Monday, July 8, 2024

Yes, And Kids

My eleven-year-old daughter is a drama queen, in the sense that she loves the stage, the dramatic arts, and she's very good at it. She can be a little shy in person, but she seems to embrace being in front of the crowd, which is something that amazes me, since I don't like being in front of large groups of people, or small groups of people. Any people, really. 

A few days ago, I caught her doing something with her little sister that I never noticed before. We were all in the living room, and the five-year-old begging for attention, as usual, trying to get someone to join in her play fantasies. She'd come up to her sister, saying, "Pretend you're a big, bad, wolf." Without hesitation, the older sister would respond with something like, "I'm a big, bad wolf, and I'm going to eat your feet off!" Then she'd chase after her giggling little sister and try to snack on her toes. Or maybe the little one would say, "Pretend you're the queen," and the older sister would respond, "I'm the queen, and I hereby banish you to the dungeon." But then the little one would say, "No, you're a good queen, not an evil queen." Immediately, the older sister would say, "Down to the dungeon, Princess, and release all of the prisoners in time for the royal birthday party!"

I loved the way she would join in her little sister's games so passionately, especially because it meant that, for a while, anyway, I didn't have to play. But the pattern is what struck me, and I realized that she was doing the same "Yes, And" techniques that she had learned in her drama classes. No matter what her little sister asked for, no matter how silly or impossible the game, she'd respond with immediate affirmation and even add to the game with some kind of twist of her own. 

Against a dark background, a neon sign reads "Yes, yes."
Photo by Michèle Eckert on Unsplash

I got so impressed by the interaction that I started looking for it, and apparently, this is a thing between them, as well as the other littles, the grandkids. Granted, over time I also noticed that sometimes only the pattern stayed the same, even if the passion had gone out of the responses. Sometimes, big sister would sit on the couch, in the perfect preteen imitation of Ennui from Inside Out 2, and instead of joining in with excitement, she'd just say the words in that flat, bored tone, tinged with just a soupçon of sarcasm.

"Pretend you're a scary lion."

"Oh, no," without moving an inch or changing the inflection in her voice at all, "I'm a scary lion and I'm going to eat you."

She wouldn't move, but the effect was pretty much the same, with one exception. The little sister would run off giggling, but, this time, without anyone chasing her.

I loved the dynamic so much that I started doing it with the littles myself - responding to whatever game they wanted to play with "yes, and" energy. Sometimes, if I'm busy, I take another page out of my actress daughter's script and use the "and" to my own selfish ends.

"Daddy, pretend you're a supervillain."

"I'm Doctor Octopus, and I just need to type in the last lines of code to my evil computer so I can take over the city's water system and flood all the streets."

I'd been "yes, and-ing" for a couple of weeks when the time came for our planned summer vacation to Disney World. This was a unique trip - just me and my oldest daughter as the only adults, and all three of the littles, not one of them over five. Normally, I have everything planned down to the minute on these trips, meal reservations, ride itineraries, and firm showtime deadlines all set up in advance. This time, however, I decided to "yes, and" the whole trip. You want to keep riding and stop for food later? Absolutely, and the line for Dumbo is only ten minutes right now. You want chicken tenders and fries for the third day in a row? Of course, and I'm eating a salad in Magic Kingdom, because, why not? You want to leave the park at one in the afternoon, without even getting on Guardians of the Galaxy, because you're tired and "parked out"? 

Okay, this I take umbrage with, but, fine, I guess. Back to the hotel.

The thing is, even without doing every single thing that I wanted to do, the trip was one of the best I've been on. There was a marked decrease in arguments, because the littles were pretty much getting what they wanted, as much as I could safely make it happen. One five-year-old got onto the Avatar ride for the first time, while the other one got kicked off by the height police. She screamed through the entire thing - not happy screams, more like night-terror screams - but she tried it, and one good thing that came of it was that some other rides that would have scared her before, now felt to her like a slow crawl through "It's a Small World" by comparison. Conversely, the other five-year-old, Auntie Shorty, got on every ride with a fast track or a huge drop or splash, and loved all of them. She even wanted to get on Guardians, and this is after watching the ride video to see what she was getting into, but she didn't get the chance, due the the unpleasantness mentioned above.

