It haunts me. The experience was my biggest failure as a teacher, not perhaps the most combustive, but the longest running, like a pratfall down a flight of stairs. And it started with such promise.
I was a rookie teacher, excited about my first job and given the opportunity to order a class set of novels, anything, for my British Lit class. Without hesitation I told my department chair: The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
“What?” She asked. I remember her face with the expression one might have after biting into a spoiled pickle. Maybe that’s unfair; maybe my own memory of the debacle colors that first exchange.
“By Charles Dickens,” I answered. “It’s his last novel. Unfinished. It’s a mystery, and he introduced all the characters, knocked off Drood, and didn’t leave notes that say who did it. It’s this perfect blend of classical literature and intrigue. It’s shorter than other Dickens too, and I can do some cool stuff with it.”
In my recollection of the event, she gave a brusque nod and left regretting she’d hired me. That probably wasn’t the case; she was a very nice woman who gave me room to carve out my own path. …even when that trail led off a cliff.
Drood arrived, and I settled into planning. I’d set things up with a unit on the history of the detective story, taking my students from Zadig to Sherlock Holmes, pausing there, the fog of 19th century London still in the air, as I stepped back a couple of decades to begin Dickens.
I knew I was in the minority of modern readers who love his books; more English teachers acknowledge Dickens than read him for fun. But Drood smacked of promise.
Septimus Crisparkle. Stony Durdles. Character names bounced on the tongue. The book began with a stream of consciousness rant by a drug addict. It shifted into satire, and then veered into melodrama. This would be great! Sure that the love interest was named “Pussy” complicated reaching my giggling teenage audience, but not past what I could handle. There was opium, there was corruption, there was the quicklime our titular character may have been dissolved in.
There was utter disengagement.
The students, who had been so patient with Voltaire, Mary Shelley, and Virginia Woolf hated Dickens. They hated the story, all introductions and no resolutions; the characters, whom they neither cared for or could relate to; and the fact that the book wasn’t finished.
And for that lack of conclusion they seemed to blame me, not just Dickens. I’m sure in my immaturity I quoted Annie Hall: “The food at this place is really terrible. … I know, and such small portions.” What did they want? This had everything!
Except their buy in.
Unwilling to acknowledge failure, I ran at Drood the next year with eyes wide, teeth bared, and sword high in the air. On the first day of year two students entered into a darkened classroom. I’d spent hours tipping my tables on their edge and using black butcher paper to create a six foot high maze from the doorway to a far corner of the room. Gregorian chants whispering in the background, students had to follow the light of a single candle to find where I was sitting, The Mystery of Edwin Drood open in front of me, ready to begin.
They hated it.
Not the maze, they liked that.
But no matter what I did to bring Dickens’ words alive, they looked at me as if I were a dancing bear in a traveling circus: poor, ragged, fur falling off in clumps, I inspired pity, not engagement.
It got worse. We muscled through the book: them riding in the hansom cab, me pulling them along like a weatherbeaten horse. They disliked the prose. They disliked the characters. They disliked the meandering plot. And like that 19th century horse, I kept my blinders on. I looked ahead, not cognizant of the blur going past.
We got to the end of the book, or I did. They had finished with the thing long before Dickens and I did.
I turned my head and saw that I’d lost the cab miles ago, the straps from my harness dragging on the cobblestones. I was so discouraged I canceled the essay I’d spent so much time designing and I didn’t give them a test.
We plowed into poetry next, and they loved it. Equilibrium again. All would be well.
I went home and began plotting my approach to Drood for the next fall. Mercifully, my wife stopped me.
I won’t go through the whole of that conversation. If I’m honest, I don’t remember much of it, other than her kindness and hope I wouldn’t put anyone through The Mystery of Edwin Drood again. Particularly me.
I’d like to say I heard her and was convinced, but the truth is that when I left that school my department chair encouraged me to box up the class set and take it with me. It followed me through eleven more years of teaching English, almost taught more than once, but never actually escaping from the box it traveled in.
One copy remains from that class set. I keep it by my desk to this day, the 12-94 on it’s side a reminder of a time when I got it wrong. I open the pages from time to time, chuckling a bit as I read paragraphs at random.
It serves as a talisman, a reminder that when we do it right, we teach kids, not books. In the end, the lesson learned from The Mystery of Edwin Drood wasn’t for my students. It was for me, relevancy the candle at the end of the maze.