Kenilworth Castle

Kenilworth Castle
Kenilworth Castle, John of Gaunt's Hall

Monday, March 10, 2014


I was surprised this morning to see anything at all about Sandy Hook in the news; when I saw that the father of the shooter had done an interview with Andrew Solomon, I wanted to read it. Solomon is the author of Far From the Tree, which is an interesting if overlong look at children who are different from their parents in some substantial way. Solomon profiles autistic kids, down syndrome kids, deaf kids, severely disabled kids, transgender kids, kids who are the result of rape (possibly the most disturbing chapter, honestly), kids who commit crimes. I liked the book, and Solomon's writing and thinking, enough to want to read this interview with Peter Lanza.

The article is semi-lengthy, and I was appalled by it. And sad. Really, really sad. Because from Peter's recountings, Adam had issues for a very, very long time. Being diagnosed with Asperger's seems to have allowed his parents to pigeonhole all of his behaviors under that classification, and to ignore things that were inconsistent with "just" Asperger's.
Maybe I would have thought differently had I not read Solomon's book, but the thing that stood out the most for me in reading Peter's interview was how little he seemed to understand his son. Not even his son, post-mass murder/suicide. But his son as a kid and teenager who CLEARLY had problems beyond Asperger's or autism or any tidy diagnosis. For instance:
"According to the state’s attorney’s report, when Adam was in fifth grade he said that he “did not think highly of himself and believed that everyone else in the world deserved more than he did.”"
"He said that he hated birthdays and holidays, which he had previously loved; special occasions unsettled his increasingly sclerotic orderliness. He had “episodes,” panic attacks that necessitated his mother’s coming to school"

Peter says: "“It was crystal clear something was wrong,” Peter said. “The social awkwardness, the uncomfortable anxiety, unable to sleep, stress, unable to concentrate, having a hard time learning, the awkward walk, reduced eye contact. You could see the changes occurring.”"
"uncomfortable anxiety" seems like rather an understatement for panic attacks that sent him home from school.

"“Adam was not open to therapy,” Peter told me. “He did not want to talk about problems and didn’t even admit he had Asperger’s.”"

and this: "“If he had been a totally normal adolescent and he was well adjusted and then all of a sudden went into isolation, alarms would go off,” Peter told me. “But let’s keep in mind that you expect Adam to be weird." "

He describes his son as "weird" repeatedly.

When he was sixteen, his mother wrote: "“He had a horrible night. . . . He cried in the bathroom for 45 minutes and missed his first class.” Two weeks later, she wrote, “I am hoping that he pulls together in time for school this afternoon, but it is doubtful. He has been sitting with his head to one side for over an hour doing nothing.”"

"“He was exhausted and lethargic all day, and said he was unable to concentrate and his homework isn’t done,” she wrote. “He is on the verge of tears over not having his journal entries ready to pass in. He said he tried to concentrate and couldn’t and has been wondering why he is ‘such a loser’ and if there is anything he can do about it."

The thing that most struck me in the relation of Adam's past was this snippet:
when Nancy told Peter that Adam had been crying hysterically on the bathroom floor, Peter responded with uncharacteristic vehemence: “Adam needs to communicate the source of his sorrow. We have less than three months to help him before he is 18. I am convinced that when he turns 18 he will either try to enlist or just leave the house to become homeless.” Nancy replied, “I just spent 2 hours sitting outside his door, talking to him about why he is so upset. He failed every single test during that class, yet he thought he knew the material.”
And that....seems to be the end of the story. "communicate his sorrow"? What a peculiar and cold choice of words. A sixteen-year-old boy crying hysterically, talking about himself as a loser and pointless, locking himself into his room and refusing to eat -- and "communicate his sorrow" is what they looked for? The mom's reaction, too, is so strange: Failing a bunch of tests when you think you knew the material would definitely be upsetting. But hysterical crying? And the locking-out of his mother and not eating had been happening before this.
There's just such a fundamental misunderstanding between Adam and his parents that it's excruciating to read. Solomon focuses mainly on this history's absence of warning signs of violence, and in fact a number of doctors and other professionals who saw Adam never worried about violence.

Okay, fine. But - this is a distraught, disturbed kid. He had been prescribed anti-depressants and experienced side effects - after just a few days he stopped taking them and never would again.