I don't remember who came up with it, some really smart psychologist, probably, but there's a similar principle in parenting, and one I've also applied for years to teaching as well. The idea is that, as parents, we want to look for every opportunity to say "yes," every chance to be affirmative and encouraging, because the world forces us to say "no" so much of the time. There are things we cannot bend on. "No', you can't jump off the top bunk," and "No, you can't eat the half a candy bar you found on the seat on the rollercoaster." There are just some "No's" that have to be said, but a lot fewer than we think, and if we look for every opportunity to say not only "yes," but "yes, and," every opportunity to not only affirm our kids, but jump in with them, then our "No's" are a lot easier to take. 

Like I said, I've adapted this for the classroom as well, looking for every opportunity to say yes to a student. I had an epiphany many years ago, more than I'd like to count, where my technology failed or I was otherwise unable to proceed with a lesson, and I just got so frustrated and angry trying to keep a classroom full of sophomores absolutely silent that I couldn't even focus on fixing or circumventing the problem. It was one of those out-of-body experiences where you watch yourself doing something so stupid that you want to slap yourself, but, alas, you're disembodied. I didn't come across the "yes, and" principle of parenting until later, but I learned instead to just say, "This isn't working right. Talk amongst yourselves while I get this back online, and be ready to get started when I figure it out." It worked wonders. The kids talked, but they understood the assignment and kept it down, and I had prepared them for the moment when I would signal that we're getting back to work. It wasn't perfect, but life had intervened, and instead of fighting it, I "yes, and-ed." I felt the same way on this recent trip. We're on vacation for only five days, and it's supposed to be fun. Does every meal really have to have all four food groups properly represented, or can the kids eat what they want for once in their lives? Does each kid have to ride something they don't want to, just because someone else does, or can we take turns and let everyone do something they love, even if it means splitting up or waiting a little for someone else? Do we have to stay in the park from sun-up to sundown, just to "get our money's worth," even if the last four or five hours are, frankly, miserable, or can we just call it a day and take advantage of the pool, the arcade, the restaurant, and (thank God) the air conditioning back at the resort? 

Yes, and ... we had a great time, didn't have to hustle to get packed on the last day, and had zero meltdowns.

Except for that Avatar ride.

Friday, June 14, 2024

Crossing the “Is It Mine” Field: White Authors and Character Diversity

I have a novel that I wrote last summer that takes place mostly in an abandoned theme park. It's a really rough early draft that I'm still working on, but it's one I love and hope to publish one day. The themes and characters are close to my own heart and family, including concepts like interracial families, passing, generational lies, and the burdens of the past. Still, as much as I love it, and as much as it's grown from my own sense of family, I'm struggling with whether or not it's my story to tell. 

There's an issue out there in the world of writing and publication. Okay, a lot of issues, actually. It's basically a mine field of issues where the mines are all covered in smaller mines, but the issue I'm concerned with in this project is the idea of white authors writing characters of color. As a white author, I certainly want to write a diverse cast of characters, and sometimes even center Black characters who flow from my family experiences, based on the needs of the story. What I don't want to do is create a tangled mess of racial stereotypes. There have been so many missteps and offensive books that have been published in the last few years that have caused uproar, and rightfully so, among the writing and reading community. One that always pops up in the discussion is The Help, which gets plenty of well-deserved criticism for not only centering the white character as a savior in the context of the civil rights movement in America, but also making a caricature or stereotype of the Black characters. 

