The Church of Jodi Picoult

The longest hours of my life were the couple times I went to prayer meeting with Grandma. I was young, not more than eight or nine, and I have gauzy memories of sitting quietly in a small-town living room littered with lace doilies, surrounded by serious women wearing hats, dresses and semi-sensible shoes.

Not their fancy Sunday hats, of course–this was an every day sort of dress up occasion. God frowned if women were too dressy during the week–and if women weren’t dressy enough on Sunday. I learned that in junior high when I suggested God wouldn’t mind if I wore dress pants to church. (Apparently, God tolerated dress pants better if the person in question was on the Honor Roll at school.That’s part of the “Mysterious Ways” He works, I guess.)

They sat in the overstuffed living room, holding their Bibles and small notebooks with their prayer list. The kitchen was where I wanted to be, near the table brimming with pies and fruit punch, chicken salad sandwiches and potato salad, but no. That was for after prayer meeting.  For the first hour, sitting piously in the livingroom was required, even by slightly squirmy children. If I’d been allowed to bring a book, Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys and I could have weathered the hour quite well, but somehow, leafing through the King James version of anything didn’t catch my imagination quite the same way. All these ladies did was talk, then cluck and awwwww in sympathy, then talk some more. Every so often, there would be some silence followed by a jarring “Amen,” then back to talking.

There might be a tale of someone who had something very something exciting happening, a promotion or new baby. Or they might tell about somebody’s child who was struggling in school, or someone who was facing temptation–but it wasn’t gossip, of course. They had to discuss it to find out who needs prayer. Names and situations flew, intermixed with exhorting God to do something about so-and-so’s liver condition or their neighbor’s crabgrass–literal or metaphorical.

Do women’s prayer groups exist anymore? My observation suggests not, especially as the community social/spiritual outlet that Grandma’s meeting was. In fact, the women’s-only groups of the churches I know suffer from a distinct lack of participation.  Life has changed, and we all have other obligations. Plus, prayer meeting… It sounds a little bit, well…old-fashioned. Heaven forbid that we be old-fashioned!

I don’t think the “prayer meeting” experience has declined, though–just the opposite, in fact. As I go through my list of female friends, almost every one of them is in a book club. Some of them, more than one book club. I’m not in a book club, and I had an odd conversation with someone recently who speculated that I didn’t really like to read that much because I’m not gathering with other women for a group discussion of a selected title.

That conversation amused me. I’m an English teacher. Reading isn’t just my hobby, it’s my profession–and possibly my religion. Yet in this day and age, the fact that I’m not on speed dial looking for a book club to join apparently leads makes it reasonable to question whether I am much of a reader at all.

Of course I’m a reader. At any given moment, I have Shakespeare, the complete works of Emerson, most of Thoreau’s writings, and the complete poems of Longfellow with me. I have Stephen King, Harry Dresden and Alastair Crowley,  the Bible and Richard Foster’s works, too, toted around on my Kindle, available every time I have a moment. I do read, voraciously, spanning classics to best-sellers, fiction, poetry and drama to non-fiction and serious academic research papers; I just don’t belong to a book club.

Women in my generation and younger have opted for the book club paradigm instead of the prayer meeting. We are socializing in a structured manner, giving us an excuse to get out of the house all under the guise of  “doing something important.”  Book clubs are still the same source of gossip that prayer meetings were. They’re the same source of social interaction and peer group bonding. In fact, I know of book clubs that throw social events and sponsored educational events, huge affairs with major authors attending. It’s the prayer meeting/women’s circle vibe all over again, just light on the Jesus–except some church-based books clubs, probably.

Is this a bad thing? No. It’s just the thing. Neither good nor bad, but the way society is now. One notable difference: prayer meetings tended to be organized by churches, there was a sense of commitment to an organization bigger than the prayer meeting. Book clubs are generated on an individual basis often by friends, neighborhoods, or even online–there’s often no overseeing organizations such as church. No answering to a minister, priest, or principal. It’s a grassroots organization.

