How Do English Teachers Choose Their Books? Introducing Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” in English 9

"Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another's skin, another's voice, another's soul." — Joyce Carol Oates

How does a book find its way onto an English teacher’s syllabus? 

Some works withstand the ages: The Iliad, Gilgamesh, The Canterbury Tales, Hamlet, Frankenstein, Pride and Prejudice, The Awakening, Their Eyes Were Watching God, To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, Things Fall Apart, and other literary classics that have been read to tatters, studied and understood at an atomic level, making them nearly ubiquitous in English classrooms. But the literary canon doesn’t (or, at least, shouldn’t) stop there. 

At Commonwealth, teachers have the freedom to design their own curriculum, teaching books they find most pertinent, interesting, and viable for close reading. Examining every word, they challenge students to think critically about who gets to tell these stories and why. Below, you can step inside the mind of English teacher Rikita Tyson as she recounts how she introduced and taught one new text, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, to her first-year English students.

This year in English 9, I decided to teach a new text: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. In recent years, this slot in the year’s lessons has gone to selections from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which is a useful text to teach for a few reasons: it provides students with some familiarity with classical mythology (which helps students understand allusions in other texts), and, because the individual stories in the Metamorphoses are relatively short, we could compare various versions and approach the practice of close reading from a different angle, looking at how different translators fleshed out the same general skeleton of a story. 

But I wanted to take a break from the Metamorphoses this year, and I thought it would be nice to have a more modern text in English 9 (Never Let Me Go was published in 2005). I had offered Ishiguro’s novel as a summer reading book a few years ago, and at least some of the students had enjoyed it, so I wanted to see what would happen if I had more than forty minutes to spend on it with students.

The book did present some challenges, though. The first is that it’s a very difficult book to talk about without giving too much away. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, the book is narrated by a young woman named Kathy, who describes herself as a “carer” who has been looking after various “donors” for more than eleven years. Much of the book is concerned with Kathy’s time at an elite English boarding school called Hailsham and Kathy’s relationships with two other students, Ruth and Tommy. Slowly, as Kathy tells us about her past, we learn more about the harrowing reason that the students of Hailsham are so special and what lies in store for them as they grow up. Discussing it over several weeks of classes meant I had to figure out a way to teach the novel while minimizing the amount of time I had to spend dancing around what happens in it—much like I’m doing now. So I assigned my students around thirty pages of reading a night, without requiring them to do much annotation, so that they could finish the whole book in two weeks, and we would be free to talk about it without having to worry about “spoilers.” Many students were excited, it turned out, just to get to read a book quickly. And luckily, though there are still surprises in the novel, it turns out that Ishiguro reveals the biggest element of the premise around page eighty-seven, so we didn’t have to have too many class discussions with this problem hanging over our heads. 

Another challenge of teaching Never Let Me Go was that it falls into that gap where the world of the text is unfamiliar to students but recent enough that they don’t have the benefit of footnotes—like when you’re teaching The Great Gatsby and you realize that your students think “cold cream” is a dairy product that has been refrigerated rather than an item of skin care. Though Never Let Me Go was published in 2005, Kathy’s narration is set in the “late 1990s,” which puts her childhood in the 1980s. A particular musical recording plays a big role in Ishiguro’s novel, and it occurred to me that none of my students really knew what a cassette tape was. I tried my best to explain, but I found myself wishing I had a visual aid. Luckily, I lamented this fact to [math and physics teacher] Anna Moss, who brought a cassette tape in for me the next morning! So I got to do a little show and tell, which was frankly hilarious: the students were fascinated by this arcane object from the past.

But here’s why that cassette tape really matters. The students at Hailsham have very few possessions of their own; the few belongings that make up their special “collections” were acquired at these events called the Sales, where students can exchange tokens for things from the outside world. At one such sale, Kathy finds what she calls her “favourite tape,” and here’s how she introduces it to us:

I still have a copy of that tape and until recently I’d listen to it occasionally driving out in the open country on a drizzly day. But now the tape machine in my car’s got so dodgy, I don’t dare play it in that. And there never seems enough time to play it when I’m back in my bedsit. Even so, it’s one of my most precious possessions. Maybe come the end of the year, when I’m no longer a carer, I’ll be able to listen to it more often. 

The album’s called Songs After Dark, and it’s by Judy Bridgewater. What I’ve got today isn’t the actual cassette, the one I had at Hailsham, the one I lost. It’s the one Tommy and I found in Norfolk years afterwards—but that’s another story I’ll come to later. (64)

This quotation is tied up with another challenge of teaching this novel, especially to ninth graders: it’s not the easiest text to close-read. It’s an incredibly moving novel, but because Kathy’s narration is so colloquial and understated, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly how Ishiguro is creating those emotional effects—and to figure out how to use the novel to teach students who are new to the process of close reading. 

