Kids, school is not real life…

Middle School and High School – just the mention of either institution is enough to bring on post-traumatic feelings for so many people.  The inescapable nature of the building itself, the fear of choosing the wrong outfit/hair/music or even the wrong lunch table is overwhelming and omnipresent.  Of course there are pressures and problems for students that make school stress even worse.

Now that I teach Middle School students, I see the pain, frustration, and confusion in their lives first hand.  Many of the students I have taught also bring enormous pain and damage from lives of poverty, abuse, and loneliness.  Since I teach remedial reading, these same teens are also facing years of failing scores on their SOL tests (Yes that’s the actual acronym for Virginia’s end of year high stakes tests).  When they reach my classroom, they bring that whole history of personal frustration and school failure that has grown in them to a full blooming sense of inevitable failure. Every time they’ve tried, they’ve failed, according to the state – for years. How can a teacher convince them otherwise? I struggle with it every day.

When these Middle School students run into mean girls, bullies, or teachers who are cruel and controlling it adds to their feeling that they can’t control their lives and they lose hope that they’ll ever be able to make their own decisions. They are convinced by the lessons of their own history that they’ll always be at the mercy of someone else, unable to escape, succeed or get what they want.

This is what I tell them when they feel that life will always be like it is at school: School is an artificial world and is different than what their “real lives” outside of school will be like. At school, they have very little choice. They can’t choose to avoid people who are in their classes or the teachers who make them feel inferior. I tell them that in my life, “You know what I do when I meet someone I don’t like? I do my best to NEVER see them. I stop going to that store, change jobs, or I could even move to a new city if it got bad enough.”  I can choose whom I sit next to, whom I work with on many projects and whom I spend my free time with on the weekends.  Some of them get quite literally wide eyed at this declaration. They don’t really think about the choices they’ll have and are usually stunned that an adult, a teacher even, would tell them that school isn’t fair and it’s not the same as real life.

I wish someone had told me these things when I was in eighth grade.  I attended Middle School a few miles from the Middle School where I teach now. I was miserable. I played french horn in the band and had some friends, but I was depressed. I hadn’t experienced any of the traumatic events that some of my students have, but I was frustrated and sad every day. The advice I received at home was to tough it out and make the best of it, as my mom was in the midst of a major depression herself and my dad worked twelve hour days and traveled frequently.

It was lonely. I had moved to the area in third grade and never felt like I found my place. I always felt that everyone else knew what they were doing – not me.

Would I have believed it if someone had told me that what I was going through was not “real life?”  I’ll never know. I do know that it has helped my students to know that they are stuck in an artificial world where they have little control, that it won’t last forever, and that it simply must be endured. All adults have lived through it and for nearly all of us – it sucked. They are not alone. I understand and I remember.

Of course, books help. For me, it was Agatha Christie books.  The order, predictability and the sure success of figuring out the murder in mystery books was always satisfying and gave me a feeling of some control. I read them all. I read them through the horrible home perms, the braces, the friends who didn’t invite me, my mom not getting out of bed for days with a headache, through everything. They reassured me that problems could be solved.

Books help my students, too. Any encounter with a character who struggles with school and it’s artificial world and then endures – helps. It gives them hope and it also gives them the gift of another human in the world who says what no other adult has said to them, “I have been there and I understand.” That gift of understanding and recognition is precious and soul saving.  Reading saves. Young adult fiction saves.

I would love to hear you thoughts. Please leave a comment.



Telling the truth is a two way street

I teach struggling Middle School readers. They are between the ages of 12 and 14. Many of them come from homes full of stress – emotional and financial.  Some don’t eat enough. Some of them are abused constantly at home.  Some of them don’t have a conversation with any adult outside of our school building. Their parents work multiple jobs, they’re alcoholics, they’re mentally ill, they don’t have the emotional energy to speak to them.  The reason doesn’t matter. Students come to school desperate for someone to listen and to feel safe, and if they don’t – they can’t learn or connect.

My students have experienced huge and real things in their lives. I don’t know how to process many of the disturbing secrets that they tell me about the horrors of their lives.  It feels completely insane for me to say that it’s hard for me to process the idea of what these kids are actually experiencing. How do they “process” it?  I don’t think I knew what the act of “rape” was when I was 13.  My students have told me stories about rapes and about being hit and about alcoholic fathers.  They live in fear of the INS, of CPS and of not ever meeting the siblings that their parents left behind in their country.  I’m not sure I could deal with those kinds of problems as a 43 year old woman, so how they are supposed to get up every morning and care about their homework when they are dealing with figuring out how to get through a day with out food?  I don’t know.  I really don’t know.

Here’s what I do know.  Telling me their stories is the bravest thing I’ve ever seen. Exposing their pain and revealing the horror of their lives to me is a gift. It’s a sacred moment. Reacting to their confessions is the most important thing I do in a day of teaching.  I can’t transform their lives into lives of comfort and safety and love the way I would like to – the way they deserve. I can’t bring them all home with me, which I would like to do often.  I can only listen. I can let them know that there’s one adult in this whole world who thinks that what is happening to them is wrong and should have never happened.  I can let them know that my only concern is that they are OK. That they are safe. That my door is open and I will listen and hear them any time they need me to.  I can let them know that I love and respect them – no matter what their grades are. The moment of connection when I can look them in the eyes and say, “I am so sorry that happened to you,” is one that I am so grateful to have.