As I think about this, I remember how my sister would get the best gossip from my Grandma by earnestly asking, “Grandma, who do I need to be praying for in the family?” She found out things none of us knew because Grandma was so touched by her interest in praying for the family. Of course, I’m not suggesting her need for updated prayer was less than sincere–that would be heresy. Or at least a venial sin…if we were Catholic. However, it was always interesting to hear what she found out. I suspect that now, the day after book club meetings, the families of the book clubber are regaled with as many tidbits of gossip and information as my sister got by pumping—no, asking–Grandma for her prayer concerns.

(***and why is this titled “The Church of Jodi Picoult?” She’s an author who is a staple of many book clubs. Evidence that I don’t belong in book clubs is my fatwa against her since she wrote the cheesy, lazy ending in My Sister’s Keeper.)

My Reading Life: Little Black Sambo

My earliest memories involve books. I remember both of my parents reading to me, Mom reading kids’ books to me, Dad reading…..well, whatever he was reading when I climbed on his lap, I think. Probably everyone my age knows the books Captain Kangaroo read on his show–Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel jumps out at me, and I have gauzy visions of Mom reading that to me, too. Reading was part of the warp and weft of my childhood.

But there’s one story that I probably shouldn’t talk about Mom reading me, a story that is reviled in children’s lit; in a college children’s lit class I took, the prof actually lowered her voice as she mentioned the volume, and admitted she had never seen it. Little Black Sambo was the story of a child who tricked some tigers into chasing each other around a tree until the tigers all melted into butter, with illustrations that were later considered overwrought and racially demeaning.  Poet Langston Hughes called the book “a typical ‘pickaninny’ storybook which was hurtful to black children,” and slowly,  publishers and the public, in a growing awareness of racism, quit buying and reading the story.There’s more to that part of Sambo’s saga, but that’s not what makes this part of my reading life.

A couple years ago, in one of my Senior English classes, I was trying to explain “trickster” figures. Along with Bugs Bunny, I mentioned Sambo–totally forgetting that my students have been raised in a politically correct, racially sensitive era. The class was almost entirely African-American, like many of my classes are, and I had to make a split-second decision when I saw they didn’t understand the allusion: shrug it off and go on, or stop, explain and discuss. Which option was more likely to result in phone calls? Which stood a better chance of getting my name in the paper…..in a context I really wanted to avoid? Stopping to talk about Little Black Sambo sounded like a bad idea, but…of course that’s exactly what I did.

There’s a part I didn’t anticipate when I tried to briefly (and politically correctly) describe Sambo’s story: cell phones. Students who couldn’t do research for their senior research papers unless I stood behind their shoulder all the sudden had their cell phones in their hands, the version of the book from my childhood on the tiny screens. In a matter of seconds, three students had found the book, and another couple were scanning the wikipedia entry about the book.As “racial” material, the virtual book couldn’t get past the school internet filters, but like good rebels, we had access anyway.

We had a two day conversation about what racism is and how attitudes have changed over the years. Many of the kids were baffled by why the book was considered racist; they even pointed out that Sambo is Indian, according to the story, not African, yet curiously, the pictures were reminiscent of an Aunt Jemima bottle. Questions about censorship, especially commercial v. governmental, were raised, too. My lesson plan was shot for those days–but the degree of research, engagement, and deep discussion that came out of it was incredible. And, because I had to wrap it up and carry on, there was a writing prompt giving the kids a chance to assimilate and process our discussion.

In the process of discussing with my students, I learned something else. Well, I knew it, but it was vividly reinforced. Few of my students were read to as children. For many, the first memory of someone reading to them was HeadStart. There were exceptions, of course, but fewer than I hoped. I can’t imagine not having Sambo and Mike Mulligan and all the animals from Over in the Meadow, and the Little Lost Dolly and Laughing Allegra, and Make Way for Ducklings, and….all of them, bouncing around in the dark recesses of my mind. My reading life started before I could read. Woven through my life are the stories and people that I’ve only encountered on the page (since I got my Kindle, on the screen, too). Maybe it’s not a wonder that my students so often label things “boring;” their imaginations aren’t peopled with ideas and places outside of their experience, anxious to be brought to life as only an imaginative reader can.

