Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Beverly Cleary and Electronic Hickies

The other day I was handing out papers when I noticed one of my female students was sporting a large maroon hickey on her neck. I cringed, but not out of shock. I can name several constants in my life, and highschool students with hickeys is one of them. Yet, as much as things stay the same, they change all the more.

When I was in sixth grade I read Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen and loved it for several reasons. I was infatuated with the idea of a wall-flower type of girl gaining confidence and attracting a cute, nice guy to be her boyfriend. But I also liked that it took place in the 1950s (or was it the early 1960s?). They wore skirts and high heels on dates. They went to soda shops. The way they talked and acted was at once quaint and glamorous.
I was a child of the 1970s and a teenager in the 80s.  Nowadays, that era seems as foreign to the students I teach as Beverly Cleary’s era seemed to me.

And with good reason. When I began writing Following My Toes I didn’t own a cell phone. Sure, I was late to the party on that, but my characters don’t use them either. In fact, an answering machine serves as a major catalyst in the action of the story. I could never get away with writing that today, just a handful of years later.

Looking For Ward centers around e-mails sent back and forth between friends. Today they would Tweet, or check their statuses on Facebook.

Starring in the Movie of My Life takes place in 2006. I made sure to specify so the pop culture references would make sense. Little did I know how important that would be. Melody, an eighteen-year-old, leaves sexy notes in her crush’s locker. Today she would just be “sexting him.” I read in the New York Times that sexting is actually a status thing now, an electronic hicky, if you will. Kids like to have proof of their desireability and experience.

This is terrifying, if you consider the legal issues, the privacy issues, and the potential this holds for destroying a kid’s self-estem. As both a teacher and a parent it weighs on my mind. But as an author, I have to wonder: How quickly am I becoming irrelevent? This question assumes that I was relevent in the first place; to be sure, I’m no Beverly Cleary. But if some day in the future a reader finds the world I describe (with its lack of technology) to be at once quaint and glamorous, well that would be pretty cool. It’s a world I wouldn’t mind returning to, now and then.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Boots and Books I Want #1

What do books and boots have in common, besides the first three letters of their name? For me, it's the possibilities they represent. No matter how many of them I get, I still want more.

Every book represents a new world that's about to open itself up. Sometimes I abandon a book before I reach its end. I figure life is too short to read something I'm not really into, at least not until I've given it a fighting chance. But if it's a book I love, I dread reaching the end, and I mourn the loss of that book until I find my next literary love.

Boots aren't dissimilar. I have A LOT of boots, some I wear frequently, some not so much. Yet this doesn't stop me from always being on the search for my next great pair. Here's why:

Two weeks ago I had a terrible cold. I had virtually no voice, my eyes were red and runny;  I looked and sounded awful. My students noticed, and I overheard a couple of them talking. "Man," one sophomore guy said to his friends, "Today is not her day. But she's still wearin' her boots."

It's true. I had on my black suede moccasin boots, worn with purple leggings and a short black skirt. And even though I felt dreadful, the boots convinced me life wasn't all bad. Call me superficial, but I just love boots.

Anyway, we just got back from a family trip to Louisville,  so there was a lot of time in the airport. Time in the airport can means two things:
1.) If by some miracle both kids are either asleep or occupied, I have time to read.
2.) The more likely scenario: I'm either walking around with Eli or holding Pauline or both, which means I have time to rubberneck and check out the boots that fellow travelers are wearing.

I did read a little - Mistaken Identity by Lisa Scottoline, but it's not holding my interest. I think I'm going to jump carts midstream. Here are some of my possibilities for my next selection:

  • The Handmaid's Tale - How could I not have read this yet? I like dystopian tales, I like young adult lit,  I LOVED the Hunger Games, and I heard that Bumped, by Megan McCafferty, is very derivative of it, and I'm planning on reading that when it's released. So both books are on my TBR list.
  • Roses - This is already on my kindle. I've heard it compared to Gone With the Wind, and my mother-in-law said she was sad when she was done with it. But it's really long, so I want to wait until I'm ready to fully commit before I start.
  • My Name is Memory - I think Ann Brashares is a wonderful author (I loved Sisterhood of Traveling Pants and The Last Summer of You and Me) and this novel sounds compelling. It's about a high school guy who remembers his past lives, and is trying to convince his one true love of their past/connection.
Now... as for boots. I could have been weird-stalker lady at the airport, and used my camera phone to snap photos every time a pair of boots that I coveted walked by, but I was usually holding a nine-month-old, so that was just impractical.  Instead, I went to my go-to site for fantasy shopping, the Sundance catalog, and saved images of the boots that most resembled some of the ones I've pined for recently. Things I look for in a boot: low heel, calf length or higher, a side zipper (I have very high insteps, so pulling on boots can be a real challenge), and color variety. Here are my top choices at the moment, for whenever I have a few extra hundred dollars burning a hole in my pocket:

