Megan's Awakening and The Poet X
I’ll let you in on a not-so-secret secret. Selecting texts for an English curriculum is hard. My colleagues and I spend a good chunk of our waking lives thinking about potential texts: when reading for pleasure, when attending book talks like the Dallas Museum’s Arts and Letters Live series, when listening to podcasts like NPR’s Think or On Being’s Poetry Unbound, when strolling through bookstores, when chatting with students about what they read, when researching educational theory and pedagogical practices, when attending local and national English workshops and conferences, and when conducting formal curriculum reviews as a department. I could go on. This thoughtful and intentional dedication is perhaps why stories about book challenges hit me so hard; they are reminders that at times teachers are not considered the professionals we are, professionals who always have our students’ education and well-being at the forefront of our minds.
And if selecting texts for the school year is tough, then picking the summer read is perhaps the worst—like picking the most favorite child among the finalists. Is the book an engaging read—one that students will want to read during the summer—but also one that establishes the course’s themes, one with appropriately complex language, and one that students can largely understand on their own, absent of class discussion? The summer reading sets the tone for the course, clueing students into essential questions and becoming a touchstone for future conversations about our course readings.
For the past eight years or so, students in my Female Voice class have read Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, a work of historical fiction that follows the revolutionary Mirabal sisters, three of whom were assassinated for their work to overthrow the corrupt dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo; the fourth sister lived on to tell their tale. The novel worked well for any number of reasons, not the least of which is because it allowed us to consider the various paths for women to find their political voice in beautiful, thoughtful prose.
Eight years with a text can get old, but when considering replacements, I was consistently stymied in the face of so many possibilities. Ultimately, though, I kept returning to two texts in particular: Kate Chopin’s 1899 classic The Awakening and Elizabeth Acevedo’s recent novel-in-verse The Poet X. Both sit right at the heart of the course’s themes and essential questions: two young female protagonists in search of their voice, navigating the demands of their families and communities, demands that exist almost exclusively because they are women. The Awakening, with its rich exploration of “that outward existence which conforms, the inward life that questions” (18), guts a different part of my soul with every re-reading, and The Poet X hits that rare nexus of page-turner and high literary quality, becoming an instant bestseller while rightfully winning countless awards—and, as one of my students recently put it, “Acevedo just nails it. She really gets teenage girls.” In the midst of weighing these texts’ pros and cons, it was my brilliant colleague Sarette Albin who spoke the obvious solution: “Why not pair the novels and have students read both?”
Pairing classic and contemporary texts is not a new concept in English classrooms, but it is one that still comes with its fair share of detractors, namely those who do not see the benefit of including contemporary literature, especially Young Adult (YA) literature, in an academic curriculum at all. That number, though, seems to be waning in the face of consistent research that demonstrates contemporary and YA literature’s various benefits, the most important of which to me is that they foster student engagement, providing opportunities for students to nurture healthy relationships with reading. Yes, we of course need to challenge students in terms of their reading level, but we also need to meet them where they are. A failure to do so leaves far too many students feeling as if they can never be readers.
Absent any research, my experience alone—as someone who has spent nearly two decades in an English classroom—has shown me how contemporary texts generate enthusiasm, especially for reluctant readers. With startling regularity, students tell me they used to love reading in elementary school, but that by middle school and early high school, reading became something they loathed, a process inextricably linked with inaccessible texts, tests, and essays. Some of this reluctance is certainly the result of a busier schedule that comes with high school, but years of student conversations indicate that this reason is only part of the issue. Students begin to disassociate reading with pleasure and wonder, instead associating it with old, difficult texts that always require teacher guidance to understand.
Research supports my experiences. At the 2017 National Council of the Teachers of English (NCTE) convention, I attended a daylong workshop with Mary Styslinger, author of Workshopping the Canon, and it was here that I saw the first practical, hands-on, and research-based application of what I knew to be true: teaching contemporary and YA lit alongside the classics has legitimate educational value. Then, about a year later, #DisruptTexts, a movement begun in 2018 by four English teachers seeking to create a more inclusive and equitable English classroom, came onto my research radar, offering me not only new texts to teach but also new ways to teach them—as paired or stand-alone units. (In "Whose Stories Do We Value: Revising an American Literature Course Through the Lens of Antiracism," my colleague Kate Schenck and I write about how these ideas have shaped our junior curriculum.) I dove into countless other books and articles that enriched my understanding, including but not limited to: Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It, Penny Kittle’s Book Love, NCTE’s Build Your Stack blog and its Rethinking the Canon archives, and regular scrolls through academic journals like College English and English Journal.