Talking about what I’ve read is a cornerstone of most of my relationships. My older kids are more likely to call me if they have read a good book than if they have the flu. The students who I’ve stayed close to after graduation are all readers, and frequently email or text to share something they’ve read. I’ve discovered–or rediscovered–great writers because of they assume I want to know what they’re reading.

So my students, who don’t read for fun, who very often come from homes where reading is “work” or “boring,” where no one ever read to them for fun–or argued that that book is always better than the movie– they miss a world of interaction and connection not just with ideas, but with other people.

Little Black Sambo reminded me of all that.

My Reading Life (as inspired by Pat Conroy’s book)

Define “reality.” Feel free to google it, and look through all the great philosophers and psychologists that Wikipedia so conveniently turns into sound bytes. I’m curious what they say, because I can’t neatly tie up in a tidy bow and point to it as a discrete package.

That’s because I read.

I don’t remember learning to read; I remember sitting in Mrs. Wild’s first grade, reading about Dick, Jane, and Sally. Decoding letters came so easily that I don’t think I ever consciously learned. Sure, I may have stumbled over new words as I sounded them out, but even that was minimal. I’m still baffled by how people learn to read. How do you not know how? And how can people not be entranced by the magic of one letter following another, making pictures in your head, conjuring whole people and places with the symbols on the page? One of my (many) downfalls as a teacher is that I assume that of course you will want to read, that meeting these characters or delving into this information is as wonderous for you as for me.

Pat Conroy, who is one of my all-time favorite writers, wrote a book that talks about the books that he’s been influenced by. It’s a cozy flannel sheet of a book, with his effusive and emotional explanations about what each volume meant to him. Usually, I race through Conroy’s work, finishing a first read of his huge stories in a day or two, then rereading more leisurely to sink into the place and people. (Yes, I do mean that the first time I read each of his books, I read twice, right in a row. Well, except for South of Broad, which I pretend he didn’t publish.Whole ‘nother issue!) My Reading Life, however, I’ve been eating in bite-sized morsels, a chapter at a time. Most then once, I’ve then read (or reread) the book that he rhapsodized about, wanting to see if I could find in the story why it was so influential to him. Some books focused as much on the person who introduced the book to him, fleshing out English teachers, librarians and friends who were fictionalize in many of his books.

There’s a punchline, of course. I’m going to take the Conroy Challenge. I’ve been off my game, writing-wise. My blog has been silent. In important ways, I’m more a reader than a writer–which is like taking razor blades to my soul to admit; I’m going to set a goal of writing about 20 books that have influenced me. That’s a minimum, fans. The challenge, I realize, is to say anything interesting enough about them for anyone else to read!

First book up…..hmm…...Little Black Sambo? Seriously, it might be–that’s a book I will write about. Over in the Meadow? Gone with the Wind? Little Women? On the Road? Stranger in a Strange Land? I’m not sure….but it’ll be this weekend!  (2020 Note: I still haven’t written about most of these)

Football. And Nascar. And….beer. Yes, lots of Beer**

I didn’t think I’d forgive Barbara Ehrenreich for her narrow-minded, condescending book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America a few years ago–and I still would like a couple hours to talk to her about it, preferably with no heavy objects in my reach–but this article about modern feminism may redeem her just a bit.

In the article, she analyzes the state of current day feminism, and laments that the single “woman’s issue” that generates any discussion is breast cancer. Slap a pink ribbon on something, and you’re woman-friendly. No need to deal with social issues or even health issues that are controversial and make women shrill and unreasonable. Wrap the world in princess pink and we’re all “feminists” because we all care about a woman’s issue–even though some science suggests that current standard approaches may not be the best way to treat prevention, detection or treatment of breast cancer. No worries–we’re still very concerned about women and we show that with the ubiquitous pink ribbons.

