May 29, 2020-- High School North English teacher Stephanie Reid managed to secure an email exchange between her students and famous American writer Joyce Carol Oates. Reid documented the experience and provided background on the writer's career and influence within her English classes throughout the years.
The Amazing Joyce Carol Oates Inspires Toms River North Students
By Stephanie Reid
“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul. - Joyce Carol Oates
Over the course of my career as an English teacher, there are particular writers whom I have grown to love incorporating into the classroom curriculum. There is something about the writer’s style or language that draws a class into a text; maybe, the students in my class just like hearing the accents I put on while reading to them. I don’t think that is all there is to it.
There are some writers students are drawn to because they have heard of them through their friends, movies, or from a creative display in a library. There are students who love to read and others who have not yet discovered “their author.” Authors like J.K Rowling, Suzanne Collins, and Stephenie Meyer grab contemporary young adult readers and provide literary adventures that help even the most reluctant students to engage with texts in ways that develop their literacy skills and improve their academic achievement.
Students will often ask me if I have read Rowling, Collins, or Meyer; but, no one has ever asked me if I have ever read Joyce Carol Oates. That is where I come in. Every year, my students read the Joyce Carol Oates story called, “Where are you going, Where have you been?” and every year the reaction from my students is one where they are gripping the desks. I finish the story with the bell ringing and my flabbergasted students start yelling their reactions to the text. The writing is so powerful that the following day is filled with students asking questions about the craft: the characters, the resolution, the symbolism, author’s tone, and word choice. Could an English teacher possibly ask for more?
The answer in this case is, “Yes!” My primary goal as a language arts teacher is to increase achievement through engagement with relevant reading and writing opportunities. How am I supposed to: “develop students into lifelong learners who are socially responsible, confident, value diversity, and are able to adapt to the present and future challenges of a complex world” while on a quarantine due to COVID-19? Creating lessons that cause students to love reading in the classroom is not easy; the challenge to get students to read outside of the classroom during a pandemic is another story entirely.
I decided to rely on a writer that has captivated my classroom without fail every year; this year to my bewilderment, she agreed to an email exchange with my Grade 11- English 3- American Literature classes. This was one of those holy “ask and ye shall receive” career moments for me. I liken it to a hail Mary throw during the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. Oates was open.
In honor of Oates and her great contribution to American literature, my students spent their last marking period in Distance Learning English class learning about her life and some of her short stories, plays, and poems.
Born in Lockport, New York in 1938, Oates grew up on her parents farm during the Great Depression. She was given a typewriter at age fourteen as a gift from her grandmother, and thus began her career as a writer. No other American woman writer tackles the task of the craft like Joyce Carol Oates.
In March 2010, Barack Obama awarded her with the National Humanities Medal for a lifetime of contributions to American Literature as an author of fifty novels. Ten years later, she is the author of more than 70 books, and she is still writing. Her fashion is fierce; she tweets; and she serves as a Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Princeton University in New Jersey. With so much to possibly choose from, the texts I chose for the students centered particularly on family, gender roles, and issues many contemporary Americans are facing. Those pieces consisted of two short stories, two short plays, and three poems:
“Where are you going, Where have you been?”
“Little Albert, 1920”
“Too Young to Marry but Not Too Young to Die”
“Women Whose Lives are Food, Men Whose Lives are Money”
After reading these selections, my students developed and received answers to the following questions from our spotlight author.
Melissa Velasquez: How did you choose your career?
Joyce Carol Oates: I did not “choose” a career—except for teaching, for which I’d prepared myself by going to graduate school & earning a Master’s degree in English at the U. of Wisconsin-Madison. My writing life evolved naturally from childhood proclivities & a lifelong love of reading.
Contessa Andrews: What was your most favorite and least favorite story you wrote and why?
Joyce Carol Oates: I don’t have “favorites”— I don’t rank my work.
Christian Bomtempo: In “Shopping” it exposes the relationship between a mother and her daughter. Did this possibly happen to you? Did you have a good relationship with your mother?
Joyce Carol Oates: Prose fiction is intended to shine a light on universal experience; it is not really about personalities. Often my work springs from closely observed settings— in this case, an affluent shopping mall & the individuals who frequented it. My own relationship with my mother was a very long one— she lived until she was 86—a wonderful woman about whom I did try to write in my memoir “The Lost Landscape.” But, neither my mother nor I appear in “Shopping.”
Gianna Morse: “The Orange” ... what inspired you to write a story with this plot? Did you experience something like this or have a loved one who experienced this?
Joyce Carol Oates: The monologue is from the play “I Stand Before You Naked”—— a dozen girls & young women speak in their own candid voices. Again, this is not memoir, it is fiction. Anorexia is, or has been, a psychological problem for some young adolescent girls in affluent countries like the US.
Ashley Sperduto: The play "Tone Clusters" deals with the invasive and exploitative nature of news media. When you wrote it in the early 90s, did you ever think the media would ever become as invasive or manipulative as it is today?
Joyce Carol Oates: “Tone Clusters” takes the form of an invasive, vampiristic media, which has always been rapacious in the US, & is not so much worse now than it has ever been. (In fact, today there are more outlets for individual witnesses than there were decades ago.) It is really about the phenomenon of “denial” within a family— a stunned father & mother are simply not able to acknowledge who & what their son has become under their own roof.
Isabella Pures: Regarding “Women Whose Lives Are Food, Men Whose Lives Are Money," when you were growing up was this how your family behaved or is this just what you observed through your lifetime? Do you feel these should be the social norms of today?
Joyce Carol Oates: Again, this is not memoir. More observation.
Annalisa Commune: The short story “Where are you going, Where have you been?” is very suspenseful and a page-turner. What was your reason for ending it with such a big cliff hanger? And, what impact do you believe that type of ending has on the story overall?
Joyce Carol Oates: This story was adapted into the film “Smooth Talk” with a happy resolution for an ending. Clearly the story is a tragedy— I thought of it as an allegory— an analogue to the old medieval cautionary tales accruing around the theme of “Death and the Maiden."
Ms. Stephanie Reid: Your new book, Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. is coming out this summer. Can you tell us more about it?
Joyce Carol Oates: A respected & well-to-do white man, formerly the mayor of a city, stops to prevent what he perceives to be police brutality— the harassment of a young person of color, who turns out to be an Indian-American medical worker. From this act of courage & generosity, a family tragedy unfolds. The novel explores the aftermath of the sudden loss of a beloved though authoritarian father— particularly, the experience of the widow.
Ms. Oates thanked us for such perceptive questions and wanted to share a little video prepared by her cat Lilith— for those admirers of Emily Dickinson (Wild Nights - Lilith Dickinson).
If you love laying on the beach with a good book, might I suggest checking out the work of this most amazing woman. Any author who supports students in the attempt to create a lifelong love of reading not only has my utmost respect, but my eternal gratitude. Could an English teacher possibly ask for even more? If her new book description doesn’t strike your fancy, there are at least 70 others to choose from. Give this prolific American writer some summer 2020 time. I promise, you won’t be disappointed!