On the other hand, I'm seeing white authors who seem to understand the inherent complications in writing characters of color and not only avoid them, but write spectacular stories in their genre that include either a diverse cast of characters, or completely center the characters of color. Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country is, to me, a perfect example of this. I started reading it recently because I loved the Netflix series adapted from the first novel, and was sad to see the second season cancelled. While I was watching it, I had no idea that the writer of the original material wasn't Black. The setting, the rich background knowledge of the time period, and the uniquely believable characters gave me nothing but green flags. I wanted to read the first novel, the one the series is adapted from, to get a sense of how different the two versions are (not much, in a good way), and to see if the Black artists involved had to do much cultural repair to the original. Surprisingly, the original is a perfect example of a white author faithfully depicting Black characters, much like the series. One little touch, among many, that caught my eye is that the neighborhood that some of the characters move into in the second part is Woodlawn, the same neighborhood in Chicago where Lorraine Hansberry's family moved into in the 1940's, and which became the subject of the Supreme Court case, led by her father, which struck down (sort of) the neighborhood covenants that kept Black families from moving into white neighborhoods. 

It's touches like this that make Lovecraft Country the kind of work that I want to emulate with this novel, and really several of my other novels as well. I'm committed to writing about interracial families, because that's what I know and live, and I'm blessed to have family members around me to help guide me as I navigate some of these issues that can be fraught with the possibility of harm. The novel I'm discussing here involves a brother and sister, twins, growing up with an abusive grandfather as their only caretaker. Their mother died of an illness, but also of a broken heart over their father, who also died before they were born. One of the revelations (spoiler alert) of the novel is that part of the reason the grandfather dislikes them so much is because they're mixed, although they don't know it, never having known their father. Also, because he's just a horrible person, it's complicated. There's generations of family on both sides, with vastly different experiences in this country, which have culminated in the lives of these two young people, and they're on the verge of discovering how to not necessarily reconcile or solve all these problems, but to pull all that history together within themselves and make peace with both of their parents, through some supernatural means, because that's kind of my thing.

In writing, and now revising and rewriting, this novel, I'm trying to take some lessons from those who have failed to hit the target in the past, either through negligence or just oversight, as well as those who have done it well. One resource I found to help me was Mya Nunnally's article on Book Riot from 2018. You all remember 2018? Such a simpler time, right? In the article, she gives "7 Casually Racist Things That White Authors Do." It's a great resource for me and any white author trying to write characters of color, and I'd like to think about a positive for each of her points, kind of a do for each of her don'ts.

Her first don't is having zero characters of color in the story. It reminds me of the sitcom Friends (which I never found funny, don't @ me), which I'd like to think takes place in an alternate universe where Reconstruction in the South went so well, and reparations were made so completely and promptly, that the Great Migration simply never happened, and Black folks never moved into the northern cities in great numbers. I'd like to think that, but I know it's more likely that the show just didn't want to hire Black writers, let alone Black actors. So the do to this don't is to write the characters we see around us. That might require expanding our circles of friends (no pun intended) and learning more about other cultures, especially those of the people in our own neighborhoods, whom we should be getting to know anyway.

In fact, another of her points is the failure of white authors to do research on the cultures they write about. Think about all the nuances of culture, from language to food to clothing and every other aspect of life. Our characters shouldn't be based on other stories and shows, but real people. Sensitivity readers can help with this, but by the time they see the novel, a lot of it has been set in stone, if not at the publisher then at least in the writer's mind. It's better to run ideas by trusted sources, those who are willing to do the work, during the drafting process. And as with any work, compensate your beta and sensitivity readers, either through bartering or straight up currency. 

The lack of authenticity in the drafting process results in stereotypes, another of Nunnally's points of contention. The problem with writing characters based on the characters you've already seen in other media is that they're likely to be stereotypes, caricatures of people that are often limited and offensive. Even if your character is modeled after another one who seems unique and vibrant, consider that all you're doing is appealing to another trend instead of creating a realistic and fleshed-out person in your story. 

