My Custom-Made English Course

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By Rebecca Simkin

I’m not a teenager any more -- far from it. I went to high school in the late 1970s. I didn’t find it a memorable time for music (Disco) or movies (Jaws) or fashion (tube tops) and I wasn’t very comfortable in my skin in those days. To start off, I had come to high school after a year of living in France, attending a regular French high school which was an unusual experience, but that’s a story that belongs in another book. This is the story of how my school got it right about one thing.

I went to a fairly large high school where there were a lot of choices of classes to take, but the big problem was that we didn’t have a lot of years to take them in, so in the end, after I had taken math and physics (in case I wanted to do something in university that required them) and English and French (required in Montreal) and history, there weren’t very many spaces left on my schedule for all of the cool stuff.

So I didn’t get to take typing (my mother said if I knew how to type I would end up being asked to type all of the time at work... how wrong was she!) and I really wanted to take art, because art was always my thing in those days. I took art, even though my teacher was probably the crotchetiest old dame in the school system. I think she liked me, though, and I guess I liked her for liking me. I even went back to visit her after I received my degree in visual arts to tell her about it, only to find that she was really surprised about it. I think taking physics really threw a lot of people off about me.

But this isn’t about my art class either. This is about English. We had a lot of choices in English. Up until my last year, I had taken drama, mythology and something else I can’t remember, so it was cool not to have to take a standard, boring, general English class. The problem I had in my last year was that I had run out of cool choices, which left me with not much to pick from. I had been spoiled to take whatever interested me up until then, and I wasn’t about to change my style. So I told the head of English about my conundrum.

She asked me what it was that I was really interested in. It didn’t take me long to answer. I said I liked science fiction and fantasy novels. She asked me to make her a proposal: to write up a curriculum for the ideal course. I had no idea if she would go for it, but I went home and designed a science fiction and fantasy course curriculum which began with a definition of what each genre was, and defining the difference between the two. Then I selected several books in each genre to read, for which I would write a book report, and to top it all off, I decided I would write some fiction in the genre.

Thinking back on it, I was just barely sixteen at the time. I’m impressed even now to realize I had made up a pretty decent curriculum. I doubt the professionals at the board of education could have done any better, and I’m fairly certain their book choices would have bored me to tears.

So the English department head reviewed my proposal and offered to supervise me to do this course as an independent study, whereby I would work on my own in the library and meet regularly with her to discuss and submit my work. Even now I still think this is a brilliant idea. To this day, science fiction and fantasy books are still dismissed as lesser literature in spite some of the most thoughtful, creative and engaging books published in the genre. It’s been said, and it’s worth repeating, that the literary genre (because it is a genre too) is judged by its best works, and the other genres are judged by their worst.

I still have my story from that course, tucked away in my papers, which I won’t be brushing off any time soon to share with you, but I keep it to remind me that I once had a really special chance to study something entirely of my own choosing. It was something that I had loved, even back then, and I’m grateful that my teacher took me (and the topic) seriously. I realize now that it made work for her and she didn’t have to offer to do this for me at all. It stoked my passion for the fantasy and science fiction genres and for writing as well. If you like fantasy with a little romance and are a teenager or an adult, I hope you will have a peek at my current work which can be found on Wattpad.com.

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