s fair pastel-colored Rivendell; Lewis’s the Wood between the Worlds, that golden-green infinity of woods and ponds; Farmer’s horrifying Mile-High McIlwaine, a skyscraper with a murderous elephant god at the top of it; cobblestoned Hogwarts with its carriages and dormitories… I know that all books aren’t for everyone, but fantasy at its best is impossible travel, and I wanted my students to, in these three weeks, journey to as many strange landscapes as they could.
For Boone is a strange landscape: in the morning, mist settles down over pine forests, and by noon it’s burned away. The sun shines hot over the hilly campus. There’s a graveyard that dates from the 1700s – the students begged me to read in it, sometimes, and I often acquiesced, even though it took them a while to settle down among the headstones and stop acting like scared rabbits. The dormitories are distant and haunted-looking. The flowers are inevitably amazing.
When I was their age, i.e. much too old for magical thinking, I kept trying to have an otherworldly adventure. Feeling rather silly, I would check the coat closet one or two times a year, just to make sure that its back wall hadn’t become a wintry otherworld. It never did, or at least not when I was looking.
For better or for worse, though, my students will be whisked into another place. Come June they will settle, parentless (for aren’t child-travelers in magical books always parentless?), into dormitories, to read arcane books. I am tempted to sort them into Hogwarts houses upon their arrival, but will resist – Gryffindors and Slytherins are natural enemies and it would surely end in blood. They will get homesick, complain about the dorm food, stay up too late, walk on forbidden grass, and they will return home with stories upon stories, only some of which will make sense to their parents.
And I? When I am not the headmistress, I will head off on magical camping trips and mudden my expensive sandals. I will befriend dogs, swim in swift streams, and hear raccoons devouring my Doritos. I will not be afraid. TIP is a magical place, even if I had to go through middle school to get to it.