In the last few weeks, I have turned memories of high school over and over in my head, prompted occasionally by hot takes on social media. Contrary to what most coming-of-age films claim, I recall less of what I felt then, and more of what my classmates and I got up to.
In the following list are books our class was required to buy and read from freshmen to senior year in the old K-10 curriculum; they are ranked here according to how much I enjoyed them at the time they were assigned, from least to best, with some anecdotes on the side.
8. Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck, 1937)
The reading. George and Lennie are migrant ranch workers in the midst of the Great Depression. They dream of owning their own land, but the dream is tested when they are hired at a new ranch.
The reading experience, senior year. This novella for me is an unfortunate case of “I hated the teacher so I’ve repressed any memory of having read this book.” We performed skits of the sections in class, and I remember someone did a memorably ridiculous portrayal of Lennie. I don’t recall which of my classmates it was anymore, though, so it can’t have been that memorable after all.
7. The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1943)
The reading. There is a boa constrictor, a Little Prince, a sheep in a box, a rose, a number of planets, adults, baobabs, and a fox.
The reading experience, junior year. I first read this novella as a small child who had run out of fairy tale books to read at home and was wondering what business a Prince had in what looked like a grown-up book. In high school, we had to analyze the symbolisms of every single element in the book using rigid templates, which diminished the book’s magic for me. Everyone in my year thought the book was utterly profound at the time they were reading it. Now, nobody I know really remembers anything from the book apart from the Rose character and the line “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
6. Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare, 1597)
The reading. The families of Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet have been locked in a feud for years. Romeo and Juliet come together and come undone by their communication skills.
The reading experience, senior year. The same teacher who brought us Of Mice and Men had us work in the speech laboratory for a few consecutive meetings. Boys and girls were paired together and had to reenact Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene. Thankfully, the pairings were assigned following the alphabetical order of the class list; it would have been awkward to watch classmates read out a romantic scene with their exes. The teacher excelled at correcting our pronunciation of the words, but not our understanding of the words themselves. (I genuinely disliked her, in case you still can’t tell.) My partner’s and my performance did not warrant many corrections, but the activity was mostly an opportunity for me to show off my hardback collection of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. It had Bible paper and gilding on the edges of the pages, and I had found it in a secondhand bookstore for two hundred pesos. After the dialogues, we were made to watch Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film adaptation. Nobody expected the costumes… and later lack thereof.
5. Noli me tangere (José Rizal, 1887)
The reading. The young, wealthy, and idealistic Ibarra returns home from Europe after his father’s death. He makes enemies from the Catholic Church and the Spanish colonial government.
The reading experience, junior year. I have the greatest respect for Rizal’s novels, but for my classmates and I who speak a different mother tongue, reading them in Filipino was an ordeal. Our Filipino teacher seemed to have the same strategy as our English teacher that year: to exhaust every last symbolism in the assigned reading. He even seriously discussed at one point how Rizal originally intended for the Noli to be a cookbook, which in hindsight was absurd. Our class was divided into groups, then assigned to report on specific chapters. One classmate’s strategy for preparing for their report involved reading the comic book adaptations. My strategy involved reading the summary — my best friend, Buod! — at the back of the book, and reading the recap of each chapter — my second best friend, Balik-Tanaw! — at the beginning of the next chapter.
4. The Pearl (John Steinbeck, 1947)
The reading. Kino is a pearl diver who has a wife and an infant son. One day, he discovers a massive pearl and catches the attention of unscrupulous characters.
The reading experience, freshman year. This was the first lengthy reading we were assigned in high school, given around the same time we had to stage Marcelino Agana Jr.’s New Yorker in Tondo. (I had played Nena, which I found ironic given my first name.) We were as usual divided into groups, then assigned chapters of the novella to illustrate across six pieces of 1/8 illustration board. If memory serves, our group got chapter five: I still have a vague image in my head of an effeminate chibi Kino holding a knife, drawn by one of my groupmates.
3. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (Edith Hamilton, 1942)
The reading. Each generation of deities is overthrown by the generation after it. Gods and mortals alike get up to all sorts of shenanigans, Zeus in leaps and bounds ahead of the others.