Does anyone besides Marlo Thomas and Gloria Steinem call themselves feminists anymore? Well, and Phil Donahue and Alan Alda, I guess. Even I hedge around the word, instead going into long explanations of what I believe; the label is too laden with baggage for me to expect I will be treated seriously if I just say, “yep, I am. You still getting used to the idea that women can vote?”

The feminist movement of the 70’s had so many issues to deal with that they ended up tripping over themselves like a centipede trying to tango. Instead of being known for groundbreaking work in insuring living wages for “pink collar” jobs and opening opportunities for women, the image that lasted seems to be bra-burning and combat-boot-wearing lesbians.

The record numbers of women athletes, women in grad schools, woman professionals and management–that is the product of hard work and talent, no nod given to their mothers and grandmothers who argued and voted and changed the game. My sister’s high school counselor offered her two options for her professional future: nurse or teacher. I can’t imagine anyone working with teens today that look at a girl and see her only options as housewife, mommy, teacher or nurse. It wouldn’t be tolerated. Thanks, Gloria Steinem.

A truly brave candidate for national office–or a truly daring reporter–would fight to open a dialogue again about the issues that have gotten buried in the kinder, gentler, pink-ribboned womens movement. What is the impact of women in the work force? Should society be doing something differently? Are latchkey programs and quality day care priced so the working poor can afford them? What messages are reality television shows giving our young women–and our young men–about relationships, sex, and life? We need thoughtful people acting as the third estate to make those topics dinner table conversation.

The article by Barbara Ehrenreich resonated with me today. I listened to an adult and a group of teens arguing whether boys or girls had it worse. The adult (NOT me) and most of the teens agreed that women have it easy, or at least easier than men. The girls who were drawn into the argument had their opinions dismissed because they were “just girls and they would stick up for girls without seeing how it really is.” Not one girl tried to counter that argument. All I could do was sigh. These kids, members of the sound-bite generation, just wanted to outshout each other, not discuss. And the adult issued proclamations and  dismissed the girls’ opinions as emotional, not logical. (This is why I drink Pepsi at school. It keeps me busy so I don’t scream. The miracle is that I don’t spike it with rum. Yet.)

I’m thinking that next year, I’m not going to teach. I should stay home, barefoot and pregnant, watching talk shows and reality television. I could dress in princess pink and wear a pink ribbon every day. It would be a much easier life.

**Do you really need me to explain the title?

Down the Mississppi

Some days, I hate to admit to being a liberal. I want to put on a “I Love Ann Coulter” T shirt and blend into the crowd. Well…not really. Every flavor of crazy is still crazy. But today was one of those days when the crazies made us thoughtful liberals look as if we should sit in a corner with a dunce cap duct taped on our heads.

Today’s walk of shame? The scholars who are editing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn so it doesn’t offend modern audiences. I teach high school English at an urban school. My classes are generally over 50% African-American, and usually about 70% free lunch. I teach students reading well below grade level as well as students who will succeed at college.  The issues these professors are attempting to address are ones I wrestle with on a regular basis–and I think they need Steve and Blue to sit them in the Thinking Chair until they really grasp the issues and possible solutions.

One prof laments Huck Finn falling from the grade school curriculum. I wonder how extensively he’s looked at typical grade school reading lists. Twain’s masterpiece, with long, complex sentences, flowery language, and dialogue written in dialect, is well above what is considered grade school reading level now. In fact,  the books I see even middle school students reading are much shorter, and written at a much lower reading level.

That’s without even issues like references to Huck smoking, Pap’s drinking, Huck’s alliance with con artists, and Huck’s criticism of the Widow’s religion. Grade school?  Those issues alone make the content controversial for some teens. And I’m ignoring the way test prep has overtaken elementary curriculum, too–how many novels do these professors believe elementary students have time to read? I suspect their number would be way too high.

