Middle and Upper School English teacher Zachary Williams began teaching at Browning in 2014. Prior to joining us, he taught English for five years in Greenwich, Conn. at Brunswick, another boys' school. Mr. Williams earned an M.A. in English from Middlebury College's Bread Loaf School of English and a B.A. in writing seminars from Johns Hopkins University. He is currently an M.F.A. candidate in fiction at New York University. In 2018, Mr. Williams led the committee responsible for producing The Browning School’s new Code of Conduct.
My students are accustomed to hearing me talk about “the magic of English class.” It’s an idea I invoke when our coursework naturally illustrates its ability to contain multitudes: when two students, for instance, present separate readings of a text that, while equally sound, well-evidenced and convincing, are wholly incompatible with one another; or when someone offers a perspective that turns an entire discussion on its head, reversing our sense of shadow and light in our consideration of a novel.
“Wait a minute – see that? That’s the magic of English class.”
For me, that magic – the magic of reading, writing and thinking – is in the pliability of abstract thought, the openness to new ideas and ways of seeing that a good English class encourages, and the freedom in knowing that any given question is not yoked to one single right answer. As a student, English was, for me, the only subject that dealt in revelations: a text that seemed, on first reading, unremarkable, boring or even incoherent to the point of insult could, under the guidance of the teacher and with the collective effort of the group, become utterly transformed. Works that had merely shambled towards a dissatisfying close, in my own appraisal – John Updike’s “A&P,” or James Joyce’s “The Dead,” for instance – burst into bloom once the class set upon them, revealing structure, logic and meaning where before I had seen only something formless, like clay. In English class, I gathered, you learn to pull rabbits out of hats. Magic.
Today, I teach Updike and Joyce in my classes. But, as I also tell my students, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I suddenly had to throw out my syllabus and start from scratch. And that’s because we’re not just teaching books and authors; we’re teaching students how to read, in the widest sense of that word. It’s a transferable skill. Once a student learns to read deeply and thoughtfully – to pull the rabbit out of the hat – he can do it on his own, and in fact he’ll surprise himself by doing it without trying, when he least expects it, far from the English classroom. You learn to read Shakespeare and Conrad and Woolf and Ellison (just for example), and as you get better at it, slowly but surely, things start to look different – all sorts of things. You can’t put that rabbit back.
So while I very much hope that my students build an appreciation for the literary canon as their shared intellectual heritage, I hope too for them to become readers in their own lives: readers of books and stories, yes, and of films, of visual art, of history and culture. I want them to come out of my classroom with whiz-kid vocabularies and crack essay writing chops, certainly, but I also want them to learn, through literature, less quantifiable things: the power of the wandering, undistracted mind; awareness of their own interiority; a well-considered sense of their personal beliefs and attitudes; the importance of being still and listening. Above all, I want my students to develop the ability to take joy from art, and by extension, from life. That’s the big discovery waiting at the heart of all our work: reading literature and reading life go hand in hand.
And these days, that sort of sentiment sounds less and less lofty, to my mind, and more like an urgent response to the state of things. We’re harried, underslept, overworked; we turn to our phones and the toxicity of social media in what should otherwise be our quiet, reflective moments, flooding our minds with a noxious torrent of “content” that inhibits expansive thought. That’s how it feels to me, at least, and I’d imagine many of you would agree. What may have once appeared a luxury – English class’s stubborn insistence that the deep reading of fiction is worth our sustained focus and attention – now looks more like an antidote. Of course, like any of the really good things in life, it’s not a quick fix; it requires time, patience and hard work. But deep reading promotes a capaciousness of mind, a generosity of intellect, a willingness to see and hear others. In English class we learn to focus, to make eye contact, to develop ideas collaboratively, to listen. To stop multitasking, for 46 precious minutes a day. We don’t need tablets or apps or the Internet. Why would we? We’re reading books and working through them together, the way it’s been done since time immemorial. Recent research demonstrates that deep reading actually changes our brains, promoting higher neural connectivity in a variety of regions. That’s interesting to me, but mainly as corroboration for what should otherwise be common sense: books are good for us. They’re worth something. They’re connected to a way of life and mind that we should actively work to preserve.
I tell my students that they’re under no obligation to personally enjoy anything we read together, but that they must be able to articulate any displeasure thoughtfully. Unacceptable reasons for disliking a work, in my classroom, include: “I don’t know,” “It’s boring,” or – the least tolerable – “It’s weird,” which has always seemed to me a less self-aware way of saying, “I don’t understand it, and I disdain what I don’t understand.” The basic premise of English class is that reading dismantles and renders impossible that approach to the world. Through reading, students learn to understand ambiguity and complexity; in books they see, again and again, that a black and white view is frequently an incomplete one. Teachers of literature ask their students to be curious, open-minded and full of questions; we encourage them to view class as a starting point for their own explorations. In that way, we hope to light their way towards a richer, more replete intellectual existence. That’s what always interested me about English, even if I couldn’t have explained it as a kid: it implies a project that’s much bigger than any classroom, one that can fill a lifetime.
Grandiose? Perhaps. But that’s the magic of English class.