Right around here - the refusal to acknowledge the asperger's diagnosis, the refusal to take meds coupled with the hysterical crying, the apparent self-loathing, the intense intense isolation - it's right here where I think: This kid should have been taken to an inpatient facility. If he refused to accept treatment at home so vehemently, then he should have been checked in to a psychiatric center where he could be treated against his will. Normally, I don't feel good about things like "treated against his will" but he was so clearly suffering, and his parents and he were so clearly incapable of dealing with it effectively on their own. And he was still a kid, 16 years old.

To me - and obviously I am not qualified to make any determinations - it sounds like Adam was having some pretty intense depression. That plus OCD plus the rather ominous phrase "his mother warned the school that he might not stop doing something because it hurt" -- that adds up to Something Is Very Wrong With Your Child.

And his parents weirdly - didn't ignore his issues, but somehow totally misread them. It seems both parents couldn't really accept that their kid was something more than "weird" - he needed specialized help. That instruction for him to "communicate his sorrow" fails so totally to recognize anything like clinical depression, where the "sorrow" is not communicable - it is deep in your bones and not always identifiable with a cause or reason.

The "shocker" of Solomon's interview, of course, is Peter's revelation that he wishes his son had never been born. Early in the article, Solomon notes that Peter has no photos of either of his sons in evidence in his house; Peter says "You can’t mourn for the little boy he once was."
Peter describes his son - not his son's actions, but his son - as evil.

And....I don't think you arrive at that point without years of maybe even subconscious priming for dislike or rejection.  The rejection of "mourning the little boy he once was" is so cold. It is such a total rejection and denial and abnegation of Adam, and of Peter's relationship with his son. Pop psychoanalysis is tacky and bad practice, I know, but my guess is that Peter was uncomfortable with, disappointed in, frustrated by his "weird" kid in ways that were very legible to that weird kid all along.

Look: it is not Peter's or Nancy's fault that adam murdered 27 people then killed himself. That was Adam. And it is profoundly horrible. I would not ever try to argue it isn't. But that isn't the issue here. It's the curious distaste and revulsion Peter expresses for his kid.
After Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested and tried, his father wrote and spoke publicly about how difficult it was - because he loved his son but was horrified, naturally, by what he had done

Timothy McVeigh's father said, publicly, right up to (and probably after) McVeigh's execution that no matter what McVeigh had done, he was still his son, and he loved him. Even though what he did was terrible, abhorrent, ghastly beyond belief, totally at odds with everything his dad thought and felt and believed. Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people, 19 of whom were children in a daycare, and injured hundreds more. He blew them up intentionally, purposely, with considerable planning beforehand. And yet his dad could still love him.

Why can't adam lanza's?

I'm not sentimental about children or parental love or any of that kind of thing. And in the end, it doesn't much matter to anyone except Peter how he feels about anything. And on the outside, even on the inner-outside as Solomon was, there's just no way of knowing what's really going on.

But to wish your child had never been born? to feel convinced that he would have killed you as well? I don't know. I don't know how you get there; I don't know how you get there in less than 15 months. I think years of failure to properly recognize and understand the profound difference between himself and Adam had a lot to do with this post-murder/suicide attitude. And I would bet money that Adam intuited, at some point, his father's dislike? discomfort? rejection? of him - and that probably added to the kid's suffering, which seems to have been considerable.
It's shocking, and depressing, how even in such a horrifyingly sad and upsetting story as the Sandy Hook murders, there's still room for one more sad story to get even sadder.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Pinocchio and Peter Pan: Aubrey Hirsch writes smart words

A lot of the people I know on facebook have small kids, some very small. They - the people I know, not the small kids - often post links to usually well-written but still tiresome essays and articles and blog posts about Being A Mom, or, less often, Being A Dad. I don't usually read all - or even any - of these pieces once I see the title and the source - websites with "babies" or "mommy" or "child" in the name.

