Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On leaving. Or, books as escapism.


It is impossible for me to not sink into some kind of melancholia when I leave my family--or especially when they leave me--for I am left with empty spaces and without the distractive hassle of a car ride or air travel that the ability to separate one from emotion more quickly than it decamps the ones who stay in newfound quiet.

My television-less studio apartment was our cramped base camp for multiple nights, a way of life quite different to us who tend to migrate to our own spaces to read or watch a game. And yet it seemed to work.  For a weekend, anyway. My thoughts are now lingering on the meal that ended outside this time last night and my makeshift dinner of random leftovers this evening.  Without fail, while growing up we came together for family dinner every night from our separate places--work, dance, baseball practice, which have been replaced by Louisville, Cleveland and Brooklyn.

The cool air of evening is impossible to ignore right now as is the fact that dusk can say more with its springtime light and its breeze than I ever could in words--of what it means to long for something.  But what I'm longing for now doesn't have a name or a place because it is the memory of my dad calling to say he is on his way home and smell of dinner cooking each night and falling asleep in a full, safe house--the kind of memory that I was too young to be cognizant of while it was happening--combined with the permission to go and pursue and to dream. And I hate how those things--dreaming and being home--feel mutually exclusive right now.

So what else was I to do but sit down and get lost in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in its entirety tonight? Thoughts to follow.

Monday, May 23, 2011

To my students. With respect. This started as a mentor text on coming of age, but changed along the way. I'm not really sorry for that.


Today I made a new bulletin board in my classroom.  I realize it is the end of May and that a month from yesterday the students I love will have cleaned out their lockers, left 8th grade behind, looking only toward the season of freedom and their new high schools, which, whether you hated or loved it, is generally smiled upon more than middle school.  So.  I want the last month in room 116 to matter.

Our unit is called "Reading and Writing Through Coming of Age" and everyone has to read a coming of age novel.  Instead of doing book clubs, students can read a book of their choice and we are trying to notice patterns across the genre: what parts of coming of age are universal? What are personal? In the midst of sharing, I hope that students find something that resonates with what life feels like to them right now.

Today everyone had to bring in 2 quotes that spoke into their characters' coming of age experience in the first half of their book and I was blown away by what they found.  I've been reading young adult fiction incessantly for the past month (Girl in Translation, Sweet Dates in Basra, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, Weeping Underwater Looks a Lot Like Laughter, A Northern Light) and though they are all engaging books,  I have not been inspired to write off of any of them, or the coming of age experience, which is also the reason behind my severe lack of posts recently.  Until today.

I took about 25 of the quotes from 10-15 books that my students are reading and wrote them with permanent black marker on sheets of white paper.  I hung them all across the bulletin board that stretches across the entire back wall of my room.  All of a sudden it was reverse personification--I saw all of my students somewhere in the paper mess (well, let's be honest, the quotes are hanging orderly, but still) of complicated emotion--and then it became post modern, because I could almost trace their jumps from one quote to another at different times throughout the year.  For instance:

"This was simply around the time my parents stopped understanding what I wanted and I stopped understanding what they wanted me to want." (Born Confused)

"Standing there, I loved and hated myself. It made me feel my glory and my shame at the same time." (The Secret Life of Bees)

"You still have a lot of time to make yourself into what you want." (The Outsiders)

"I told the waitress I'd been out all night 'looking for trouble.'" (Teen Angst...Nahh)

"I didn't answer him. I didn't feel like it." (Catcher in the Rye)

And I guess the reason that I wasn't connecting with any of the young adult books I was reading was because I wasn't picturing my students in them, because after listening to them read all their quotations and hearing their voices, I was tapped into their lives--albeit the slivers they allow to come out in English class, but it was as though the beauty of becoming and possibility was present.  I'm not sure if they noticed it. But I did. And I'm absolutely sure that they will make fun of me for my waxing poetic about a day in class. But.

This week we talked about the first half--the pain, the confusion, the struggle.  Next week we talk about the second half--the resolution, the growth, the wholeness, the strength.  I. Love. Story. And I love to think about the people that these favorites are going to become and the stories they are going to be able to tell when they make it to the other side of growing up.  But here are a few pictures of who they are right now. They are kind of endearing, right? You can read their writing at www.room116ela.blogspot.com.

My "Sold" bookclub with supplies they bought for Restore NYC's safehouse. 

Mustache Monday. Obviously. 

We take reading seriously. 

Like I said, seriously. 

My homeroom gets so excited to come back after lunch. Ha. 

Sometimes we play paper football. 

There aren't words for just how great this one is. Or how amazed I was to capture the single second that they weren't hysterically laughing after decorating my board so thoughtfully.  

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Pain of Beloved.


"Anything dead coming back to life hurts," (42).

"Can't nothing heal without pain, you know," (92).

These quotes stayed with me throughout reading Beloved by Toni Morrison because at its core, it is a book about existential hurt, impossible choices and living with their ghosts and yet, it is about moving forward--and the story itself feels like a way to let the hauntings go.

I finished the book weeks ago and am still  thinking about what a powerful, important, disturbing read it was.  The plot centers around a former slave named Sethe who escapes to Cincinnati where her children are already living, giving birth to her fourth child along the way.  Less than a year after her and her childrens' escape , she is in the backyard of the house she shares with her mother in law and sees a man from the plantation where she spent her life ready to call upon the Fugitive Slave Act.  Sethe chooses to gather her four children and attempts to kill them, rather than allowing them to be brought back into slavery.  Three of the four are spared.  The bulk of the story is set over a decade later when her house is haunted by the child's ghost.  Two people arrive: Paul D, a man who was also a slave on the plantation with Sethe, with whom she begins a relationship.  For a time, he is able to scare the ghost away, but then a girl arrives who Sethe and her daughter Denver believe to be the incarnated ghost, which completely rocks and changes Sethe, forcing her to face her past decisions. The book is about the spiral of Sethe wrestling with her demons and the definition of love, of finding and losing herself.

As a reader, I couldn't discern if the ghost-girl was literal or figurative--and at different moments I think could be either.  So I've been thinking about the questions Beloved poses in terms of healing: on both a personal and corporate level.  It is much too heavy of a story to simply say that it ends with hope--it is a beautiful mess of a narrative that left me a wreck while reading it.

Sethe's turmoil through Morrison's writing feels weighty enough to be corporate.  It is not just her story, it is the story of the psychological effects of slavery.  On this level, I felt as though I had no place to judge Sethe for her choices--and how she chose to define the love she had for her children.  Sethe writhes with her choice and it is impossible as a reader not to do so right along with her.  It feels an impossible situation, where I can't decide if the healing of an entire nation after such an abomination on humanity or the healing of a single heart engulfed it it feels more difficult.

This is when I come back to the quotes I cited at the beginning, that came in the first third of the story and were spoken to Paul D, but shaped what I began to see as the purpose of the whole book: that Sethe had to wrestle with the pain and had to feel it deeply.  There was no way to move forward without it.  Paul D says to Sethe toward at the end, when Sethe is still is the ashes of her life: "me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody.  We need some kind of tomorrow."  This seems so simple and almost trite, but only out of context.  The poetry and pain of this story--individual pain of the characters and the pain of looking at our history of a nation-- echo for anyone who has felt the complicated brokenness of tragedy and the reluctance to even try to heal. What Morrison leaves the reader with is the idea that there is still life.  There is still life.