More importantly, though, is the “inappropriate” racially charged language. I’ve used the book Huck Finn in classes about 6 different years, if I remember correctly. Most recently, about four years ago. I have it as an optional book for projects and outside reading, too. I’ve had poor kids and middle-class kids read it, black, white, mixed…and I doubt I use the book in class again.

The language isn’t the problem. It’s an easy scapegoat, and easy (although artistically questionable) to fix. There are four bigger problems. First, American culture has changed so dramatically that there is little in the book that kids who are essentially non-readers (or easily bored) can relate to. Much of the reading that is done now is “relevant” in some way–contemporary, modern, accessible. The pacing of Huck’s journey, the detailed, meandering storytelling style–getting kids into that is difficult, especially when most of them have little or no experience in nature. A surprising percentage of my students don’t swim–rafting does not catch their imagination.

Second, related to #1, most students don’t have a romantic image of running away into nature, fending for themselves on the river. There’s always concern about why social services don’t step in, who should be in charge of making sure Huck is ok–or why he’s not in juvy as a delinquent. And the assumption that Jim and Huck are sexually involved, that Jim is possibly taking advantage of Huck (rarely, vise versa)–that’s come up every time I’ve taught it.

Third, the overdrawn characters–like the Duke, and the feuding family–make no sense to the students. It’s stupid, and wastes their time. Even when explaining that the journey is the story, and how mythic journeys progress (citing works they tend to  know like National Lampoon’s Family Vacation, Little Miss Sunshine, and others), the cultural context of the characters is lost on them, and they read the SparkNotes and figure they’ve got the idea, so it’s all good.

Fourth–and this is a big point–even if every racial epithet is removed, racism is evident in the book. Take a deep breath before yelling “No” at me–I’m not claiming Twain was racist. For students who do read the book, especially students of color, discussion of Jim’s status, of Jim’s superstitions, of the elaborate ruse Tom Sawyer uses to “free” the already freed Jim–those have to be discussed. Tom Sawyer treats Jim badly, and does so entirely because he saw Jim as just a slave. Discussing the end of the book involves discussing that, and it can lead to fascinating discussion. The Widow Douglas does the moral, modern thing, flaunting convention and freeing Jim. Huck cares about Jim. It’s possible to make the case that the book is not ultimately racist, but the conversations about the issue must occur to treat the book and the characters with intellectual honesty.

And that leads me back to the N word. Sigh. No, I don’t enjoy dealing with that type of language, and I don’t use it or understand the attitudes behind racial slurs. (Some people would suggest that’s because if I’m going to insult someone, I go much more personal; doing it based on something as obvious as race is just wrong) I saw an African-American lit book a few years ago that changed “colored” and “Negro” to “African-American,” even in speeches by Martin Luther King Jr and writings by W.E.B DuBois and Malcolm X.  When we were reading King’s I’ve Been to The Mountaintop speech a couple years ago, I mystified one class by stopping the reading part way through and sending students through my bookshelves to find another version of the letter–King’s references to race had all been changed to read African-American.

Here’s a fact: African-Americans know they are not Caucasian-Americans. It’s not a secret. We can talk about it. We should talk about it, so we can see if and when it matters. The inability to discuss the real issues of race mean we can’t discuss the real issues plaguing America.

Part of discussing race means dealing with language. It means having the hard conversation about why Twain used those words, and if using them makes him racist, no question. And it means listening and considering when some students automatically say yes, Twain had to be racist.

Then…we discuss whether Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Tupac, Kanye, Spike Lee, and a list of others are racists. What’s the difference between those people–and even white performers like Eminem–using language that would get me fired? And we consider what Bill Cosby and Obama and Oprah say about race, and why students yell words down the hall that their grandparents and greatgrandparents found demeaning and offensive.

I use Malcolm X in my classroom, and Martin Luther King, and Zora Neale Hurston, and Lorriane Hansberry. I sometimes even use Pat Conroy’s Lords of Discipline, a more racially charged book than any Twain ever wrote.  I’ve only had a couple students through my entire career who did not read a piece because they found it offensive–and I gave alternate assignments without any problem. But most of the time, the hard conversations and the difficult prep work required to have students read works like that have paid off in fascinating discussions and thoughtful essays.

