Walk into a bookstore and you may see a familiar wire rack filled with screaming bright yellow and black-striped manuals. Known as CliffsNotes, they were written to help students better understand great volumes of literature. Not. I was most disappointed in them. Understanding CliffsNotes was harder than reading the assigned books.
As of this particular September many many years ago, I hadn’t yet discovered the uselessness of CliffsNotes. I could almost hear the page turning in that direction.
“Class, class, settle down now. In accordance with our standard eighth grade English curriculum, we start a new unit today on the contemporary novel, Flowers for Algernon.”
Yes! Finally something from this century. And finally – no more poetry.
Three weeks later, Mrs. Marcotte returns our culminating exam on the novel. I’m summoned to her desk.
She swivels in her chair toward me, taking off her black-framed glasses to reveal the dark, intense eyes I’d never seen this close before.
“Michael, remember your poetry unit report, how you said you were going to do better? Well, there must be more to Flowers for Algernon than this. It seems you haven’t read the novel at all.”
“But I did.”
“Flowers for Algernon. All of it?”
“All of it?”
“The CliffsNotes, too.”
“Oh. You should never substitute them for actual reading, Michael.”
“Yeah. ‘Cuz they were more complicated than the book was. I mean, I needed CliffsNotes for the CliffsNotes. And I would’ve used them, too, but they didn’t sell that kind.”
“So, you really didn’t read the book then, did you?”
“Well … not really.”
“Then how did you answer the question about Charlie’s retardation?”
“From the movie.”
“Except it was called Charly, Mrs. Marcotte, not Flowers for Algernon, but Charly with Cliff Robertson and Claire Bloom and …”
“Never – never – watch the movie instead of reading the book. Now go back to your seat.”
Walking to my desk, I spot a big F on the last page of my test.
I’m a hair away from failing English. I never thought I’d have to do it, but the time has come to see my guidance counselor.
“It’s not fair, Mr. Sexton. The day before the test, she goes on and on about symbolism. Then about scenes I’d never seen before. Movies aren’t allowed to leave whole scenes out of a book, are they?”
“Well, Michael, you’re going to learn that … well … it seems to me if you’d read the book …”
“CliffsNotes didn’t help either …”
“That if you’d read the book you wouldn’t have needed either the movie or the book guides. Why didn’t you read it?”
“Because I don’t like to read.”
“I just don’t. Mrs. Marcotte says we’re reading timeless landmarks of literature, but they’re really the most boring stories ever told to teenagers and …”
“Oh, no they’re not …”
“Oh, yes they are – of all time. And why is everything in them symbolic to something, and then symbolic to something else? Why doesn’t she just tell us or make a list on the blackboard of symbolisms we can choose from?”
“Well, what do you think authors might be trying to show us in their …”
“If authors knew we had to go through all this in reading their books, they’d never have written them in the first place. Everyone in my family is smart. Mom said we all came from good Scandinavian stock, so what happened to me?”
“What’s so funny, Mr. Sexton?”
“If you want to see some really stupid people ….”
He spins around in his chair and leans toward the floor where, between the wall and a cabinet, a big cardboard box sits. He dumps it on his desk.
“Now these kids ….”
The box is filled with a carnival of confiscated classroom contraband: fuzzy dice, chains, novelty false teeth, yo-yos, cap guns, rubber knives, real knives, spray paint cans, “Car Mechanic” magazines, and a copy of Iliad with a giant “X” knife-gouged into the cover.
“Michael, you’re not dumb, unless you don’t use what you have. Learn to use what it is you do have – and always to its fullest. Perhaps you have a learning disability. Do you think so?”
“I dunno. Other teachers say I have the inability to learn, period – all of ‘em – if that’s what you mean? Ha. Guess there’s nothing symbolic about that, is there?”
This is an excerpt from the chapter entitled “Reading” in my memoir “Maybe Boomer.”
I read this excerpt in its entirety at op. cit. Bookstore in Santa Fe, New Mexico on September 10, 2015.