Oh god, it’s happened: the moment your favorite childhood goes into syndication on the classic TV network. The horror! The horror!
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(cover illustration by the wonderful lostflyingfish)
Oprah Winfrey missed the mark when she chose Anna Karenina to restart her book club toward world domination. Indeed, Anna Karenina gave Oprah’s book club devotees the chance to tote a weighty tome to and from the gym to signify their literary elitism; however, Tolstoy’s serial masterpiece failed to capture the audience’s attention because it did not give them a chance to discuss the modern world. Overall, Oprah Winfrey’s quest to create an army of newly initiated literati resulted in a missed opportunity to discuss modern politics American politics. Instead of choosing a canonical Russian master, she should have selected Shusterman’s Unwind, a book that challenges the contemporary issues of her talk show audience by demanding discussion of the responsibility of society to human life.
Not to be disregarded by adults because of its intended demographic, Unwind forces an uncomfortable hypothesis about the future onto its readers and provokes a visceral response as it postulates a reality similar to modern society. As a result, the realism of the text is at once confrontational and candid as it asks readers to question where personhood lies on both a personal and social level. By demanding the reader evaluate their own assumptions about identity, Unwind cleverly manipulates contemporary opinions of ethnicity, socio-economic status, and gender to drive a work that seeks to reconcile ego with the identity structure supported by modern social, political and religious institutions. Furthermore, from the beginning of the novel, Shusterman uses his characters to swing the locus of identity from the responsibility of the text to the responsibility of the reader—a feat in itself that merits the esteem of a prodigious personality and power player like Oprah.
To select a story like Unwind shows faith in a varied readership; moreover, a book about reproductive rights that transforms into a text about the economy of self blatantly challenges the readers with a modern dilemma: where is the line of demarcation of personhood? While packaged as a YA novel, Unwind is deceptively post-modern, and it’s a book that deserves Oprah’s best-selling gold seal of approval.
I have been absent. I am terribly sorry; however, I come bearing glad tidings for all….but mostly myself.
In two days, I move to New York to participate in NYU’s Summer Publishing Institute. It’s an exciting opportunity for me, and while I have not been substitute teaching in order to prepare for the course, I am going to continue to update this blog.
Consider for a moment what it means to be a substitute. A sub in an object, person, or experience that offers an alternative to the genuine thing. Often times, a substitute is considered less than the original because it is transient. A sub lacks temporal, emotional, and physical stability, and this, my friends, is a terrifying realization. However, I am going to pose a trite rhetorical question: as a young person, am I not simply finding a way to substitute more than just myself?
Take for example to obvious: I live at home. An $80,000 degree has not found me a home, a car payment nor enough money to afford insurance (thanks for nothing Obama, but more on that when I’m not in the process of paying out of my nose for blood work). This is a substitute home, and I am a substitute for a “real adult.” I am a substitute until I find validation in myself. Truth hurts, kiddos, but I’m not ashamed of my position. Rather, I’m exploring, and in the end I’ll reach some sort of permanence only to take up a new journey. That’s my treatise; that’s what it means to be a substitute.
As I go along, I won’t argue semantics on what constitutes a grown-up, but I will say this, while you may see a different direction in the blog for a while as I aggressively pursue a career as an acquisitions editor, my thesis remains true—what I do to get by may be a substitution, and those substitutions are hilarious, heart breaking, and worthy of attention.
As a vagrant educator, I occasionally get thrust into situations where I have no control over the circumstances and outcomes. I am thinking in particular of the days I sub in English classes because, while I studied English in college, I feel I am least qualified to teach an English class because of the demands placed on educators to regulate language and writing.
Before I continue, I will say that while I studied English, I never studied language. I covered all manner works from sinners and saints who mastered their craft. I observed their writing, editing, form, syntax and diction but never their LANGUAGE. Linguistics is not my specialty, and I feel a bit out of my league in commenting on my experiences with language in the classroom. Nevertheless, I write this in hopes that someone on the linguistics tag doesn’t lose hope. I am here to say that there are teachers, even ones who studied English and flit from class to class, who don’t care how their students use words to communicate, only that they do.
In my classrooms, I abide by one language rule: speak kindly of others even if we think they don’t deserve it. Notice I didn’t say that I require my students to use perfect grammar or vocabulary. I strive for precision in my own daily use of language, but I don’t ask that of my students because, frankly, sometimes I don’t know if that was the precise word or not because there hasn’t been enough context.
I do ask them to avoid combative language because of the school’s anti-bullying policy. I simply won’t tolerate them calling another student stupid because it’s harmful to everyone’s learning environment, but I don’t object to the word itself. Things are stupid. Actions can be stupid. People can do stupid things, say stupid things and bring about stupid consequences. I am entirely aware of this. Furthermore, the definition of stupid has expanded to include all sorts of idiotic, hurtful, spiteful, and hilarious connotations that I ask my kids to consider. Were you implying that the cafeteria staff running out of chicken nuggets was an unfortunate circumstance, or are you’re calling them stupid for not planning ahead? If it’s the former, carry on; the later, let’s reconsider not directing stupidity at a person who didn’t have control of the lunch line.
Truthfully, I ask my students not to say it if they are directing it at someone because that’s bullying. I don’t feel guilty for imposing these regulations on anyone, mostly especially my classes, and I will correct their speech if it hurts another. Say instead, “Don’t say hurtful things to me.” (As a side note, it’s endlessly funny to watch my kids consider the cumbersome nature of this sentence because it doesn’t flow naturally to them.)
