Randall Beach | Reading is an opening to selfhood but also to citizenship
David Denby (pictured above) could see what Jessica Zelenski was up against. Zelenski, a 10th-grade teacher at New Haven’s Hillhouse High School, stood in front of 24 students from one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and tried to get them excited about the pleasure of reading a novel.
“Books smell like old people,” sneered one of the students.
“He bellowed it,” Zelenski says with a smile as she recalls that moment. It was one of the many challenging encounters she has dealt with during her 15 years at Hillhouse.
Denby, who had been sitting in the classroom observing that scene for a book he was researching, says he was too stunned to react. He just quietly wrote down what the kid had said.
Two years later, Denby’s book is with us — Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-Four Books that Can Change Lives.
Denby, a staff writer at The New Yorker, came to The Study at Yale to talk about his experiences at those three schools for WSHU Public Radio’s Join the Conversation series.
Denby told the large audience, a roomful of readers, that Zelenski, one of the heroes of his book, was in the crowd. “She’s a dynamo teacher,” he said. Denby dedicated the book to Zelenski and the four other teachers he observed.
The two schools he chose besides Hillhouse were on the opposite side of the spectrum: the Beacon School on Manhattan’s upper West Side and Mamaroneck High School in Westchester County, New York.
Here was the central question Denby set out to answer in his book, as he notes during an interview with me before his talk: “How do you turn teenagers on to literature?”
Denby puts it another way: “How do you forge the link to pleasure and need, which makes somebody a reader?”
Denby, who is 72 and grew up loving to read, is alarmed at the prospect teenagers will “disappear into their screens.”
“Kids are reading more words,” he notes. “But a lot of what they read online and on their smartphones is fragmentary. It’s pieces.”
Denby was a movie critic for 45 years. “I love movies. I love being engulfed by the images. But I love more the moment when you sit and read and you pull back from that constant stimulation in our over-stimulated society. With a novel you go inward as you read — inward and outward.”
The “outward” part is as important as the “inward,” Denby believes. “Reading is an opening to selfhood but also to citizenship. It’s how you become a three-dimensional person. I think it’s essential to our civilization. The absence of it would be catastrophic. But I think we’re seeing it already.”
Denby alludes to the Republican presidential battlefield. “I think we’re seeing politically right now the product of an educational system that’s in a lot of trouble, including the ability to think creatively. If more Americans had read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, they wouldn’t take Donald Trump seriously because they would know about the Duke and the King, two con artists who make promises.”
Denby says Zelenski achieved breakthroughs in her class because she overcame students’ initial resistance to reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird by linking the Alabama characters of the 1930s to their own lives and struggles in New Haven.
“At the beginning of the school year the kids at Hillhouse wouldn’t read,” Denby says. “By the end of the year they were reading Vonnegut and Hemingway.”
When I met Zelenski, a 42-year-old white woman from Wallingford, it was clear how she connects with and engages her students, the large percentage of them African-American or Hispanic. She is indeed a “dynamo.”
Like Denby, Zelenski says, “I’ve been a voracious reader, always.”
In the “Afterword” section of Denby’s book, he returned to Hillhouse in the spring of 2015 to check on Zelenski and the students. She had recently won a teaching award, but he described her as tired and angry, dealing with the school’s controversial structural changes as well as the daily challenges in her classroom.
On that day, Denby asked her if she would ever consider leaving Hillhouse to take a teaching job at an upper-middle-class Connecticut town. She stared at him and replied, “No, never upper-middle-class. Working class only.” Those are the kids she loves.
Zelenski tells me when I raise the subject of moving on, “I’ve been here 15 years. I’m too invested in the community. I don’t want to go anywhere else.”
As to my question of whether she feels optimistic about the future of teenagers being engaged by literature, she says, “I always feel optimistic. That’s how I go in and do what I do. Teenagers don’t change. Once I can trick them into reading something fantastic, I know they’ll follow me anywhere.”
Randall Beach is the longtime columnist for the New Haven Register, where his column appears Fridays and Sundays. He enjoys his New Haven neighborhood, running through the city’s streets and parks and hanging out in its coffee shops. At home he plays his many 1960s and ’70s rock ‘n’ roll albums and CDs.