While reading and studying the play Our Town, by Thornton Wilder, I had my 9th-grade students put together a list of important lines from Act III. The three most cited quotations were these:

“Let's look at one another!”

“It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another.”

“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?”

Emily, one of the main characters in this 1938 play, makes these comments after reliving a day with her family. She had tragically died at a young age but has an opportunity to revisit her family on a day of her choice. After reliving her 12th birthday, Emily reflects on these powerful conclusions—and my students understood exactly what she was saying.

Emily’s urging for her mom to look at her is heartbreaking; this longing and desire to have quality time with her mom made for a powerful connection to the class. Almost every student wanted to talk about how people don’t look at each other anymore because they are focused instead on their phones, tech gadgets, etc. Students expressed how sad and lonely they felt when they wanted to spend time with their parents, who were often too busy looking at their phones. One student wanted his mom to sit down at the table with him and converse at the end of the day, but she was always scrolling through social media. Most students agreed with him and chimed in with their own versions of how their parents didn’t pay any attention to them.

The students summarized and connected to the second and third quotations, discussing the importance of living each moment and day to the fullest. They talked about how they looked forward to the end of the school day, the weekends, the long winter break, summer break, and so on. They counted down the minutes until the breaks. But in doing so, they missed out on friendships, social interactions, and making good memories. The students affirmed to try to appreciate something or someone each day, be it during lunch, during class, or in the hallways.

Clearly, the students had made some profound connections to the story. They articulated what the characters in the play experienced and connected these themes to their own lives. Like Emily from Our Town, they realized how important it is to really look at one another, to have fulfilling relationships with family and friends, to slow down, and to make the most out of each day.

By the end of the unit, the camaraderie of the class had noticeably improved; the students worked well together, and there seemed to be more empathy as well as mindfulness within the group. I believe it all stemmed from this discussion.

Before beginning this unit, I worried about using this play. My first thought was Our Town, a required reading, would be completely irrelevant to the students. The class consisted of students of color who had spent most of their lives living in a metropolitan area. I feared that reading about a rural, white community from 100 plus years ago would not resonate with them at all. However, as unrelatable, outdated, and old-fashioned as this play might have appeared to me and the students, making personal connections worked.

The Case for the Classics

Our Town is a classic. Like other classics, it withstands the test of time. It is not bound by time, place, or customs. A classic addresses universal themes and can speak to students.

Yet there are arguments against using classic texts in the classroom. These arguments contend that teaching classic literature is outdated and irrelevant. They believe that it does not speak to today’s students, who are unable to connect to the stories or characters.

While there is no denying current literature's value and indispensability, classic texts can still resonate with readers. Classic literature provides students an opportunity to see what universal truly means in allowing them to make connections to stories 100 or even 1,000 years old.

Because the classics contain universal themes, students can easily make connections to these stories. The more than 2,000-year-old play Antigone contains highly pertinent messages about women, love, family, and civil disobedience. Shakespeare’s plays also contain universal themes; Othello, written over 400 years ago, explores provocative ideas of love, jealousy, prejudice, and appearance vs. reality. First published in 1845, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass incorporates consequential themes of knowledge, ignorance, hypocrisy, oppression, and freedom. The 1847 novel Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë, embodies matters of family, home, belonging, and love. These classic texts contain themes and ideas that continue to exist in society. Providing today’s students an opportunity to make connections with classic literature helps students find deeper meaning in their personal lives and communities.

In addition, reading classic literature provides ideal opportunities for students to make comparisons. For example, students can compare the teenagers and parents in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to those in Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star. Or maybe students can compare Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest to current trends regarding marriage, class, and responsibility. Comparing classic texts to current works of literature or social issues engages students.

Incorporating diverse and modern selections is beneficial and indispensable, and so is the use of classic texts. Classic literature abounds with ideas, themes, and characters in which anyone and everyone can relate.

Just like my students did with Emily from Our Town.