The Freedom of Tossing The Scarlet Letter From a High School Curriculum
Noah Cho on Finding and Teaching Literature that Reflects His Classroom
There are few things a biracial 16-year-old growing up In Southern California has in common with Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter. There are even fewer experiences in the life of that sixteen-year-old that have much if anything to do with the events that unfold in that novel. So it’s unsurprising that I have never liked The Scarlet Letter.
Like many people who grew up in the American school system, I first read Hawthorne’s novel as a high school sophomore. Our English teacher led us enthusiastically through the book as I struggled to stay awake. “You see,” she said to our class, “Hawthorne keeps comparing little Pearl to a bird. It means that she, symbolically, wants to . . .” [Dramatic pause.] “. . . Fly free!” Looking back on that class, I often find it incredible that I became an English teacher.
Nine years after I first slogged through The Scarlet Letter in high school, I found myself back at that same school, this time as a certified teacher. I was, as most young teachers are, idealistic and filled with grand ideas about what I could accomplish in the classroom.
In my English courses at UC Irvine, I had fallen in love with novels, stories, and writers that I could never have dreamed of back in my high school English class. I found myself powering through Gabriel García Márquez’s entire oeuvre after Love in the Time of Cholera appeared on my reading list for a Magical Realism course. Langston Hughes’s The Ways of White Folks featured breathtaking prose and stories that opened my eyes to a vast world of racial dynamics far more complicated than the bubble in which I had grown up in Orange County. James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which I read with one of my most beloved college professors, inspired in me a desire for justice. Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies spoke to me in a way that no short story collection ever had before.
But it was with Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker that my thirst for multicultural literature was fully awakened. Never before had I read a novel that so directly, powerfully, and immediately connected with my own life experience. The protagonist was a father mourning his biracial Korean son, and I was a biracial Korean son still mourning the loss of his father—to see that in a novel triggered something deep within me. I had never read a novel with a Korean protagonist, nor one that mirrored my own experience as someone caught between two cultures and trying to navigate their identity.
I always had trouble connecting with the novels I read in high school—The Scarlet Letter, Pride and Prejudice, Heart of Darkness— because I saw so little of myself in those works, and was in consequence less motivated to read and study them. The writing I produced in response to these books was poor as well. My English teacher constantly berated me for not caring more or trying harder; I felt like I was a terrible writer. But once I started reading works in college that spoke to me, sang to me, suddenly I couldn’t stop writing. I fell in love with literature again.
When I was hired to teach tenth-grade English at my alma mater, I ended up replacing my own former teacher, inheriting her very classroom. Unfortunately, I also inherited the same curriculum. I was a new teacher, unproven, and felt I had to play ball. I accepted that I would not be able to change how things were done in my first year.
The first novel atop the sophomore-curriculum reading list was The Scarlet Letter.
There I was, a biracial teacher in Orange County with a roomful of students, 80 percent of whom were of East Asian, Southeast Asian, South Asian, and Middle Eastern descent. Not one novel written by an author of color or an LGBTQ+ author existed on the American literature curriculum. The world literature curriculum had just one: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. My tenth-grade Intro to Literature course could have been referred to as “Intro to White, Western Literature.”
So there I was, trying to make The Scarlet Letter interesting to students, many of whom were actually from abroad and studying in the US on student visas. We struggled through it together, but I couldn’t resist taking jabs at it. I’m the type of person who finds it difficult to hide emotions, so it was with great amusement that my students watched me attempt to teach The Scarlet Letter. One student, one of my sharpest, said, “You totally hate this book. You should switch it out for something else.”
She was right.
The next unit was a short story unit. We had one of those terrible short story collections, the ones with no discernible theme or pattern, like so many execrable textbooks in this country. But as I flipped through it, trying to find the prescribed set of stories, two in particular caught my eye. The first was Jorge Luis Borges’s incredible “Book of Sand,” a short story about a book with endless pages that drives its readers mad. The next story was by a writer I loved, Gabriel García Márquez, and it was one of my favorites of his: “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.”
I decided I would teach both the Borges and García Márquez pieces, even though they weren’t on the list I was supposed to be working from. The students, perhaps sensing my love for these weird and wonderful stories, responded well. Emboldened by their response, I started adding more: “TV People” by Haruki Murakami. The titular story from Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. “Home” by Langston Hughes. Parts of Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks.
