The Call of the Wild is the first book my decathletes and I will study for the Academic Decathlon in March. I read the book for the first time three weeks ago, which some friends find surprising. It isn’t.
First, I didn’t read many classics as a kid. My taste in books was undeniably ordinary aside from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the Little House on the Prairie series, and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre the summer before 8th grade. If I read anything else illustrious, it sure didn’t leave much of an impression.
Second, and maybe this reflects my stodgy school librarian, I remember The Call of the Wild as a boy’s book. Backwards and sexist, sure, but it was the 80s. You can’t expect much from a decade that ushered in the rat tail as a legitimate hair style.
So I read The Call of the Wild, the boy’s book of my youth, over the course of a few hours on a Saturday. At only 64 pages, you could do the same and check off it off that evolving list of classics they believe everyone should read. Plus, it’s in the public domain so you could read it for free at places like Project Gutenberg.
Mark Twain once said that a classic is a book everyone praises but doesn’t read. Bold words from a man who who wrote books I can’t finish to save my life. I was worried that The Call of the Wild was going to be another sleeping pill like Huckleberry Finn, but I was pleasantly surprised. I found myself enjoying the story, even though I can’t figure out the tone of the book. Cynical? Bittersweet? Hopeful? I finally settled on reflective. It’s the type of book that leaves you thinking.
Short The Call of the Wild may be, but easy it is not. I knew two chapters in why it was this year’s decathlon pick (and why it’s never been out of print since its publication). The vocabulary alone is enough to put off most students.
The dominant primordial beast was strong in Buck.
On top of the vocabulary, which I’m having them write out on flash cards, is the symbolism, imagery, and figurative language. That’s the thing with important 64 page books. You can rest assured not one word is wasted.
He was beaten (he knew that); but he was not broken. He saw, once for all, that he stood no chance against a man with a club. He had learned the lesson, and in all his after life he never forgot it. That club was a revelation. It was his introduction to the reign of primitive law, and he met the introduction halfway. The facts of life took on a fiercer aspect; and while he faced that aspect uncowed, he faced it with all the latent cunning of his nature aroused.
There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame.
It’s a lot to expect from 11 year-olds! Or so I thought.
Our first meeting didn’t go as planned. I wanted them to give The Call of the Wild a superficial read. That didn’t happen. The second meeting didn’t go as planned, either. It seemed my decathletes weren’t as enamored with the story of Buck the sled dog. I left feeling frustrated and insecure.
Then, the unexpected: my decathletes were challenged for their spot on the team. There’s a boy on the fine arts team who wants to switch to literature. The head coach told him he could challenge my team for the spot. All of a sudden, reading The Call of the Wild became of utmost importance to my team.
We were leaving a study session a few days later when a boy on the English team ran up.
“I want to challenge for a spot on your team.”
My decathlete standing next to me bristled.
“You can do that,” I said. “But the challenge exam is tomorrow. Have you read the book?”
“No. How long is it?”
“It’s 7 chapters, about 64 pages.”
“That’s fine. What time tomorrow?”
Well, well, well! Things were suddenly looking a bit more interesting. I almost cackled in delight. My decathlete, on the other hand, wasn’t as amused.
“Just a bit of advice,” she said, with the best intentions. “The vocabulary is pretty tricky. It’s not an easy book.”
Her competitor looked her up and down the way a gladiator sizes up his opponent after stepping into the colloseum.
“I can handle it.”
He ended up failing the challenge by only a few points. No matter, because the new rules state that teams can be challenged every week until shortly before the decathlon. In order to do that, they must be in good standing with their assigned team. There are people challenging for a spot on science, literature, and social studies. A group of 7th graders was talking about it at lunch last week. The boy on the religion team joked, “I’m enjoying the Christ-like peace of my team. No one messes with Jesus!”
Said another boy as he took a bite of his sandwich, “I had no idea Academic Decathlon was the Thunderdome.”