Aren't they beautiful? The blackish purple snow boots would be very practical for winter in Minnesota, but the rest were chosen on looks alone. The cowboy ones I probably wouldn't ever wear, but I love the teal colored flowers. The top selection I love for the lacy look. The bottom ones remind me of my old Doc Martens that I got rid of years ago, but now suddenly I miss them. Is that look coming back?

Thursday, March 24, 2011


Last week in Film Studies we were watching Casablanca. My students never like this movie, and this year's group was no different. I don't think they get it.

They especially don't understand the scene with the dueling anthems. In case you're not familiar with it or don't remember, it goes like this: Everyone is hanging out at Rick's cafe. General Stasser and the other Nazis start singing the Nazi anthem/fight song or whatever you want to call it. Everyone who isn't a Nazi looks upset. Then Victor Lazlo comes in, tells the band to start playing La Marseillaise, and people start crying tears of pride while they sing. The Nazis get mad, and Victor Lazlo's life is now REALLY in danger.

I try to explain to the class; it's about patriotism. People understood patriotism and self-sacrifice at the time Casablanca was made, but are they anything but abstract concepts to us now?

And what does resonate with the youth of today? There are so many vampire stories, and tales of dystopian romance... does that mean that teenagers feel estranged, like the forces against them are evil and unnamed? I'm sure my students would laugh at such a theory. "It's just a book (or movie, or whatever)" they would say, as they accuse me of reading way too much into things. But I find it sad that all the sacrifices our forefathers have made have led us to this place: where we can't even understand what the fight was about in the first place.

My favorite line from Casablanca:
Victor Lazlo - "Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sweet Valley Highs and Lows

I got my first taste of the Sweet Valley High series when I was around eleven years old. I was on a camping trip with my dad and  brother, and a lot of driving was involved. They would talk sports all day, and my dad worried I was bored. So when we stopped for gas he asked me if I'd like him to buy me a book. The convenience store's  selection wasn't huge, but they did have number two and number four from Sweet Valley High.  He bought both of them for me, and I enjoyed them more than I was willing to admit.

While those were the only two copies from the high school series that I ever actually owned, I read a ton more. In middle school and high school I  read them whenever I slept over at my best friend Shauna's house. I would usually wake up before her, so I could choose from her large selection of the adventures of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield. And what adventures they had! Amnesia, abductions, tons and tons of guys... what wasn't to love?

Shauna and I were both aspiring writers, so we coined our own series, Sour Valley High, where the twins were ugly and unlikeable. But that's another story.

Years later, after college graduation, Shauna and I moved to Minneapolis. It was the fall of 1994. Our first week  there we happened upon the Sweet Valley University series, and bought several copies. We were alone and a little overwhelmed in what felt like a huge city. Retreating back to our new apartment and reading these novels was a bit of a regression, sure, but it felt like being home.

Now Shauna and I live in separate states, we're both married with children, and when we talk, it's not about Sweet Valley High. However last week I happened upon a blurb in Glamor Magazine, that talked about how Diablo Cody is writing the screenplay for the Sweet Valley movie, and that there's a new series of the novels out, Sweet Valley Confidential, and it's meant for adults.

Yesterday I downloaded the free sample chapter onto my kindle. Elizabeth is living in NYC, working for a small-time magazine, and worrying about whether or not she should have sex with her boss on their first date. She also reflects on how she cried after each orgasm she had with her last, semi-boyfriend. Yeck. TMI. This is Elizabeth Wakefield we're talking about. She's like that perfect girl from high school that seems above most human endeavors, like using the bathroom and burping.

Anyway, long story, I posted the link about these books on Shauna's facebook wall. One of her friends saw it, and wanted to know if I'm a fan. Turns out this friend is the voice on the audio book for Sweet Valley Confidential!  How cool is that?