The reading experience, senior year. Our class wasn’t actually assigned to read the entire book cover to cover, though I had read my copy the year before at the height of my interest in all things Greek mythology. The teacher assigned us different mythological characters to portray, and we had to parade in single-file around the school building — in full costume — for the other people in our year to see. I was given Rhea, which was a relief. I was extremely shy then, and I felt that my performance was less likely to be criticized if I was merely the mother of the Pantheon, than if I had been goddess of the hunt, or goddess of wisdom, or goddess of love and beauty. My godmother sewed me a cream sort-of-Grecian dress for the parade, which no longer fits me around the waist now, but which gets borrowed a lot by cousins who need a basic costume for school presentations.
2. El filibusterismo (José Rizal, 1891)
The reading. The mysterious jeweler Simoun is on a path of revenge and armed revolution against the Spanish colonial government. Students like Basilio settle for a more peaceful alternative.
The reading experience, senior year. Like with the Noli, our appreciation of the El fili in high school was marred by our apprehension with the language, plus our teacher’s penchant for analyzing every piece of furniture and clothing mentioned in the book. We had to perform skits for some of the chapters, and I remember liking the sequel more because it was far more action-packed than its predecessor. In college, I had to read both novels again, this time Soledad Lacson-Locsin’s colorful English translations. It became much easier to like the novels then, if only because the professor taught us to first savor them just as we would any other work of fiction.
1. Animal Farm (George Orwell, 1945)
The reading. Animals at a farm overthrow their human owners and establish an equal animal society. Their concept of equality changes over time.
The reading experience, sophomore year. My father recommended this book when I was in fourth grade, four whole years before it was assigned reading in school. I don’t remember much of how this was actually discussed — we must have written an analysis paper of some sort — but I have held on to my print copy to this day. It’s a secondhand copy with a curious dedication on the inside front cover: “Jenna, / Remember, you can be a pig or a horse, not both / Melissa.”
An extra list
Classics are great materials to require high school students to read. They are classics for a reason: because they came first, they set the ultimate standard against which we measure present and future works. However, Filipino high school reading lists do not need to be limited to anything published before 1950. Schools in other countries assign contemporary fiction to their students all the time.
If I were a junior high school student in the K-12 curriculum today, I would massively enjoy my English and Filipino classes if even one of these books was included in the reading list. The following list contains book categories that I think would help foster a culture of reading, in what is supposedly a country of non-readers. I can already hear in my head the conversations about these books taking place over recess and lunchbreak. [The * marks books I have not personally read yet, but hear glowing reviews about from other people.]
- Something classical
- The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (Ursula K. Le Guin)
- How Much Land Does A Man Need? (Leo Tolstoy)
- The Witch of Blackbird Pond (Elizabeth George Speare)
- The Diary of A Young Girl (Anne Frank)
- Something whimsical
- The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien)
- The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman)
- The Ghost Bride (Yangsze Choo)
- Something dystopian
- The Giver (Lois Lowry)
- The City of Ember (Jeanne DuPrau)
- Scythe (Neal Shusterman)
- Something age-appropriate
- The Downstairs Girl (Stacey Lee)
- Lovely War (Julie Berry)
- Love from A to Z (S.K. Ali)
- Something local
- Si Janus Sílang at ang Tiyanak ng Tábon (Edgar Calabia Samar)
- Dead Balagtas Tomo 1: Sayaw ng mga Dagat at Lupa (Emiliana Kampilan)
- Patron Saints of Nothing (Randy Ribay) *
- Anina ng mga Alon (Eugene Y. Evasco) *
- 12:01 (Russell Molina and Kajo Baldisimo) *
An extra, extra list
We were not assigned enough books to read in elementary — truly, a country of non-readers. The most motivation we had for reading at the time was the competition for borrowing the most books from the school library over the school year, but this only guaranteed book-borrowing, not reading.
If even one of these books made it to our elementary reading list two decades ago, it would have surely set us up for the required readings in high school. At the very least, it would have made me seem less eccentric to my classmates.
- The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster)
- Bridge to Terabithia (Katherine Paterson)
- Holes (Louis Sachar)
- The Tale of Despereaux (Kate DiCamillo)
This list is the first in my samtang wala nalimtan series — a writing exercise I want to undertake as quickly as possible over the next few months before certain memories retreat to the furthest corners of my hippocampus, before my mind succumbs to the Mandela effect.