Tonight I clicked through a link posted by a fellow grad student (now graduated), to a short piece written by another alumna of our department, an MFA who I do not know other than by her name, Aubrey Hirsch.
That piece is called "Why I Don't Think My Son Is Growing Up Too Fast," and it is terrific.
I don't need to comment much on it; it's brief and efficient. It's a little more mushy than what I normally prefer in my everyday life, but on the whole it's very reasonable. But it is a brilliant rebuttal, response, refutation of the parental lament about their babies growing up too fast.
Ever since I started seriously studying Peter Pan, in 1999, I have felt uneasy about perpetual children. Mrs Darling says it on the first page "Oh why can't you stay like this forever?" to toddler Wendy. But perpetual children are failures. If you never grow up, you never grow out, if that makes any sense. The sign of a parenting job well done is that your kid grows up and away and has its own life. It's why the narrator of The Little White Bird is so sorrowful over the "stealing" of David by Pilkington - once the child becomes enmeshed in its own life, away from guiding adults, it doesn't need or want those adults as much, even though the adults still need and want the child.
As Peter Pan also taught me, the only permanent child is the dead child - hardly the outcome hoped for by any parent.
What I admire about Hirsch's brief essay, aside from the blunt statement that she is content with her child growing up, is her statement that even if having a tiny kid is the ultimate, "then I’m not so selfish that I would keep him from having his own perfect moment with his own perfect child."
It is uncommon for me to read, or see, genuine unselfishness from parents like this. I think most parents feel something like it, and want to feel it, but it doesn't always register with the kind of sincerity Hirsch conveys. Having a kid - being responsible, creating, an entire human person - is about that person, not about you, and lots of people don't seem totally clear on that. The enormity of the task is one reason I don't want kids of my own; I am selfish enough to realize I don't want to organize my entire life, forever, around another person. I enjoy putting myself first, when I can.

After reading and delighting in this essay, I poked around a little for more info about Aubrey Hirsch and found a tantalizing reference to what she discovered lurking within the Pinocchio story. Which led me to this very short story, which has knocked my socks right off.

Pinocchio as trans.

Of course. Of course Pinocchio is trans. Of course Pinocchio is queer. Not just wooden puppet-to-human boy, but gender to gender.
Transformation stories are often queer-ish (The Velveteen Rabbit, the wonderfully queer Alexander and the Wind-up Mouse) but for some reason Pinocchio and trans never occurred to me in the same sentence. Hirsch's short story is a beautiful little commentary, re-telling (or just telling, maybe?), re-framing of the story we all know well. It's a reminder than the stories of transpersons are stories we know well. We all know what it is to feel like something other than what you seem to be, whether you're a nerd who wants to be a hero or a wooden puppet who wants to be human or a boy who knows she's a girl.
Hirsch's story makes Pinocchio and trans-ness both infinitely complex and elegantly simple. It's an "ah-ha!" and a thoughtful "ohhhhh." Exclamation and query. It is lovely. And brilliant.

I admit: the wonderfulness of her Pinocchio story makes me a bit afraid to seek out her collection of short stories (Why We Never Talk About Sugar), of which the publisher tells us: "Hirsch's compassion arrives on a knife blade. And you just may find your own heart cut open."

 Regardless of whether I ever read another word of her writing (I probably will), her 'Pinocchio' is enough to transform, forever, my thinking about that story. Go read it.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Where are the pre-1960s nonwhite children's books?

Last year, a lot of my thinking about all things related to children's literature culture revolved around money - class, wealth, etc. This year, it seems everything's about race. In fact, it's probably both (and a few other things as well), but the problem of racial underrepresentation is currently the most pressing, and shocking.

I'm working on my syllabus for a children's lit class in the spring. I've decided to just go with a mix of classics and obscure texts that cover a broad range of time. I'm sticking with Anglophone, mainly British and American, texts because they are what I know best. I've been eagerly adding titles to my list of possibles, dreading the moment when I have to actually make a decision and choose which stay and which get cut.
In reviewing my list, which has mainly concentrated on the 19th and early 20th century (since more recent texts that I want to teach I have in abundance), I realized: Gosh, all of my titles are by white authors, with white characters.
Then I thought: Wait, WHICH books by nonwhite authors and/or with nonwhite characters can I even think of from the decades before the 1960s?
Aside from some Langston Hughes and one or two other texts I've seen referenced in various people's scholarly work, I can't think of anything. The Hughes, and the references I remember, were mainly in the picture book genre, and I want novels or short stories. Not for or about teenagers, but legitimately children's literature.
So I turned to the Collective Brain of the child_lit listserv, because they always know everything there, and asked for nonwhite children's books, NOT picture books or poetry, from before 1960.

I have not gotten very many responses.
Most of those responses have directed me to Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes. There have also been a number of suggestions of collected folktales.
Rudine Sims Bishop's Free within ourselves : the development of African American children’s literature has been recommended, and I am heading to the library tomorrow to get it.