Nunnally makes several great points in her article, but the last one might be the most prevalent - the white savior. This really is a complicated issue. There's been story after story, movie after movie, where the subject is civil rights or racism, but the focus is on the white protagonist's struggle to create change, or their discovery of the true nature of society and subsequent indignation. Again, don't @ me, but To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind. This approach robs the characters of color of any agency, and reduces them to something like children or underlings, completely helpless in their struggles to free themselves. A cursory look at history, in the United States and around the world, shows that in every situation of colonialism, slavery, and oppression were the subjects of racism and abuse just helpless victims waiting for a savior. Revolt and resistance were not only always the norm, but they also make for great stories. 

However, here's the rub. Let's say I want to write about a particular revolt of enslaved people in America. There's no question that I'm going to do the research and talk to the right people to get perspective on the matter and inspiration for creating the characters. But that still doesn't mean that it's my story to tell, and while I might become very caught up in an idea for a story, I probably have to tread very carefully when it comes to this matter. To return to Ruff's Lovecraft Country, he's done a masterful job of approaching the 1950's, with very realistic and frank depictions of racism, but without centering a white character, much less a savior, and without trying to Forrest Gump his way through the time period either, highlighting all the major events of the time. Instead, he's writing a horror story set in that time period, and it works so beautifully because it seems to make the point that racism is at least as horrific as any of the Lovecraftian monsters we could imagine. In fact the two horrors are so intertwined as to be inseparable, and the fact that he's chosen Lovecraft as a focal point is even more ironic, given that writer's known racism, which is also addressed and deconstructed in the novel.

So, I'm still working on my novel, which is set in two time periods, the 1980's when I was a kid, and the 1960s when the protagonists' parents were falling in love, despite all the obstacles of racism and segregation. I'm threading in my own experiences and those of all my family members as inspiration and a sort of historical mooring. And as I'm writing and refining it, hopefully I'm making it not only my story, but one that belongs to my whole family.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Dilbert Edward Ignatious, Ruiner of Nations

 A relative recently asked my opinion about a speech going around about race and the church, and sharing my opinion opened a whole discussion about DEI and how, in their opinion, it's one strand of the woke rope that's currently strangling our nation to death. 

I get this a lot, for some reason.

It's not the first time a family event has devolved into a heated discussion of DEI or CRT or whatever letters are scaring people these days. In this case, it's the deep concern about what we used to call reverse racism, but what some people today are calling "the only real racism." It's the kind of fear-mongering that happens when people like Charlie Kirk say that they get scared for their lives when they see a Black pilot on their flight, because of their deeply held racism.

No, wait, sorry, I meant, because of their deeply held fears about the effects of DEI on society. Kirk is scared of Black pilots because of that, not the other thing. Apologies.

Whenever this discussion comes up, I'm usually certain that the person just doesn't know what DEI is. They say we fear what we don't understand, and I suppose it's true that DEI could be scary to those who don't understand it. If you think that DEI is just grabbing a random Black person off the street and being like, "Hey, you wanna fly a Boeing 747? Maybe do some surgery later?" then, yes, that might be frightening. That's why, in these arguments, my response is usually to propose three scenarios that a DEI initiative would actually produce in the real world, and ask the uncle or cousin which ones they would disagree with the most.

Scenario 1:

You become the CEO of a large corporation, one that operates in a very stable and lucrative field, with lots of high-paying, probably STEM jobs. Upon taking over, you realize, if you didn't already, that your corporation has a decades-long practice of discriminating against Black applicants. Very few of the employees are people of color, and none of them in those higher-paying, more prestigious positions. Historically, Black candidates have been refused even an interview, and usually their application process ends when HR reads their name on the resume.

You feel strongly that this racist practice should end under your leadership, but, aside from firing the entire HR department, you don't know what to do. You hire a DEI consultant, who advises retraining for all HR employees, as well as a directive that ten of the twenty new employees that the company hires in those coveted positions this year should be Black or persons of color (with proper qualifications, of course, because we're still running a business here). This would bring the percentage of Black employees up to 2% by the end of the year, which is nowhere near 10%, which is the percentage of Black residents in your city, but a move in the right direction.

