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For teacher, classics keep on giving

By Nancy Harris
December 9, 2010

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Most of us wished we had an English teacher like Matthew Porro, who grew up in Norwell and now is in his 13th year of teaching at Weymouth High School.

Porro doesn’t simply teach junior and senior students courses in British literature, public speaking, and film criticism, he shares with them his passion for the beauty and power of the English language.

Growing up, Porro said, he remembers his mother as a voracious reader. But it was his father who, despite not finishing high school, frequently quoted excerpts from the works of Robert Frost and Edgar Allen Poe. Porro believes this is how his love of words began.

Now, as a father of two, ages 2 1/2 and 5 months, Porro doesn’t get nearly as much free time outside of school to read as he would like. But when he does, he consistently turns to classics by such writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, or D.H. Lawrence.

In fact, it has become something of a personal challenge to find time to seek out some of these authors’ lesser-known works, such as Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row’’ or Fitzgerald’s “The Beautiful and Damned.’’

For Porro, “classics not only allow the reader to glimpse the intricacies of life in a different era, but also to see so poignantly how human behavior and human conflicts stay largely the same across time.’’

It’s this dimension of classics that Porro tries to impress upon his students. As he says, it is particularly exciting to show a young reader how themes like good vs. evil or man’s desire to control his destiny have as much relevance to life today as they did a century ago.

Recently, Porro’s British Lit class has been studying Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre’’ and Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice’’ because he wanted to show the female perspective of that era.

However, the book that has always most captured his excitement and passion is Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights,’’ published in 1847.

Few may know that “Wuthering Heights’’ initially was poorly received by the public as it was considered sordid and unnatural in its portrayal of emotional and physical cruelty.

In fact, Brontë went to her grave in 1848 believing her only published novel to be a failure. But after its second printing, in 1850, and with an introduction written by her sister Charlotte, it went on to win great acclaim.

Since then, “Wuthering Heights’’ has continued to divide readers. But Porro loves to share his fascination with the novel.

“Wuthering Heights’’ is narrated as an extended flashback. Its main characters are Catherine Ernshaw, who lives in a great Yorkshire manor, and the handsome, bold, and proud “gypsy boy,’’ Heathcliff, who is adopted by her father.

Catherine grows to fall in love with Heathcliff but chooses not to marry him as he stands below her in social station. When she marries another, Catherine and Heathcliff begin a tormented obsession in which they can never shed their love, no matter how brutally one wounds the other.

Even as their love spirals into alcoholism, seduction, and revenge — and Heathcliff eventually descends into madness — Porro finds beauty in the novel’s language and power.

That language can mystify modern readers, Porro says, as when Brontë describes a character “suffering from paroxysms of grief.’’

But the depth of emotion transcends the era. “In current times, we, too, will encounter deeply motivated people like Brontë’s characters,’’ says Porro. He remembers knowing a young wife who was stricken by cancer. Her husband remained at her side, almost counting down their last hours together.

The intensity of their love reminded Porro of the novel “in that the husband was grasping for something, anything, to help deal with the tragedies of life.’’

So Porro recommends young and old read “Wuthering Heights’’ at least once. Some may even want to read it again.

Nancy Harris can be reached at dr.nancy23@gmail.com.

“Wuthering Heights’’
By Emily Brontė