But I feel discouraged that folktales and Langston Hughes are what we, as people who know children's literature very well, can come up with. Perhaps because I've recently been thinking about representations of American Indians (thanksgiving, of course), folktales and Langston Hughes, even, feel like they give the impression of a past, historical people. Like they don't deal with contemporary-to-their-time children. Hughes and Bontemps do, I think, though I'll have to do some more checking on that. But folktales?
Don't mistake me: folktales, the oral tradition, are hugely important, especially in any culture that has been marginalized and/or oppressed (in the case of African/Americans, denied literacy as slaves, and kept from decent schooling by such terrible legal trickery as Plessy vs. Ferguson).
But folktales also, as far as I've ever been able to tell, have their feet very firmly grounded in the past, in a historical or even mythic past. Those folktales have as much to do with the contemporary lives of kids reading then in 1930 as they do with kids reading them in 2013. Perhaps, in reading Rudine Sims Bishop, I will learn that African-American folktales have a very different existence than any of the Anglo/European folktale traditions I have some knowledge of. This could be true. But it's still a very specific tradition, a specific genre, that is distanced in several ways by its generic conventions from its audience.

So why don't we know - and we should know at least one or two token titles!  - nonwhite children's literature from before 1960 or so? W.E.B. DuBois's  Brownies magazine made efforts at providing African-American children with African-American children's stories, but can anyone name any of those authors or stories? [Answer: yes, obviously someone, probably more than one someone, can - but they have a too-specialized knowledge].

We learn/teach/are taught the Golden Age narrative of children's literature, which definitely is important and plays rather an important role in the development of the genre, and also in the dominant Anglo-American culture of the last 200+ years. Knowing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Peter Pan is still important. But I am really flabbergasted to realize that I don't know any African-American, or Native, or Latino, writers or texts for children from before the later 20th century. I do spend, and have spent, rather a lot of time trying to know everything about the field of children's literature, but I am happy to admit I don't know everything - so it would be easy for me to say "argh, a horrid oversight on my part!"

But the fact that the Collective Genius and Knowledge of the listserv didn't have a couple of go-to authors or titles really does surprise me. Maybe it's because it's the end of the semester and folks are too busy to reply. And the responses I DID receive are definitely helpful - I don't want to dismiss them at all, because they knew more than I did. But the absence is noticeable, and notable. If you'd ask the list for, say, picture books with black child characters, you'd get heaps of replies right away saying "The Snowy Day" or "Amazing Grace" or Chris Raschka's books, or Faith Ringgold's, or any number of others.

I don't know how - or rather, I am afraid I know too well how - to understand the depressing absence of nonwhite writers and characters from the children's literary tradition. I am hoping Rudine Sims Bishop can help me out (and Michelle Abate's and Kate Capshaw's work), because I am now determined to find and include an early nonwhite (probably African-American) work of children's prose on this syllabus.
I had hoped for a nice easy-to-assemble syllabus, so I could attend to the sadly neglected dissertation, but this is too important to let go. So I'll give up a few dissertation hours to poking around the libraries and internet, and reading Sims Bishop, and seeing what kind of fiction I can find, written for and about and by the nonwhite population.

When I find those texts, I will do my best to wallpaper my tiny corner of influence with their names.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

kids these days, with the sexting and the selfies and the changing modes of communication

