Sunday, August 7, 2011

As good a time as any

I have not blogged faithfully since the end of 2010, and it's time to change that. New month, two books read, and it's time for a blog.

I just watched Matt Damon speaking on behalf of teachers--including his own mother. It is a rotten time politically to try to make a difference in students' lives; too many people are interested in bubble test scores over creating well-rounded and competent citizens. I am fortunate to teach in a small, rural district where we have not lost sight of the humanity of our students--knock on wood--but even here we feel the pressure from the state and federal levels. Last week in summer school, one of my students told me it doesn't matter if he passes or not; his mother promised him a snowmobile if he "just shows up" every day. Meaning he can show up and take a nap, stare at the ceiling, get sent out...doesn't matter to him, or (apparently) to his mother. Attendance is everything, and he gets a shiny new snowmobile. I imagine his mother's intentions were good in establishing this reward--I wonder if his mother realizes she should have set the bar so much higher to get the result I suspect she wants. Although teachers are judged based on this student's performance on a bubble test, there is a whole lot more than just what is happening in any classroom at play here.

Which is exactly what I was reminded of--in a completely different context--when I just read I Am J by Cris Beam. J is a transgender high school senior--born Jenifer, known as J, and slowly becoming Jason. Seeing the world through J's eyes, it is impossible not to be drawn into this story...I finished the book feeling like I had become a better, more enlightened, and more compassionate person.

Without giving too much away, it also left me heartbroken for all the teenagers who have to endure the rejection of their parents--not only students who struggle with gender identity, but so many children who cannot live up to the impossible dreams their parents expect will be reality. In an ironic life-literature juxtaposition, just as my summer school student's well-intentioned mother has set the bar far too low, too many parents set goals that are unattainable by the real-life children they have. They want their average kid to pull straight As, rather than acknowledging the hard work and commitment it takes their child to score in the B-range. They want their uncoordinated (or uninterested) child to be a star athlete. Too many parents ignore the strengths and weaknesses of the wonderful child they do have in favor of the imaginary greatness of the child they have imagined, to the frustration (and too often, the heartbreak) of everyone involved. J's story is powerful, and similar circumstances for too many teenagers are almost insurmountable. I hope that when the time comes, I will always be one of the adults who inspire hope, faith, and the tenacity to endure.

On a lighter note--or at least, on a funnier note--I also finished Libba Bray's Beauty Queens. It is good that I do most of my reading at home; when I laugh so hard I snort, it is embarrassing to be sitting alone in Starbucks. I am not sure that Libba Bray meant to paint caricatures of Sarah Palin and a young George W. Bush, but they are precisely who I imagined when I pictured Ladybird Hope and Harris, respectively. If you love either of them, do not read this book. You will be angry. But for the rest of you (and I like to think there are a lot of us), this book is great and will make you laugh. Really hard. There was a lot of snorting as I read. That's a good thing.

Another good thing about Beauty Queens is the cover. I've arranged a spot for it near the toy chest in the family room so that kids will (hopefully) continue to make unintentionally hilarious comments about the cover even now that I've finished reading the book. Such as, "Are you reading a book about lipstick? That's so weird and cool!" And (asked very excitedly), "Oh, does lipstick fit in a Nerf gun?!" And my favorite, which requires some explanation: some years ago, I was fortunate to attend a book signing with Libba Bray and asked her to sign a book for my young cousin, whose name appeared in her book...which, to said young cousin's mind, clearly meant the book must also be about bacon. (Her favorite food, obviously.) Kind Ms. Bray signed the book, "This book really IS about you and bacon!" When this same young girl--now 10--saw the cover of Beauty Queens, she said, "Oh! Libba Bray! Does she love bacon and lipstick?! I can't wait to be old enough to read her books! I am so gonna love her!"

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