Pairing The Awakening with The Poet X is one practical way that this research lives out in my classroom. The pairing modernizes Edna’s turn-of-the-century struggles while giving historical weight to Xiomara’s Gen Z conflicts, serving as a reminder that the issues we will explore throughout the year—the obstacles to and consequences of female self-identity and self-expression—are far more universal than either text could demonstrate on their own. Edna and Xiomara come from different time periods, settings, and racial/socio-economic backgrounds (and these differences certainly lay the groundwork for class discussions about intersectionality). Edna is a wealthy white woman negotiating early motherhood in 1890s New Orleans; Xiomara is a working-class Dominican American teen navigating her body and voice in current day Harlem.
Nevertheless, their stories share countless motifs. Both Edna and Xiomara feel out of place in their communities, leading to intense moments of loneliness and isolation, and they both turn to art (painting for Edna and poetry for Xiomara) to sustain and nurture them in their search for self. Both are foremost defined by their familial role (Edna as mother and Xiomara as daughter), a role that limits their journey by defining them first in relationship to others instead of as an individual. Indeed, a close reading of both novel’s opening chapters establishes how communities create metaphorical cages for women—an image that Chopin more intently plays with throughout The Awakening, but one that also applies to The Poet X.
When I taught The Awakening as an isolated text over a decade ago, a loud minority of my students openly disliked it, declaring Edna so completely and totally selfish that the novel was irredeemable. They had a hard time developing any sense of empathy for her, and I clearly kept failing to help them develop that empathy, so after a few tries, I shelved the book. But this time, my current students—nearly every single one—burst into the classroom those first few days of school filled to the brim with love and empathy for Edna and her plight. Even if they did not necessarily agree with her choices, they saw how limited her choices were, how cruel her world could be, and how much she needed someone—anyone—to understand her. My guess is that some of this change is the result of rapidly shifting public conversations about women (fueled by the #MeToo movement and countless celebrity feminists like Emma Watson, Beyoncé, and Greta Thunberg) and because of the thoughtful, intentional empathy work my colleague Kate Schenck did with many of these students when they were freshmen (see "A Journey of Heroic Empathy: The Odyssey Design Challenge").
But I cannot help but think that seeing Edna’s conflicts juxtaposed with Xiomara’s also played a role. For example, while both Edna and Xiomara have female friends who serve as traditional foils to their more progressive ways, Edna’s friend Adele simply cannot understand her and thus cannot support her in any real way, reinforcing just how integral Xiomara’s own friend group is to her eventual success. Both protagonists also encounter mentors who encourage them in their artistic expression, but Mademoiselle Reisz ultimately only recognizes that Edna is not quite strong enough to “soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice”—she does not show her how to develop the strong wings she needs (112). Xiomara, on the other hand, has her English teacher Ms. Galiano—and even a sympathetic priest—who offers real, practical support. And while in the past, students have been troubled, even angered by Edna’s ending—and to a degree still are—when read next to Xiomara’s crystal-clear final lines of triumph, the ending becomes demonstrably more tragic for them. “I only know,” Xiomara declares in the final lines of the novel, “that learning to believe in the power of my own words has been the most freeing experience of my life. It has brought me the most light” (357). Edna does not live in a time or a place where this clarity or sense of agency seems possible, and that, for my students, is heartbreaking.
In short, The Poet X makes real the tragedy of The Awakening, and The Awakening makes my students glad they live in a world more like The Poet X, even with its own flaws. Edna is no longer a character to vilify but rather a more fully realized woman who probably would love a good consciousness-raising session with Xiomara and her crew.
For their final assessment, my students write a timed essay in response to the following prompt, using the novel of their choice: How does this novel confirm, challenge, or complicate your understanding of the female voice? In other words, what is clearer or more complicated about the process, the obstacles, and/or the consequences of developing one's voice?
So many of my students—well more than half—chose to write about The Awakening, although many of them struggled to choose because they said both novels offered such rich, delicious language to unpack (a close reader’s dream!) and because they had so much to say about both. Although I cannot speak for my students, it almost felt like a nerd party walking into that timed essay day—the atmosphere felt celebratory in a way that I had not experienced in a while.
Perhaps not surprisingly, both novels have also faced various book challenges from incensed readers, namely because of the perceived radical ways they address female self-expression. The Awakening, a now unequivocal member of the literary canon, scandalized contemporary readers and was even banned from libraries in St. Louis, Chopin’s hometown. The Poet X, in the few short years since its publication in 2018, has also faced challenges for reasons that seem to reflect a failure to actually read the book. While these challenges, again, are of course maddening, seeing and hearing my students’ earnest, intellectual, and heartfelt responses to the questions these texts raise about not only Edna’s and Xiomara’s lives but also their own is enough to sustain me… until it is time to select new summer reading.
Megan Griffin is a found poet who finds herself poetically searching.
Acevedo, Elizabeth. The Poet X. HarperCollins, 2018.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. 1899. Bantam, 1988.
Styslinger, Mary E. Workshopping the Canon. NCTE, 2017.