I'm basically reposting this here (I wrote it on tumblr), but cleaning it up a little. It's a result of listening to a fairly recent episode of Roderick on the Line (podcast), and of showing "Blurred Lines" to my freshman comp class as an introduction to close reading 'text.'
I got Way Behind with my Roderick on the Line, because I am a terrible person who doesn’t deserve nice things like RotL. Anyway, washing dishes, listening to ep 78 (“Driving Lesson Costume”), I was intrigued by two things pretty quickly.
The discussion Merlin & John have about their respective daughters, and those daughters growing up, and their unease about certain aspects of that, was touching and adorable and hilarious. Really, I think the best advice to give them (as a daughter who grew up mostly successfully) is, to paraphrase Merlin, Just don’t be weird about it. Don’t make it weird. Young Lady Roderick and Young Lady Mann will be A-ok. they’ve got good parents.
Next: selfies taken in the bathroom mirror and sexting and what’s the point? Merlin says “If I was the kind of person who still read Roland Barthes, I would write about that” (or something similar. Quote marks here indicate speech, not accuracy in quotation).
A moment of conversation ensues, then John decides to behave precisely like a person who reads Roland Barthes and says something like: those naked mirror-selfies are more a form of communication than pornography. It’s about the real-time communication that a person is getting naked *for you*. If you look back, out of context, at the photo you’re like “eurgh, not the most flattering image.” But the context - the communication of “I’m naked RIGHT NOW for YOU” - is the only thing that really matters. That really has significance, in the “signs and signifiers and signification” sense of the word.
My mind, blown. Suddenly: all those out-of-context nakedy pictures one hears/sees about are stripped of their sexual content. They’re like reading a transcript of one side of a phone call, but not even the complete call. It’s almost meaningless.
So then I think about these naked selfies - the Kids These Days, teenagers sending around Naked Selfies to their teenage boyfriends or girlfriends or whatever - as not sexual. And….it kind of makes a really fucked-up sense.
One of the things I’ve noticed, teaching the Youth of America, is that they’re really weird about sex, or at least talking about it in class in the context of a specific novel or film. Now, I spent my college years being thoroughly repressed, except I went to a college that was basically one giant hippie orgy. It wasn’t just that there were groups of people who liked to walk around naked - outside, in public areas - or that everyone seemed to be having sex constantly, with someone, or that femynysts performed dance routines featuring smacking their ovaries, or that there were actual orgies. nope: there was also plenty of talk in classrooms, in academic, scholarly ways, about sex. This only got worse in grad school (where “worse” = “more frequent”). For a repressed person, I had to get unrepressed real fast, or be chronically uncomfortable and silent.

I’m used to everyone having a gutter mind. Everyone around me always did, it seems, from at least middle school on. *I* have a gutter mind. But the Kids These Days, in my classes, they don’t seem to. They are a weird mix of nonchalant “oh yes, pansexual multi-partner orgies involving unusual fetishes are totally the norm in high school” and red-faced, giggling, inability to say “have sex” in the context of a discussion of a novel in which characters, in fact, have…. you know.
As a kind of early practice in close reading, I had my freshmen watch the rather revolting video (unrated - topless girls) of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” And discussing it afterwards was shocking and revealing. Many of them were confused - openly, raising-their-hands-to-ask-questions confused - about various innuendo in the video. Like….what’s with him licking the ice cream? what’s going on with the feet? that’s really random….what was she doing with that stuffed animal?
I was shocked. Like seriously, actually shocked. “Blurred Lines” isn’t exactly a subtle video. And the sexual content just seemed to pass many of them by, or flat-out confuse them. This class meets too early in the morning for them to be actively trying to fool me, either - I think those were their honest reactions.
So: circling back to RotL: what if, somehow, the pornographic signification of sexting and such is  - if not totally absent, at least really watered down, for Kids Today? I don’t get the sense that THAT many of them are THAT much more sophisticated about sex and sex-adjacent stuff than repressed-me was in college. Some are, sure, but it doesn’t take much to exceed that low bar.
I guest-lectured in a friend’s class once, ages ago, probably my second year of teaching. And one of the boys in the class - one who was simultaneously too cool for school and sincerely smart and engaged - said something like “Nakedness doesn’t always mean sex.”
He was and is right, of course, but I wonder if - somehow, in these weird modern times of ours, with kids who grew up during the very conservative reign of GW Bush (remember John Ashcroft having the exposed bosoms of statues covered up in the Justice department building?) - I wonder if somehow nudity and sex - like actual sexuality - have been split apart in some odd way. So that they KNOW what is “sexy,” and that is “naked bathroom selfies” but it doesn’t register for many of them in a truly sexual way? That, again, it’s a way of communicating something - for straight girls, I imagine, it’s something like “I love you boyfriend so much i’m willing to do whatever will make you happy and sending you this naked picture of me in my bathroom mirror will let you know that i really care about you.” Or maybe "I'm cute and confident because I'm 16 and hot!"  But it has about as much sexual content to it, for them anyway, as would bringing the boyfriend chicken soup when he was sick.
If sexuality has become split in some way from nakedness, even from the idea of “sexy,” which basically means nothing very different from “pretty”, both of which just signify "attractive to the gender/sex i want to attract" that would explain an awful lot about the weird reticence of my students, and their inability to lie in the gutter and think about Robin Thicke's gross explicit video.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


A week or so ago, some acquaintance on facebook posted this video from Parenting Gently. Despite the fact that I am not a parent and have no real interest in contemporary parenting (gentle or otherwise), the title of the video intrigued me enough to get me to click through: "4 Ways Parents Teach Kids That Consent Doesn't Matter."