By the end of the year, it's become harder than you thought to find qualified Black applicants, at least partly because the word has gotten around about your company's past discrimination, so maybe to get the last two positions filled, you send recruiters to nearby universities to repair that reputation and encourage more people of color to apply.

Any objections? 

Scenario 2:

You've been CEO of the company now for several years, and while hiring Black employees or people of color has never been a problem, getting them to stay with the company long-term is. After noticing this, you ask HR for a report, which reveals that while the overall turnover rate and self-reported satisfaction of your employees is above normal, both of those measures are abysmal when accounting only for minorities. In their exit interviews, many Black employees have reported micro-aggressions (whatever those are, amirite?) and hostility as their reasons for leaving, along with the perceived lack of advancement opportunity. You get personally involved, interviewing some of the departing employees yourself, and get an earful of their complaints firsthand. Furthermore, whatever initiatives you might have set into place for increasing diversity and atoning for the company's prior discriminatory practices.

Again, out of a desire to solve this clear problem with morale and company reputation, you hire a DEI consultant, who runs a company-wide study and training program for all employees. This program seems to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, the idea being that nobody was intentionally trying to alienate or antagonize anyone else, but the changing make-up of the constituency has created the need for more sensitivity in the way we talk to each other and hear each other. Black employees feel more supported, and white employees (hopefully) feel supported as well, knowing how to navigate this new situation.

Any objections?

Scenario 3:

That first initiative is really revealing some discomforting things about the city and state where your company is headquartered. One of the reasons that HR is having a hard time finding enough qualified Black applicants to achieve this directive (again, aside from the fact that a lot of Black folks don't want to work for a company with a known history of discrimination and a ton of negative reviews from former Black employees) is that the high schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods in your area are woefully underfunded. Most students leaving those schools have never seen the inside of a proper science lab, let alone had the opportunity to participate in a robotics team or coding club. The facilities and tools just don't exist for them. The Black students at mostly white schools, on the other hand, enjoy campuses with much better equipment, but don't always get into the advanced classes because of educator bias. This causes a real lack of Black university students seeking STEM degrees, which it turn affects how many Black applicants your company sees.

Once again, you have your assistant arrange a meeting with the DEI consultant, who suggests that you take a portion of the charitable funds already in your company's budget and invest them in updating the labs, equipment, and faculty of the schools in the majority Black neighborhoods in your city. This has the double advantage of helping your company achieve its diversity goals and atone for it's past discrimination, as well as creating some positive media buzz. Heck, the consultant even suggests that some of your current employees visit the schools to oversee the updates and mentor some of the students - while wearing their company polos and followed by a photographer, of course. After all, we are running a business here.

Of course, during the planning meeting, one of your executives complains. He asks the consultant why everything has to be about race, and why only the Black schools are getting the money, and why can't we just divide up the money evenly among all the local schools, and don't all schools matter. Ever the professional, the consultant calmly reminds them that the donations are intended to bring the under-funded schools up to the same level as their peers, and that spreading money around evenly wouldn't solve the problem of inequity in STEM opportunities.

Any objections?

If you're trying this with your uncle or cousin, maybe they're still worried about quotas and hiring unqualified pilots or whatever. Maybe they're still convinced that they lost their job at the factory because of some DEI initiative, and not because they got consistently negative evaluations over the last five years.  In that case, please ask them to consider the following:

In the case of our semi-fictional corporation above, having a quota for hiring Black employees is nothing new. The company is not starting a quota in their hiring; they've always had a quota. To emphasize, for decades, the company has always had a set number of Black employees that it hired, it's just that the number was zero. Or maybe one, so they could have someone around to add some color to the company photo so they don't look egregiously racist. 