Because honestly, there are a lot of fans out there, whether they admit it or not. It's the perfect escapist kind of read. These twins have it all. They're beautiful, with their blond hair and turquoise eyes. They're talented; Elizabeth with her writing skills and Jessica with her social skills. They attract all sorts of guys, although Elizabeth mostly sticks with her long-time boyfriend Todd, while Jessica plays the field.

But their luck doesn't end there. They have two things that most women would kill for, but none will ever get:

1. They have each other - an alter ego that reflects their beauty and perfection, while also presenting the polar opposite. A ying to the other one's yang.
2. They don't age at a normal rate. Seriously. When I was in grade school I read about their high school adventures, and now in Sweet Valley Confidential,  Elizabeth and Jessica are twenty-seven.
How is that possible? I'm forty, and I started out younger than them. They ought to be at least forty-five,  approaching menopause and their mid-life crises.
 It's so unfair.

However, when that book comes out, I'll probably read it. But only if Shauna buys a copy first.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Frankly My Dear, I Don't Give a Dime

My film studies class just got done watching Gone With the Wind. I always follow the viewing with a discussion about Scarlet. I try to ask a variety of thought-provoking questions.
“If Scarlet was a real person, would you want to be friends with her? Raise your hand if the answer is yes.”
No hands went up.
“Why not?” I asked them.
Many answers were murmured at once, but this is what I got: she’s a liar, a cheat, she steals other girls’ boyfriends, and as one boy said under his breath, “she’s a slut.”
I’ve taught this course for many years, and it happens every time; somebody calls Scarlet either a “slut,” a “ho,” or something even worse that I’ll refrain here from writing down.
So then I ask them, “What about Rhett? He was with more women than Scarlet was with men.”
They tell me that it’s different. Rhett wasn’t using these women for their money, he wasn’t lying to them, and he wasn’t mean to them.
The fact that Rhett conceivably raped Scarlet (based on your interpretation of events) doesn’t really seem to bother them at all.
It didn’t bother me when I was sixteen either. In fact, I probably would have said similar things had I been asked those questions when I was in high school.
But now I point out that Scarlet had very few options. She had a family to feed and a home to preserve, and her job options were nonexistent. Her only means of survival was to find a rich man to marry. To do that, she had be attractive, tantalizing, and yes, manipulative. She needed to embody every negative female stereotype that helped coin such phrases as slut and ho.
Of course, Scarlet is a fictional character. However, the reality for women still doesn’t present an even playing field. An article from the New York Times out yesterday mentions how job recovery for women is lagging behind job recovery for men. It also suggests that professionals from jobs which are dominated by women, namely teaching, are more likely to be under fire for being whiny when it comes to things like negotiating rights and pay increases. Firefighters don't often get criticized the way teachers do.
How do we fix gender inequality? How do we move past dangerous stereotypes and double standards? Nobody I know has an answer, and like Scarlet, we all just want to think about it tomorrow.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Best Young Adult Books I've Read as a Grownup

Last week I wrote about young adult lit. This week I'm following up with a list of my favorites. I am classifying any book with a teenage protagonist as young adult lit, but I'm sure there are people who would argue with that classification.
7. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants - I love these characters, and how well they're written. They're all so different, but I find each one believable.

6. Special Topics in Calamity Physics -  I think the only reason more teens didn't get into this book is because they were intimidated by its length. But I couldn't put it down.

5. Sloppy Firsts - I read the whole series, but nothing compared to the first Jessica Darling novel.

4. To Kill a Mockingbird - I reread this as an adult when I taught it to 9th graders. My students were disappointed that Atticus didn't kick some ass at the end, but I still think it's one of the most beautifully written books I've ever read.

3. The Secret History - From the prologue I was hooked. Murder, ancient Greek rituals, intrigue - what could be better?

2. The Hunger Games

1. Harry Potter Series

Number one and number two are pretty obvious choices, but I can't think of any books, young-adult or otherwise, that I've enjoyed more. The best part is, millions of people feel the same way.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Minnesota Teacher's Thoughts on Wisconsin