My students loved them all. For the first time, they were all genuinely engaged and interested in what we were reading. In reading these books, so many issues that I’d never discussed with students began to surface. White students also enjoyed the stories, but started realizing they had some trouble connecting with experiences of diasporas, whether African, Asian, or South American.
Since diversifying my curriculum, there is one particular conversation I’ve had at least once a year, up to and including this school year. The first time it happened, I was reading Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese with my twelfth graders. One student, a white student, was discussing a scene in which the protagonist, Jin, changes his hairstyle to look more like a more popular white boy in his school.
“In this scene,” my student said, “Jin is trying to become American.”
I paused. “So you don’t think he’s American?” I asked. “Well, no. I mean, he wants to be, but he’s not.”
“Even though he was born in the U.S., he’s not American?”
A strange look slowly spread across his face as he realized what he’d said. “Well, I mean . . . he wants to be . . .” His voice dropped to a whisper. “. . . White?”
I don’t think it even occurred to my student that his own teacher fit into the same nebulous “are you American or what?” category.
A few years later, I had been at the school long enough to change things around even more. I had been handed English classes for twelfth grade, an age I miss teaching a bit now that I’m at a middle school. It was during those years teaching twelfth graders that I developed a more multicultural set of readings. I introduced more authors from Asia, Africa, Central and South America; international films; poems and lyrics by musicians from around the world. I added a literature-to-film adaptation course, and we looked at Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, vaguely adapted from a short story that I had to crawl across the reaches of the Internet to find. I added a graphic novel course in which I taught Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and the aforementioned American Born Chinese.
The IB literature course I taught allowed me room to add whatever authors I wanted. The one course I couldn’t touch was the AP literature course, which needed me to keep teaching “the classics” (i.e., literature mostly by straight, white, and dead men). Several of my colleagues balked at the changes I made to the other courses. Some of them lamented losing a few of the aforementioned “classics.” Some of them didn’t even know the depth of the diversity they did have in their own courses—I remember one teacher getting angry with me when I told him about speculation that Langston Hughes was gay.
There were skeptical parents, too, aware that the AP and SAT exams often favor straight white authors. Some of these parents were immigrants whose sons and daughters were finally connecting with the assigned literature. Even if they were pleased that their kids identified with these works of literature, some also feared that the knowledge of such diverse books wouldn’t help them on their next standardized test.I talk about race and gender openly with my students, and they respond openly.
I have, of course, had many students who do love and identify with the classics. Many of my students enjoy Pride and Prejudice, and I enjoyed teaching parts of Wuthering Heights. I’d never advocate for removing all of these novels, but I also think it’s important that students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and students at other intersections see themselves in what they read. I do not want students to think they can’t be writers or engaged in literature simply because they don’t see themselves being portrayed in their coursework.
When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2010, I lucked into a job at an exceptionally progressive school, and I—along with two other English colleagues—have been able to develop a diverse and ever-evolving curriculum. We teach LGBTQ+ authors; we teach African American, Asian American, Latino/Latina American, and Native American and indigenous authors; we read novels and stories that deal with ableism and sexism; we look at pieces that allow us to discuss economic inequality. We try to find an “I” perspective for every single student in every one of our classes. A gender-fluid student shouldn’t have to struggle to find literature they identify with. With a growing contingent of multiracial students, I also know that I need to add more books that reflect their experiences.
I talk about race and gender openly with my students, and they respond openly. They are passionate about the stories we read, always looking for connections to their own lives and experiences. As for the cis straight white students at my school, I believe it is also important for them to see me, a multiracial teacher, deeply in love with the texts I teach. It’s important for them to realize that most of the books they’re going to encounter in other English literature classes were written by white authors for largely white audiences, and that it’s necessary to look and read beyond that.
In a way, I owe a debt to Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter. That book, which nearly turned me against studying English back in high school, ultimately helped inspire me to change and diversity my own curriculum. For that, and for the chance to have introduced brilliant authors to the thousands of kids that have passed through my classrooms over the years, I am grateful.
Not long ago, I found myself teaching American Born Chinese to my seventh graders. It’s a fairly quick read, so I usually assign it to be read over a weekend, and then we spend a few weeks discussing it. The students were excited to be reading a graphic novel, and they went home happy.
On Monday morning, one of my East Asian students walked into the room excitedly. He pulled his book out and showed it to me, stuffed with Post-it note annotations. He broke into a wide grin.
“This book was about my life,” he said, beaming. “I know,” I said. “Mine, too.”
This excerpt appeared in Teaching When the World Is on Fire, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission. Copyright © 2019 Noah Cho.