But this was a relatively early passage that allowed us to think more deeply about how Ishiguro’s novel works. The vocabulary word for the day was “palimpsest”: originally a piece of parchment that had been scraped and reused, so that earlier writing was still visible underneath, but now anything that has different layers visible beneath the surface. Kathy’s tape, it turns out, is a palimpsest of loss after loss. Even as Kathy is telling us about it for the first time, she begins by telling us that the original tape is gone, then that she has, in a sense, lost it again because she can no longer listen to it. Even the hope of listening to the tape in the future is shot through with loss, because it can only happen when Kathy stops being a carer and becomes a donor. 

If Kathy’s tape is a palimpsest of loss, though, it’s also a palimpsest of nostalgia (another thing that is relatively unfamiliar to ninth graders). Ishiguro’s language here allows us to see how Kathy’s memories are piled up on top of each other, as Kathy shifts from her original tape, which she describes three times, three slightly different views of the same object—the actual cassette, the one she had at Hailsham, the one she lost—to the tape she has today, which is now one of her most precious possessions, even overwriting the importance of that first tape. And the tape serves as a symbol of memory itself and the digressive way Kathy narrates this novel, going back and forth between her present and her past, rewinding to her Hailsham days then fast forwarding to “years afterwards.” To play a recording of something that happened once and is no longer happening is what Kathy does when she looks back on her memories of Hailsham. Like memory, her cassette tape is fragile, capable of being garbled and destroyed—which is why I wanted to show my students a cassette tape, so they could see the flimsy ribbon inside the shell and understand why Kathy says that she doesn’t dare play her tape. That word “dare” allows us into Kathy’s fear of losing this tape and provides us with a key for thinking about how Kathy’s narration says things without saying them. Worrying about this tape, fearing its loss just as she lost its original, is a type of displacement: it’s easier to imagine or acknowledge the loss of a precious cassette tape than the irremediable loss of the person who gave it to you. (A question we might ask ourselves: does Kathy only stop listening to her tape because the player in her car is dodgy?) 

At the risk of digressing like Kathy, here’s an aside. A funny thing about teaching literature is how often texts in different classes wind up echoing each other. The day after we discussed Kathy’s tape in English 9, I found myself in English 11 teaching Hamlet’s “O all you host of heaven” soliloquy, in which Hamlet vows to avenge his father’s murder. In that speech, Hamlet thinks of his memory as an erasable notebook, more or less, from which he plans to erase everything his past self left behind, in order to make room for the ghost’s command: “Yea, from the table of my memory / I'll wipe away all trivial fond records, / All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, / That youth and observation copied there, / And thy commandment all alone shall live / Unmixed with baser matter…” But where Kathy's tape is presented to us as fragile, and her memories of it digressive and layered, Hamlet naively imagines his memory as a surface that can cleanly and easily be erased and re-inscribed. The great irony here, though, is that almost immediately, he remembers imperfectly: at the end of the soliloquy, he quotes his father’s ghost, saying, “Now to my word: / It is ‘adieu, adieu, remember me.’ ” But the Ghost’s last words, on departing, are actually, “Adieu, adieu, adieu, remember me” in the Second Quarto text of 1604 (or, "Adieu, adieu, Hamlet, remember me" in the 1623 Folio text). One could, of course, argue for the boring answer here, which is that Hamlet's revision fits the meter of the new line, and so we shouldn't make anything of this. (This is often the answer that students are inclined to give: why did Shakespeare write it this way? Because it fits the meter.) But in a play where memory is so fraught, and where Hamlet himself keeps failing to remember exactly how long ago his father died, I think the more interesting angle—highlighted by the fact that the Q2/Folio variant means that even the text's “memory” of itself is unstable here—is to see this as another way in which memory is interrogated in this play. Like Never Let Me Go, it asks the question, What does it mean to remember?

But back to teaching Never Let Me Go. I still have some tinkering I need to do with how I want to teach it next time: for example, I usually give students guiding questions for each night’s reading, but in part because I didn’t want to intrude too much on their first read of the novel, I didn’t have any reading questions for this unit. That, combined with the speed of our reading, meant that students had done less thinking about the novel when they came into class each day. So I’d want to think about how to manage that more effectively. But I heard several students really enjoyed the novel—even that they had recommended it to their parents—so I think it was a success, and I’m looking forward to trying it again. 

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