Classic Books Teach Lifelong Lessons

As an AP English language and composition teacher, I’m used to giving summer reading assignments to my incoming seniors. This summer, I decided to give the readers of this column three (Yes, I said three! No whining, please.) summer reading assignments. Your tasks: 1. Watch the PBS series, “The Great American Read.” 2. Vote for your favorite book from the series’ list of America’s 100 best-loved novels. 3. Read or reread at least one book on the list.

The eight-part series discusses the novels chosen from a national survey, and Americans can vote for their favorites by visiting “The Great American Read” on the PBS website, or by visiting the series’ Facebook and Twitter pages. PBS will reveal the novel voted America’s most-loved book on it series finale this October.

Some of my own favorite books made the list: “The Great Gatsby,” the “Harry Potter” and “Outlander” series, “The Help,” “The Joy Luck Club,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Wuthering Heights,” “The DaVinci Code.”

But one novel stands head and shoulders above the rest. It is my sentimental favorite, the book that made me fall in love with animals, reading and the written word, and I have the greatest second grade teacher in the history of school to thank for introducing me to this life-changing novel. Thank you, Ms. Ruth Lynn Thompson, for giving me the gift of E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web.”

Forty-three years ago, this knobby-kneed, pigeon-toed, left-handed, extremely skinny girl couldn’t wait for the class to finish its work, so Ms. Thompson could read another chapter. I marveled at the way she could speak with the light, lilting voice to portray young and innocent Wilbur and within a second sound like liquid velvet to bring the mature, wise voice of Charlotte to life. I couldn’t get enough of this simple story of the unlikely friendship between a pig and a spider.

Through the pages of this book, I learned spider legs have seven sections: coxa, trochanter, femur, patella, tibia, metatarsus and tarsus. I was introduced to (and used ad nauseum) the words salutations, untenable, sedentary, gullible and radiant. Most importantly, White’s magnum opus (Thanks again, Charlotte!) validated for me that people should never judge a book by its cover.

It’s no accident White chose a “fierce, brutal, scheming, blood-thirsty” spider to save Wilbur. While he judged Charlotte’s appearance and her proclivity for trapping flies as “a miserable inheritance,” Wilbur soon realized that “underneath her rather bold and cruel exterior, she had a kind heart, and she was to prove loyal and true to the very end.” I was no stranger to this dichotomy.

My brother, who was nearly four years younger than I, had Down syndrome. When I began school, it seemed I was always explaining to my new friends that while my brother looked and talked differently from most, he, like Charlotte, had a kind heart and was loyal and true. Most times, my brother won them over. Sometimes, they couldn’t see beyond his exterior. It was their loss. “Charlotte’s Web” helped me understand that I was not alone in this experience. I, like Wilbur, luckily learned at a young age to look beyond the exterior. Every single being, large or small, alike or different, is significant and has worth. The moral of this story is that the world needs more Wilburs, Charlottes and Ferns to stand up for, defend and celebrate our differences and our worth.

Thank you, Mr. White, for writing this epic story of a tiny spider; your book and its characters prove that big things come in small packages. Thank you again, Ms. Thompson, for putting this big gem in my little hand all those years ago. Your small act made a large impact on who I became.

I can only hope the summer reading assignments you now have will reacquaint you with an old favorite book or help you find a new one. And, if I may be so bold as to assign you two additional tasks: (Again, no whining.) 4. Read “Charlotte’s Web” to yourself, your children or grandchildren. I promise you won’t regret it. 5. (This one is purely self-serving) Go online and vote every day for “Charlotte’s Web,” so it wins as America’s most-loved novel.

Jonna Kuskey is an English teacher at John Marshall High School. She was named the 2017 James Moffett Award winner by the National Council of Teachers of English and the third place winner of the 2017 Penguin Random House Foundation Teacher Awards for Literacy.

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