Because it's the start of the school year, and I have two classes full of college freshmen, I've been thinking about anti-rape education a lot lately. I did a brief reminder (with handouts from the internet!) about what Consent means - the most important reminder, I think, is that being asleep/being drunk/being passed out does not mean you are consenting. And that maybe if your person is really drunk, even if they are consenting, they might not really mean it. So use some intelligence.

It struck me as rather awful that at age 18 or 19, these students might need some information about what consent actually means, but then i realized that we don't talk about it very much until then, and it's almost always in the context of rape. The Parenting Gently video makes it really clear that there are ways we, as adults, model consent/disregard of nonconsent - and that that carries over into all aspects of life, including sex and sexual coercion.

Parenting Gently's 4 ways that adults teach kids that consent does matter are:
*Tickling & Rough-house Play
*Contradicting Their Feelings
*Forced Affection
*Respect For Elders

You can watch her extremely concise and insightful discussion of each of these, but I was particularly struck by what she says about Tickling/Roughhouse Play: If you're tickling a kid and they say no (even if it seems like a playful no), stop immediately. That way, they learn that saying NO results in a behavior ending, but it ALSO shows them that the correct response when someone says No or Stop is to stop what you're doing. It works both ways. It models the effectiveness of saying NO, it gives power to the kid, and it also shows what you do when someone doesn't like what you're doing to them.

A couple of days after watching this video, which I've been turning over in my mind since the initial viewing, I checked my much-neglected tumblr stream. For some obviously masochistic reason, I still follow "Reasons my son is crying," and this was near the top of my tumblr stream.  
And it made my blood boil, especially in the context of the Parenting Gently consent video.
The tumblr is a photo of a little girl, maybe 3 years old?, sitting on the floor in a blue dress, crying.  the caption: "She asked Daddy not to look at her.  He didn’t listen."

I think steam probably came out my ears I was so angry. Who knows why she asked daddy not to look at her? But when a girl asks a man not to look at her, "he didn't listen" is not the best response. And yes, it's her dad, and yes, she's only 2 or 3, and yes, it was probably all quite silly anyway. But who knows? Who knows what was going on in her mind when she asked her dad not to look at her? Maybe she had a really good reason for it. She's clearly in a safe, secure location - looks like she's sitting on a kitchen floor - so it's not like her dad needs to keep an eye on her for safety reasons. We don't know who took the picture, but if it was dad, I'm even angrier - imagine, not only ignoring your daughter's request not to look at her but PHOTOGRAPHING her in that moment!
I do think my reaction is influenced by the gender dynamics there as well as the age dynamics. Girls are so looked-at, their whole lives, and sometimes you just don't want to be on stage. Laura Mulvey, fetishistic scopophilia, etc. Men are taught to look at women, their whole lives, and that they have every right to look at women when and how they want. And even if the woman is a three year old girl, and the man is her own father, it's still a problem. I won't even go into any of the stats about child sex abuse and likelihood of family perpetrators. I don't know anything at all about the situation being reported in the tumblr other than what I see and read. I don't do hysteria over child molestation, either, for a variety of reasons, but I also see no reason to pretend that no father has ever molested or been sexually inappropriate towards a daughter. It is a Thing. You can't say "but it's just her dad," as if that, in every single case, is an automatic exculpatory statement.

Sometimes you just don't want to be looked at, and when there's no pragmatic reason that supervision is necessary, no one *should* look at you if you ask them not to.

Taking Parenting Gently as a guide, fast-forward this moment by about 16 years. Girl, age 18 or 19, asks Boy not to look at her (for whatever reason; maybe she's changing, maybe she's taking off a layer of clothing and doesn't want her shirt to pull up in view of him, maybe she's feeling shy, maybe he's making her feel creepy, maybe he's looking at her in a disturbing way, who knows). Boy ignores request; in fact, Boy takes out his phone and takes a picture of Girl.

And suddenly we're in a disturbing coercive situation where Girl's right to be not-looked-at is violated. Girl has been set up for this situation by parental disregard of consent/nonconsent. Maybe Boy has been similarly set up - say, by the "contradicting of feelings" item on Parenting Gently's list. Girl says "Don't look, I'm feeling shy," and Boy thinks "Oh, you're not really shy, you're just being silly/self-conscious/a tease."

