I first read Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in high school, and I hated it. I found it to be boring, pretentious, and pointless. With the upcoming release of Baz Luhrmann’s film version, my curiosity was peaked, and I decided to give Gatsby another try. I was stunned, because now, at the age of thirty, I love The Great Gatsby. I want to shake my high school self and shout, “What the hell was the matter with you?”
But then, I came to a realization: it’s no wonder my high school self hated Gatsby; there was no way my high school self understood the book at all.
The Great Gatsby is about living in the past—dreaming about the past. The novel is about regret and trying to regain old glories, old feelings. Gatsby is about gluttony, drunkenness, and the overwhelming appeal of wealth … and the emptiness wealth brings to relationships and life. As a teenager at Perrysburg High School, I had no past to dream about. I had no old glories to re-attain. I had yet to attend my first fancy drunk-fest. I knew nothing about life, nothing at all, outside the context of my GPA and college applications.
Now thirty, I recognize the gluttonous party scenes, because I’ve lived them. I recognize the empty speak, practically comical in its vapidity. I recognize Gatsby’s longing for things past and his futile grasping for love lost, never again to be regained. At thirty, I get it, which is why Gatsby is now one of my favorite books.
In a similar vein, I reread The Awakening this week—another blast from the past and another book I could not possibly have appreciated as a spoiled honor student. The Awakening is about a wife and mother who feels trapped in her existence. She escapes the confines of duty and runs free, even falling in love with another man. In the end (spoiler alert), she realizes there will always be another man, another dream unfulfilled. She will never be satisfied, so she kills herself.
Question: why are kids reading these books in high school? You know me. You know I’m thoroughly against censorship of any kind. However, I’m not talking about censorship. I don’t think books like Gatsby and The Awakening should be removed from high school curriculum because of their questionable content. I think they should be removed because high school students have absolutely no chance of relating to or understanding what authors like Fitzgerald and Chopin are trying to say.
I was a nerd in high school—AP everything, especially English—yet even for me, Gatsby was pointless, because at the age of eighteen, I had yet to truly live. I had no life experiences that I could relate to poor Jay Gatsby. I had no idea why sad Edna Pontillier would drown herself at the end of The Awakening. I’m not saying that, at thirty, I’m suicidal; however, I am saying that now, I understand Gatsby. I understand Edna. I have lived. I have failed. I have felt horrible heartbreak, and I have based empty relationships on alcohol. I am an adult; these books have become more than homework assignments—they have become masterpieces.
Like I said, I’m against censorship, but I think the American education system should seriously reevaluate what kids are reading. I know they’re supposed to read “the classics,” but the classics (as evidenced by Gatsby) can easily be despised when youth have an inability to relate. There are so many amazing, spectacular books written about high school. There are books like The Sledding Hill and The Perks of Being a Wallflower—books high school kids could read, love, and understand. Arguably, in the hands of young students, books like Gatsby and The Awakening are wasted.
If not for the movie remake, I never would have picked Gatsby up again. Imagine what I would have missed because of my stupid high school self. I suggest you take a look back at some of the books you “hated” in high school. You’ll be surprised at the affect they have on you, now that you have lived.