Schools, schooling, teachers, and students abound in North American literature, reflecting the indelibility of the school experience for teachers and for learners. Classrooms, chalk on blackboards, the warmth or scorn of teachers, the disappointment of teachers when students fail to reach their potential, the tensions of testing and being tested season after season, year after year, engender mind-haunting images that appear in many forms in all literary genres, although prose works—fiction and nonfiction—seem to be far more numerous than poems about school, and much of the dramatic literature about school consists of screenplays drawn from fiction and biography.
The importance of public education in North American life stems from the notion that a voting citizenry in a democracy must be educated. Schools have been cast as agencies of the melting pot; they have often been specifically directed to produce uniformity out of North America’s cultural diversity. In the later twentieth century, various cultural groups began to celebrate, rather than to disavow, their cultural heritages. The melting pot, the reaction against it, and the extent to which schools promote or blight the American Dream are all reflected in literature of the school experience.
Apart from genre, works dealing with school can be classified according to emotional responses evoked by the experience, ranging from delight to disgust. Heroes in school literature include teachers who defy principals and school boards, principals who overcome the resistance or inertia of teachers and students and school boards, and students gifted with insight, decency, and courage beyond that of their teachers and principals. Many school-experience works are marked by a powerful sense of place, yet often the almost universal experience of teacher and learner connects them despite differences of cultural origin or of ethnic background.