I know a lot of people would think this is a huge leap to make, and maybe it is. But I somehow don't think so. Ignoring children's actual feelings and desires - for instance, to not be looked at - tells them, as humans, that it's okay to ignore people's actual feelings, and that their own feelings and desires aren't legitimate. If we're lucky, we re-educate them at some point down the line to have self-respect and to know that their emotions are legitimate and should be respected, etc etc. But why not start that training from the very beginning? Why not say "Your feelings should be respected, and you should also respect other people's feelings"?
That sounds very Mister Rogers-y, not surprisingly of course, but I think it's also true and important. Kids, as much as adults, are human beings with thoughts and feelings and wishes. We don't get to ignore them, make fun of them, trample over them, or contradict them just because we're older (see item 4 in the video: respecting your elders). Doing those things suggests that those behaviors are okay in adults, and they aren't. Doing those things suggests that your resistance/refusal is going to be ignored.
These are not behaviors we want to encourage amongst people in our society - or they shouldn't be.
Consent matters, and it matters from the very earliest imaginable moments.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Vale E.L. Konigsburg

As if this week hasn't had enough bad news in it, word comes today that E.L. Konigsburg has died.

Konigsburg is one of the rare greats of children's literature who I actually read as a child (I don't know what I was reading then, but it was mostly nothing I read now). From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is probably THE iconic Konigsburg text, and of course it's a great one, but my personal favorite has always been - and still is - Up From Jericho Tel. I taught it once, in a children's lit class (maybe a summer course?), and I was so gratified that the students liked it. It was one of those books they responded to with "Why didn't I know about this book when I was a kid? I wish I had read this sooner."

Journey to an 800 Number is another one of her books I read when I was young, and it really stuck with me. The odd loneliness of the 800-number operator, the way people so easily become faceless and nameless - and the ways they (or people around them) create identities and spaces for themselves, the constant travel of the characters of the book - there's a streak of melancholy to that book that resonated and resonates still with me.

Konigsburg's books draw our attention to the unnoticed: to the people and things, large and small, that we ignore or never see in the first place. She's interested in the real, everyday things that are also completely magical: think of Claudia and the Angel statue, think of Amadeo in The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World. That title, in fact, seems to be precisely what each of Konigsburg's books is about - seeking, or stumbling upon, that mysterious edge of the heroic, magical, meaningful world.

The View From Saturday is perhaps Konigsburg's masterpiece, if we need to identify any one of her books as such. The multiple narrators, interspersed with the third-person narrated sections focalized by Mrs. Olinski, is an organizational and narrational thing of beauty. The way the stories of the four kids interlock and overlap, and the ways in which those convergences are revealed, is absolutely astonishingly brilliant and wonderfully skillful. It never feels gimmicky, and it never gets old, or becomes obvious. Each new revelation is revelatory, and each segment of the book adds up to an extraordinary whole story, a work of beauty and grace.

Konigsburg's protagonists are a big part of the greatness of her books, and it wasn't until I taught Up From Jericho Tel that I even realized that her characters all share one major thing in common: they are all very smart, slightly (or more-than-slightly) eccentric kids. Realizing this so long after first reading her books, it made me think that in all likelihood, one of the reasons my child-self liked her books so much was because her protagonists were like me: smart, and kind of weird. In children's literature, we get a lot of clever protagonists, and we get a lot of narrators or protagonists who have what seems like more wisdom/understanding than any kid that age should have, but it often goes unremarked in the text. Konigsburg - who herself must have been a smart, odd kid - so wonderfully captures both the challenges and delights of being an outsider because of your intelligence, because of your quirky interests. If the people around you don't recognize that you're a star - as Jeanmarie's classmates don't - you just keep wearing your appliqued Texas vest until you find someone who does recognize a Star when she sees one. The scene on the bus with Jeanmarie's vest is one I remember vividly identifying with as a younger reader: the feeling of being criticized or made fun of for something that you like a lot, or care about intensely, and really do not want to change, the uncertainty that engenders, the contempt for the bullies who don't understand, the desire to be like them even while loathing them - it's all so familiar.