The professors who think they can revive Twain by wiping some bleach over his words may need to climb down from their Ivory-white Tower for a semester and co-teach with me. It would be fun–for once, I wouldn’t be the most clueless liberal in my school!

Stone Soup

Years ago, when I was a much younger teacher, I had a conversation with my Grandma Flo that I still mull over sometimes as I do lesson plans. Grandma knew I was an English teacher, but she was curious exactly what I did. She assumed meant I taught grammar and punctuation, “things that would help kids get a good job,” as she put it.

Well, no, that isn’t emphasized in high school English, I confessed. We did lots of essay writing, but not sentence diagramming and activities like she was asking about. We didn’t even have a grammar or punctuation textbook. She was pretty incredulous at that, and couldn’t imagine what I did with my students.

“We read a lot,” I explained. “And we talk and write about the reading.” That was the simple version, but basically covered everything we did in the 80’s in English classes.

She nodded her head, agreeing that reading is important, yes. “There are lots of good stories out there. Do your students read about Corrie Ten Boom?” She was on a Corrie Ten Boom kick then. I shook my head no. “Well, there’s lots of other good stories. Do you read any of those stories by Dale Evans that you liked?” Grandma remembered when I was in elementary school and read the books by Roy Rogers’ wife that were laying on Grandma’s end table.

Again, I shook my head no. Grandma looked at me, brow furrowed. The stare went on for a long time….possibly hours, the way I remember it. She finally said something:  “Now Jeannine, you aren’t going to tell me you waste your student’s time with made up stories, are you?”

We’d been reading Hemingway. I was starting a Chekhov story the next week. I had to admit to it.

“Well, that’s just wrong. There are so many true stories out there, so many people those kids could be learning about and inspired by. You just need to look at what you do and ask yourself why you’re wasting their time with lies and made up stuff.”

I tried to counter her position: “Grandma, Jesus told stories. That’s what parables are.”

“He surely did tell stories–and they were teaching a lesson to uplift us. And you don’t know that they weren’t about real people, do you? He just didn’t use names because he wasn’t going to air somebody else’s dirty laundry in front of everybody and their neighbor.”

I could have kept trying. I can explain all sorts of literary theory about the power and universality of fiction. I can explain Bruno Bettelheim’s and Joseph Campbell’s and Jung’s defense of the need and purpose for fiction. I could have quoted C.S. Lewis and Susan Sontag.

But it would have been sound and fury; I would have been protesting too much. I knew the look on Grandma’s face. I wasn’t changing her mind on this.

I’ve told that story a couple times to other English teachers, and we chuckle and shake our heads. Of course we read “made up” stories–and find great Truth and meaning in them.  Using my Grandma story as a quirky icebreaker, though,  ignores the bigger issue, and this is an issue that plagues education reform today, but it’s a difficult, messy question: what is the purpose of education?  Why do we do what we do?

Grandma’s mission statement was crystal clear: formal education is to help people get good jobs. With that as the goal, an emphasis on fiction really doesn’t make sense.  When education reformers emphasize the need to educate a work force that can compete globally, they are rallying behind Grandma—21st century jargon as a value-added fun piece.

Or do we need to create citizens who are capable of governing a democracy wisely? Or should the goal of education be to form “educated” people in the classical sense–people who know the classics, who are well-versed in the humanities? Or to provide an underclass that will consume and keep the free market growing?

At the early elementary level, all the purposes are served by similar methods. But by middle school, it’s clear that we’re trying to do a bit of column A, a smattering of column B–it’s the stone soup approach to education. Everybody brings what they have to the pot and throws it in, hoping that it all fits together in a tasty broth.

But if Grandma were sitting down with reformers and politicians who are cooking the educational broth–I have no doubt that she’d look at them with the same furrowed brow, asking hard questions about what we are doing and why. I’d have wanted a front row seat for that!