We Are The Shadow of the Waxwing Slain

Or, Why I Teach Postmodern Lit to 13 Year Olds

It's the end of the year and there are only a few more teaching weeks left! My LEAP class (advanced 8th grade English) is working on Nabokov's Pale Fire, a text I first encountered as a college junior taking a Postmodernism class. I was a bit worried about reading a postmodern classic known for its complexity with 8th graders, but these are kids who embraced Derrida and postcolonial theory, and they jumped right into Pale Fire with me.

Though most standard texts taught at this age come from the Modern tradition or earlier, I've had great experiences working through postmodern texts and theories with 8th grade students. I've found that students this age are often more willing to engage in strange, dense, or ambiguous texts than older readers. 8th graders are playful readers, open to seeing ambiguity in a text as a jungle gym to climb on rather than a maze to be dutifully mapped. They are collaborative readers, willing to share and entertain one another's theories. Discussions are deep and productive, and they are quickly able to drop the search for an objective conclusion in favor of critical exploration. I think 13 year olds are the perfect audience for an introduction to Postmodern literature and theory.

I have a number of theories as to why. One is that young teenagers already live in a world where ambiguity and competing binaries must be accepted rather than delineated. These kids are at an age where they straddle different realities: one foot in childhood and one in adolescence, one identity wrapped up in their family and one breaking away into independence. Of course they can accept that Pale Fire includes multilayered realities and competing narrators, since their own lives are currently being narrated by different voices, and they are both active author and passive reader. As we get older, our worlds crystallize: we are what we are; we are not what we are not. Texts that ask us to accept a space between the two challenge these adult perceptions. But young teens are liminal beings by nature. They hear - and are - Kinbote, Shade, Nabokov, and Hazel all at once; the simultaneity of postmodernism does not threaten them.

Another is that these specific students are growing up in the twilight of postmodernism already. Having grown up online, they are fully aware of the fact that what one person presents as objective truth remains open to interpretation. They live in the world that the early postmodernists prophesied. No leap of the imagination is required for them to accept the author's suggestion that identity is fluid, truth is fungible, objective reality is flexible, if not an outright farce. It is telling that one of the first questions I get asked when I introduce the concept of postmodernism is: "what comes next?" Postmodern literature doesn't open these kids' eyes to a new way of seeing the world - it provides descriptors and language for things they already know.

Finally, I think young teens are an especially receptive audience for texts that include a challenge to authority without positing a replacement authority. A metaphor I use (adapted from David Foster Wallace) to explain Postmodernism to 8th graders is this: if Modernism and early Postmodernism were a party in Mom and Dad's house when the parents went away, current Postmodernism is that after-2am period when things got out of hand and someone set the couch on fire and the party has turned from revelry to destruction. And these kids are pretty comfortable with art and theory that destroys rather than subverts or challenges. Partly it's just the age - no 13 year old has enough of a stake in society to be nervous about its downfall - and partly it's this specific generation, who have never known a pre-9/11 America, pre-Snowden media use, or pre-Columbine schools. These specific students, coming from a rigorous academic background, also really appreciate Nabokov's satire of academia and self-important literary critics.

Of course, some of the language and content in Postmodern lit is inappropriate for 8th graders - though I'd love to teach House of Leaves, I'll keep that in my pocket for older readers, and we do skip certain themes and sections in Pale Fire. But for the most part, we're reading Pale Fire on the level it demands, and my students have been unflaggingly enthusiastic even in the face of the book's complex language and structure of the book. We've done a number of different activities with this book, and during all of them, my students have continued to surprise me with their curiosity and focus.

During one "investigation day," as I walked around the room and listened to small groups independently seeking out connections between the book's many motifs, I could not stop grinning. They were arguing, questioning, deciding, un-deciding, and searching. The energy in my classroom felt like the physical manifestation of reading - we were having an experience of the text together. It is rare for me to feel that as an adult, and I am grateful to get to work with kids who can remind me what reading is supposed to feel like. If you have the opportunity to work with teenage readers, I highly recommend trying some Postmodern literature and theory. You may be surprised at what they can do if you just throw it at them.