Konigsburg's books make smart kids the main actors, the ones who can see and do and understand things around them in ways not everyone else can. Her kids aren't caricatured nerds, or strange performing monkeys - they are real, complex, intriguing people who live in a world where they are not the norm, and where not being the norm can make you invisible. The trajectory of the narratives are of making the invisible  visible, whether it's your own self or someone else, or some idea, some sense of understanding, some wider way of perceiving the world. The way invisibility works on a metaphoric level in Konigsburg's books makes me rethink the invisibility scenes from Jericho Tel - in some ways, her books function the way those episodes of invisibility work for Jeanmarie and Malcom. Her books let you see that which cannot be seen, uncover that which was previously hidden, understand yourself and the world in ways that make sense.

E.L. Konigsburg worked the best kind of magic with her books: the magic that lets you see the invisible in the world; the magic that lets you see the greatness of yourself, and helps you share that greatness with the world. So thank you, Elaine Konigsburg, for knowing how to see the invisible, and for knowing how to make us see it as well. Requiescat in Pace.

Monday, April 15, 2013

the helpers in Boston

Once again, terrible news of people being injured and killed for no apparent reason. As was the case just a few short months ago, when all those people were killed in Connecticut, I repeat what Mister Rogers has to tell us:
Look for the helpers.
This clip is from an (excellent) long interview done with Fred Rogers by the Archive for American Television. The quote about looking for the helpers has been doing the rounds online, but it doesn't include, usually, the final line in this excerpt, which is a line worth noting and repeating:
If you look for the helpers, you'll know that there's hope.
 I was thinking about this quote, because I think about this quote almost daily, and realized how multi-faceted it is, how helpful in so many ways. Looking for the helpers takes our gaze away from the blood and broken glass, away from the scary, anxious, confusing, nightmare we see on our screens (and our screens are everywhere, focused right on the blood and broken glass and crying people) - it directs us away from the horror onto the good. It shows in ways no statistics can that the good people who want to help us outnumber - by a LOT - the bad people who want to hurt us.
This photo (by John Tlumacki of the Boston Globe), which contains a bit of blood and broken glass, seems to me to be a perfect illustration of Looking for the Helpers as a way to see Hope.

 A lot of the photos from Boston today have featured brave, hardworking men and women in bright green vests: EMTs, doctors, nurses, police, other professional first responders. They are helpers, and they are so important.
But this photo - this one - shows two people helping a third. No one has a vest. No one is a professional helper - at least not that we can see. Neither of these people is on the clock. Possibly neither has any first-response training, or experience, or preparation.
What both people have is empathy and care and compassion and bravery. They're helping a third injured person. Maybe he's a friend, or parent, or family member. Maybe he's a total stranger. Who knows? It doesn't matter. What matter is these helpers, half an hour before this photo was taken, were just two random faces in a crowd.
The helpers are everywhere, all around us, ready to get to work and help at any moment. Anyone can be a helper. Everyone can be a helper. Lots of us already are, in big and small ways.
And there are so many more helpers than hurters. There always are; there always have been. Always. Even when it doesn't feel like there are, they are there. As Mister Rogers says, they might be just off-screen, or just at the edges. They aren't always the center of our attention - certainly not our newsmedia's attention - but they should be. There are thousands, probably millions of helpers in and around Boston today - and just one or two or a few bad guys.

Look to the helpers. Look for them. They are heroes, for sure. They are also us, you and me and everyone in the vast vast vast overwhelming majority of people who aren't bad guys. The people who got hurt? They're probably helpers too - maybe not today, but earlier, or maybe in years to come. Maybe even today.

*   *   *   *   *   *

The Fred Rogers Company - which is composed of some absolutely outstanding, compassionate, and smart people, many of whom worked with Mister Rogers on his program - has some advice for parents or other adults who work with kids on how to help children during tragedies. It's good advice. As I wrote before
Mister Rogers isn't going to lead you astray. He simply isn't. I have read hundreds of letters written to him, and dozens of responses from him and his staff of wonderful people who are very like him. The faith and trust people placed in him was not unfounded. The faith and trust and reassurance he gave them made a difference, in some cases a huge difference, to parents, grandparents, and children.

The link again to Fred Rogers Company's advice on speaking with kids about tragedy is here.

Mister Rogers is amazing, we know this, but his mother was also a very wise woman, and we should mention her, too, in our list of helpers. She helped little Fred Rogers become the great person he was; she is helping thousands, maybe millions, of people right now with her compassionate words of wisdom: Look for the helpers.