So, when people out there say that we need to have “age appropriate” stories in YA, I don’t know what they’re talking about. If I can hand a kid, whose home life is a disaster and whose father drinks until he passes out every night, a copy of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian” so that he can see that a kid like him lived through something just like he is going through, it may be the only “therapy” he ever gets. Sexual assault, bullying, violence, abuse, and eating disorders in YA books ain’t going to drive teenagers to any emotional or mental health crisis.  If they’re on the verge of a crisis, they won’t finish the book. If they’re suffering, a story told with respect for the characters and their struggles is a balm that can soothe a student’s suffering. Every time they recognize their own pain in the safe world of fiction, they make another critical connection in the world that says, “See? We’ve been there, too. It sucks, doesn’t it?” and maybe that means that they can get up the next morning and try again. If they feel a little bit less alone in the world, then I have given them truth in return for their trust and confessions. That’s what I do.

Kids need to read more books about real issues like racism, abuse, bullying, and homelessness, not fewer. They need to know they’re not alone. I am privileged enough to hear my students in person.  They are lucky enough to find their own lives in the books we read.


New Year, New Books!

On the evening of the first day of 2015…

I got books for Christmas this year. I hope that you got books, too. I actually didn’t get any books that I had asked for, but that’s probably because I didn’t ask for any books specifically. I didn’t ask for any titles in particular because I have a huge backlog of books to read. At NCTE I picked up many books and haven’t read nearly as many as I would have liked by now.  However, my family did a great job of picking up some beautiful books for me.

*The following photos and summaries are from Goodreads*

1) Adam by Ariel Schrag


“When Adam Freedman — a skinny, awkward, inexperienced teenager from Piedmont, California — goes to stay with his older sister Casey in New York City, he is hopeful that his life is about to change. And it sure does.

It is the Summer of 2006. Gay marriage and transgender rights are in the air, and Casey has thrust herself into a wild lesbian subculture. Soon Adam is tagging along to underground clubs, where there are hot older women everywhere he turns. It takes some time for him to realize that many in this new crowd assume he is trans — a boy who was born a girl. Why else would this baby-faced guy always be around?

Then Adam meets Gillian, the girl of his dreams — but she couldn’t possibly be interested in him. Unless passing as a trans guy might actually work in his favor…

Ariel Schrag’s scathingly funny and poignant debut novel puts a fresh spin on questions of love, attraction, self-definition, and what it takes to be at home in your own skin.”

My son Carl gave me this book and I can’t wait to read it. I have not read her other writing, but the reviews and the subject are definitely of interest to me. LGBTQ YA books are not easy to find and really good ones are even harder to find. I have great hopes for this one. Also, I really love the cover art.

2) I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

I'll Give You the Sun

“Jude and her twin brother, Noah, are incredibly close. At thirteen, isolated Noah draws constantly and is falling in love with the charismatic boy next door, while daredevil Jude cliff-dives and wears red-red lipstick and does the talking for both of them. But three years later, Jude and Noah are barely speaking. Something has happened to wreck the twins in different and dramatic ways . . . until Jude meets a cocky, broken, beautiful boy, as well as someone else—an even more unpredictable new force in her life. The early years are Noah’s story to tell. The later years are Jude’s. What the twins don’t realize is that they each have only half the story, and if they could just find their way back to one another, they’d have a chance to remake their world.
This radiant novel from the acclaimed, award-winning author of The Sky Is Everywhere will leave you breathless and teary and laughing—often all at once.”

Again a brother and sister story and it sounds fantastic. Again an author who is new to me. It would appear that 2015 will be a great reading year for me.

Also, the cover art on these books is brilliant.  They are beautifully simple and compelling. I loathe photographs on the covers of books. I don’t want anybody but the author telling me what the characters look like.  Don’t give me a cover with a photograph of a frilly girl on the cover or a shirtless guy unless you want me to walk right by it. I know that authors don’t have much input on their cover art and that makes me angrier still. Don’t even get me started on the “movie editions” of books. Barf.

At the moment, I am reading ‘All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr and am listening to “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand.  I am not madly in love with “All the Light..” yet.  However, it is about 2 young people one of whom is a teenage boy being trained an a Nazi school.  “Unbroken” is so compelling and Louis’ childhood and young adulthood is an amazing story unto itself. Oddly, Edward Hermann, the lead vampire from “Lost Boys,” FDR in “Annie” and actor in zillions of other movies reads the book. He died yesterday.  Of course I didn’t know Mr. Hermann personally, but as a listener to many audiobooks I can tell you that listening to someone reading a book aloud to you is an intimate experience. I’ve spent hours in my car with him talking to me also in my room while I fold laundry and even in the bathtub! I have hours left to spend with him. The experience has made me think of the indestructibility of stories and story tellers. He will go on as will the story he’s telling me as will his film work. The stories live on…

Goodreads wants me to set a number of books to read goal for 2015. I’m not going to do it. I don’t use Goodreads that much and I find that forcing myself to read a certain number of books just makes me frustrated. I am reading more now than I ever have and that’s good enough for me.

What are you planning to read in 2015?