From the Bookshelf: Essays, Identity, and My So-Called Life

Angela Chase (played by Claire Danes), the main character of My So-Called Life (image courtesy of

Very often when I’m figuring out what to teach, I find myself going outside of the classroom English textbook. In this feature, I take a look at those reading selections.

One thing that I have always enjoyed about putting together lessons about short works such as essays and short stories is being able to link several pieces that seem disparate through a common theme. Teaching sophomores, I look for themes that might be relevant to their current lives and then search for works reflect that theme in myriad ways. Identity is a favorite of mine. At 15 or 16, you’re at an age where you are discovering more about the world and might even be questioning a bit as well. Your identity, you discover, is malleable.

Morever, this idea is a near-universal concept. Set aside outdated fashion or melodramatic moments in Rebel Without a Cause or The Breakfast Club and you still have a protagonist or protagonists struggling with the changing idea of who they are. There are bits and pieces of these themes in the essays I do from Kick Me by Paul Feig, which starts the unit, as well as a piece by David Sedaris called “Us and Them,” which on the surface is a wacky neighbor essay but beneath the surface is an exploration of how we build the identities of other people in our own minds based on preconceived notions and perception.

Alice Adams’ short story “Truth or Consequences,” which is about a girl dealing with the minefield of middle school and the cruelty of the mean girls; and Alice Walker’s essay, “Beauty: When the Other Dance is the Self,” where she contemplates her scars and how they affect her outlook on the world, both touch on this theme as well. Adolescence is a time when we tend to be more self-conscious and hopefully self-aware.

Granted, these essays were pretty easy to pick. I was choosing them for an advanced English class full of AP-bound students and they rarely shy away from something that is out of the ordinary fare. In fact, they tend to be pretty patient with my “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” approach to reading material. Which is cool because I try not to worry myself too much about these things–sometimes a piece resonates, sometimes I chuck it and move on. I mean, I killed a research project halfway through last year because we weren’t feeling it, so a reading selection is no big deal. For these essays, I did what I could to vary the approach to discussion too, using a combination of student-led “read and leads,” teacher-led lecture/Q&A, and the fishbowl, which is always pretty popular. It resulted in some great moments. “Truth or Consequences” for instance, perplexed the four guys in the fishbowl because they couldn’t understand why girls would are one another to flirt with and kiss a scrubby kid. Then, one of the girls in the class tagged in and said, “Teenage girls do that.” It spurred a conversation about how there is this cruelty that exists in between your ‘tween and teen years, a theme of discussion that spilled over to the talk of “Beauty …” as well as the closer for the unit, My So-Called Life.

A little personal disclosure here, which is the same disclosure I gave them when I introduced the show: My So-Called Life (MSCL), the teen television show starring Claire Danes as sophomore Angela Chase, aired during my senior year of high school. I have been a fan for the last eighteen years and have been a member of a close-knit group of fans via a listserv since 2000. So I know the series like the back of my hand and consider it to be one of the most realistic depiction of teenagers on television, especially for a time when the predominant teen television series were Beverly Hills, 90210 and Saved By the Bell (in reruns and the “New Class” version, anyway). MSCL’s pilot episode ties into our essays thematically right from its first lines:

So, I started hanging out with Rayanne Graff, just for fun. Just ’cause it seemed like if I didn’t, I would die, or something. …Things were getting to me. Just how people are — how they always expect you to be a certain way. Even your best friend. …Like, with boys, like they have it so easy. Like you have to pretend you don’t notice them noticing you. …Like cheerleaders. Can’t people just cheer on their own? Like to themselves? …School is a battlefield for your heart. So when Rayanne Graff told me my hair was holding me back, I had to listen. ‘Cause she wasn’t just talking about my hair. She was talking about my life.


And we see that decision–to hang out with the girl who is “from another crowd –affect everyone around Angela, from her best friend Sharon to her parents. The assignment that went along with this was a worksheet, but before you cast me into the Sarlacc with the other teachers you condemn for using worksheets, I have to say that it’s a sheet that’s devoted to a lot more critical thinking and evaluation than “Were you paying attention?” For instance, there are questions like …

  • [Opening quote] is the first we hear of the voice-over that serves as Angela Chase’s inner monologue and narration for the episode (and most of the series). In the same way that essays and stories we have read had introductory sections, how well does this serve as an introduction to the show and how does it compare to the introductions of the essays we have read?
  • Describe how Angela and Sharon’s confrontation in the girls’ room is set up and how it pays off, then make a prediction for the future of Angela and Sharon
  • What is the most shattering moment for Angela in the episode and what, if any moments can you compare it to in what you’ve read so far?
  • Consider the theme of the episode, the title of the show, and how that contributes to the universal theme of all five pieces we have read.
  • Based on the episode and its ending, where do you think the show goes from here? Make a prediction for at least two of the characters.

Answers ranged from the passive “I’m just getting this done” to the thorough, especially on questions that evaluated the characters and had prediction. I didn’t know whether or not any of them had seen the series before but I have to say that they were pretty accurate as far as their predictions went–one predicted that Rayanne might OD at one point and another predicted that Sharon, who is pretty shunned by Angela, will mend their relationship in the future. Overall, it seemed to resonate fairly well. Sure, there was the crowd that didn’t seem to be paying much attention, or didn’t seem to care either way, but a few students actually asked to watch more episodes … and even though I was sure they simply wanted to watch more TV in class, I directed them to Netflix, where they can stream the entire series.

Not to go too far patting myself on the back here, but it is kind of fun to see the results of your own resourcefulness, especially when it works. What’s also fun is as much as I always enjoy watching the show again, I enjoy it even more when watching it with the audience it was intended for. I got to see their reaction to specific moments and characters and had the opportunity to re-evaluate some things with my fellow listees because my telling them about a particular scene in the pilot prompted a pilot rewatch and chat via Twitter and Facebook. One of us–Cory–even got Devon Gummersall, who played Brian Krakow, to answer a question about why he was in a tree at the end of the episode (he Tweeted back that Brian basically has it as a happy place to avoid his over protective, micromanaging parents. It’s the type of piece that feels important in a medium that is often dismissed, and which speaks to the universality of what many of my students might actually deal with on a regular basis. Exploring themes of identity, perception, and the tribulations of adolescence is vital to literary education and I’m more than happy to do it.


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