However, I have never once, not in three years, corrected a student’s grammar. Case in point, one of my little guys was writing something for me when he dropped his pencil or it rolled of his desk or something. The point—he couldn’t find it right away, and he exclaimed, “Someone robbed my little pencil.” I flew around wide-eyed and in disbelief, and this little boy immediately began correcting himself.
“I’m sorry Miss Michels. I just meant that someone took it, and I need it, and it’s just my little pencil. Who would do that?!”
I stopped him quite simply by saying, “No, I understood you, but let’s look around before we start hauling in pencil thieves for questioning.”
Can I just remark at the utter elegance of the statement “someone robbed my little pencil?” Robbed, with its bilabial stop, is not even what I would consider a beautiful English word, but it is direct. It was so beautiful a sentence that I immediately wrote it down. Why do we stop our children from expressing themselves this way? “Robbed” is curt and matches neatly with the image of a little pencil in a way that “stole” doesn’t, to say nothing of the cumbersome prepositional phrase that would probably have been used if he said, “what happened to my pencil.” He used his language clearly, and I wish that the test I was teaching accounted for that because I do.
There are times when my students communicate so clearly that I want to hug them, and this was such an occasion. Why, when they are writing, must I correct them? Furthermore, so many children struggle to simply put their words on paper because they think they “do it wrong.” To “do it”—another indicator that they way they use language isn’t translating to their writing, but it should! If they are doing a paper, how is that different than writing a paper? I always tell my kids that I don’t care how they write so long as they do. It’s more important to express themselves than to mull over the tens of thousands of words in their lexicon just to settle on the right one. If puzzling over the differences between sardonic and sarcastic is something that excites them, I encourage it; however, for the vast majority of my kids, they view written language as the enemy when they have already shown themselves to be excellent communicators. This hatred of writing—because they don’t know what to say and how to say it—is sad. They could all, every single one of them but especially the ones who think they don’t know enough, be such intelligent, thoughtful, challenging writers if only they were encouraged to put it down exactly as they say it.
As my student so succinctly stated, they are being robbed.
…that a substitute in a possession of tissues and band-aids must be in want of a first grade class.
I have yet to decode the meteorological map that predicts the exact nature of the storms that brew in a first grade class, but I am definitely on the case. The atmosphere of a first grade classroom is deceptively calm, but trust any teacher to tell you that it is not a day in first grade without tears. I have been in at least a half dozen first grade classrooms this year, and each and every one of them has produced a crying child at some point. It’s an anomaly unique to the 6/7 age set, and I can’t figure out why. Add a few band-aids to the mix, and you have a perfect storm of early readers.
Friday, I was in a class where, by the end of the day, three girls had cried (over what else but a birthday party?) and one boy had gotten a bloody nose. It was a good day for first grade, and I am not being facetious.
In no other level of school do I find to commitment to turmoil, drama and classroom politics that exists in a first grade room. The lives of novice students are difficult, this much is clear, but I have yet to really grasp why they must cry over so very many things.
Take for example my tearful triad. At the start of the day, a girl in class, I’ll call her S, had handed out some trinket necklaces to six of the other little girls in class. I have come to understand, between hiccuping sobs and maudlin diatribes, that these necklaces were place holders for forthcoming birthday party invitations. It should come as no surprise that the necklaces immediately began to cause problems. First, a little girl I’ll refer to as M cried because I would not tie on her necklace. It wasn’t important to the lessons of the day, and I didn’t want to volunteer to do it for one girl and then be required to tie them for all six. If I did it once, I was going to have to do it at least a dozen times as the necklaces started to slip off, and while I love helping my students, I did not volunteer to be a stylist and teacher that day. I stand by my decision.
However, M was under the impression that I must tie on her necklace, and after I refused, she stalked to her desk, slammed her fists on the particle board top, and proceeded to pitch a fit the likes of which I haven’t seen in a while. This attracted the attention of the other students who, rightly so, were concerned. I quickly calmed M, promised her that I would tie her necklace on her at the end of the day, and returned the other students to their seats. Situation: handled, by one brilliant Justina Michels.
But let me keep going. You see, to a six year old, birthday parties are the bread and butter of social engagement. It’s like being invited to drinks with the interesting people at work. You can just tell you are going to have a good time.
Yet, when someone isn’t invited to a birthday party but knows it’s happening, the world must surely be ending. Like the pain of exclusion that comes from seeing people you know at a party to which you were not invited, only handing out a few invitations in a classroom is a easy way to cause self-esteem meltdowns and break up life-long friendships. Sometime during morning group work, wwo girls who were invited to S’s party had their necklaces taken away from them and given to two other girls in class who felt slighted. Walking back from recess, I walk into the room to shouts of, “She’s not my best friend anymore!” “You can’t have the necklace because I am giving it to someone else now!” “I thought you liked me, S!”
Thanks for that, recess. I appreciate the tornado you blew into my room.
Really, I should have taken the necklaces away the moment they emerged, but truthfully, I think that first grade girls should be able to learn about their own social code on the playground. If I take away that option, then I have done all of my students, not just girls, a disservice. Such a situation could easily have happened in a mixed group, and with the whole class invested, I used it as an opportunity to discuss appropriate class decorum. I also had a talk with S about when she should have handed out the necklaces, and really, tears are not all that bad.
In fact, by the end of the day, the dollar-store necklaces had changed hands so many times, that I think I may be invited to S’s birthday party. I just hope she doesn’t already have a pink-sequins clutch.
By the way, the bloody nose was a playground accident, but it just goes to show that a little blood never hurt a first grader, either. Plus, the little boy came back to class and had the entire group spellbound as he recounted just how easy it was to stop a bloody nose. I promise, I couldn’t make this up if I tried.