On a Daily Show montage I saw a Fox news correspondent remark that teaching is a part-time job, what with our summers off and being done before 3:00. This justifies stripping teachers of their negotiating rights.
I'll admit, the few weeks off in summer are nice, if we're not teaching summer school or taking classes to update our licenses. It still doesn't make teaching a part-time job. Because I have two small children I probably spend less time than I ought to grading and planning. Still, I teach six courses a semester, which means I have close to 200 students. That can add up to roughly 600 assignments a week to grade. I also have four classes to prep for. There is no possible way I can spend less than 40 hours a week on this job and still function.
I'm not the best example. I have friends who stay at school until nine o'clock at night getting ready for their classes the next day.
But put the time issue aside, and still we don't just deserve negotiating rights, we need them. There are all sorts of issues that would probably never occur to someone who is not in the profession.
For the sake of self-preservation, I'm stating right here these are all merely hypothetical:
  • What if a teacher starts getting their classes overloaded - say more than 40 kids per section? Should they be paid more? Keep in mind all the extra assignments to grade.
  • What if a teacher is told they need to teach extra sections of something, and thus lose their prep hour during the day to grade and plan, with the addition to the extra responsibilities? Should they be forced to comply?
  • What if a dedicated and effective teacher has ideological differences with an administrator? Should their job be at risk?
  • What if a teacher has an overcrowded class full of kids who have not had good opportunities in life? They move from school to school, receive little to no parenting, and their skills are not at grade level. Say this teacher works very hard to try and prepare this class for state testing, but despite their best efforts, without adequate support many of the kids still fall through the cracks? Should this teacher be penalized?
  • What if a teacher is falsely accused by a student of verbal or physical abuse? What if this teacher is actually in some way abused by a student? Who will protect this teacher?
I'm not saying any of this has happened to me, or to anyone I know personally. But all of it HAS happened to teachers in the past, and it will happen again. That's why bargaining rights are vital.

Of course there are bad, lazy teachers out there. But most of the teachers I know work very hard, care a lot, and are tired of hearing how the nation's schools are failing students, and if we all just did this one more thing, if we cared a little more, or if we tried a little harder, the problems would go away.

The problem is, there is no good way to hold parents accountable for their kids failing. Holding the kids accountable is often counter-productive. So we blame the teachers, because nobody knows what else to do.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

It's All In The Details

I tell my creative writing students to show vs. tell, and I lead them through exercises to try and get them to do that. To be fair, I always try these exercises myself, so I can be sure they're not too difficult; plus, I'll have an example to show and give them a chance to pick apart my work if they so desire.
Today's assignment was to write a list of your daily activities as a poem, and try and communicate an emotion through that list.
Here's my attempt:
5:00 AM alarm clock rings
Snooze, repeat, feed baby, snooze, repeat
Exercise, wash, get dressed, feed baby again
Kiss everyone goodbye. Don’t lose recess time. Have a good day at work. Be a good baby, drink your bottles.
Bye Mommy.
Drive to work while drinking diet coke and eating toaster struessel that isn’t toasted all the way. Bleh.
Walk in, walk up, walk down to office, walk back.
Why am I getting an D in your class?
Can I get all my missing work?
Pass out papers. Read. Talk. Teach. Repeat.
Eat lunch - prepackaged low fat brekfast sandwich, orange, golden grahms bar. DIET COKE!
Prep hour. Grade. Grade. Prepare. Grade. Repeat.
Bell rings. Start class. Phone rings.
Can you send so-and-so down to the office?
Do you have a second? I need to know what can only be told to me in the space of two hours.
Pass out papers. Read. Talk. Teach. Repeat.
Bell rings. Stretch out. Relax for five minutes.
We’re going to need you to do this new thing that should only take you five mintues a day, every day, but it will really take an hour, minimum, but if you cared you would do it without complaint.
Drive home.
Pick up kids.
Mommy, I lost recess time again.
Eli, for the last time, get your coat on.
Struggle to get them in the car.
Struggle to get them out of the car.
Turn on PBS kids.
Feed baby.
Feed family.
Homework for Kindergarten? Read “Grandpa’s Cookies.” Hurried is a hard word to understand.
Bedtime. Brush teeth. Pajamas. Read stories.
Feed baby. Rock her to sleep.
So tired.
Oh, I have a husband? Did I forget to notice you?
How was your day?
Good. I love you, and did I mention there's a ton of other things we both ought to be doing now…please.
Or not.
Eat cake while watching brain-candy TV.
Wash-up. Brush teeth. Flossing is important.
Wrinkle cream?
Collapse into bed.
Oh, wait.
Set alarm for 5:00 AM.