In addition, the objection that "we should only be hiring the best applicants" is a great idea, but a little disingenuous. Our fictional company never had that as its hiring practice before, so why start now? The rule for hiring at our fictional firm was never to hire the best applicants, but to hire the best white applicants ... maybe, unless the boss had a nephew who needed a job or a favor owed to some other rich person with a knucklehead for a relative. It seems odd that now that our fictional CEO is interested in correcting the discriminatory hiring practices of the past, suddenly several people want to use merit as the sole measurement for hiring a person.

Furthermore, what does "hiring the best" even mean? I know that there are social and psychological reasons why Charlie Kirk hyperventilates when he sees a Black person in a cockpit, but what does he think is happening when he sees a white man in that seat? Does he really think that pilot is the "Best"? That out of all the pilots and all the airlines in America, that he lucked out and got the "Very Best Pilot" in the world to fly his non-stop from St. Louis to Minneapolis? Or is it enough that the pilot is competent, ready to deal with whatever emergencies might arise during the flight, because he or she has the proper training and is approved by not only the flight school that trained them and the airline that hired them, but also the FAA, which regulates these matters? It seems as if Kirk just assumes the competency of any white person he sees wearing the wings, and only questions the competency of Black pilots. Surely, even your uncle can see how that comes across as a little bit racist.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Library Kids and Adults Unite

    When I was growing up in North Miami, there were two places I knew I was always welcome, even if I didn't have money, which was all the time. Both of them were on Stickball Ave., down the street from the high school where I would later graduate. On one side of the street was the public pool, and on the other was the City of North Miami library. As a upper poor kid with lower middle class dreams, I learned how to do two things really well - swim and read. Both had strong programs for neighborhood kids, with lessons, events, and even job opportunities once we got old enough.

    The public pool was where I learned to face my fears and dive off the twenty foot platform. The library was where I learned to face other fears and read the novels on the five foot shelves, out of reach for me at the time.

    The pool is gone now, filled in, dug under, and replaced with the football field and track for the new high school. But the library is still there, and still serving the kids, and adults, of the community. It looks different now, with glass-walled study rooms, a cafe, and rows of computers that were just a sci-fi dream when I was a kid, but there's still reading tutors every day after school and all weekend, writing programs during summer, and librarians willing to help you find a book just a little outside of your range. Even when I still lived in North Miami as an adult, it was where I voted and where I spent hours every day during summer vacation writing in the quiet room.

    So, when I saw Mychal Threets on my Instagram feed, gushing about his love for the local library, I got it. I had forgotten how much that place used to mean to me, and how much it meant to my own kids when the library was often the only place I could afford to take them for some fun, or at least the only place without slides and swings and blazing Miami heat. Mychal reminded me that my younger kids don't go to the library as often as the older ones did, and that since we had moved on up, we had traded colorful displays of books and reading circles for tablets, ebooks, and Amazon deliveries. It's not the same.

    Another thing that struck me about Mychal is how much he reminds me of my son. Similar in age, complexion, with that same curl in his hair and that same love of books. He gets that from me - the love of books, that is, definitely not the curl. He's also a little awkward and has to try a little harder to make friends. He gets that from me as well. 

    Mychal was a blessing to my social media, a rare oasis of joy and goodness in a teeming ocean of trolls and vicious debates and scams. He was an inspiration to kids like mine, mixed kids with limited funds, looking for places in this world where they can be themselves and be welcome.

    And then he was gone. Because he was joyful, they called him weird. Because he was passionate about kids reading and finding community, they called him suspect. And while all of that is terrible, I have to wonder what they called him because he's mixed, African-American and Mexican.

    They hounded him online until he quit, and not just the media campaign, but the library that he loved and loved him back. The same forces that want to take the books about race or racism out of the school libraries and the novels by authors of color off the library shelves attacked a man who outshined every booktoker on the clock app. In my state, there's a particularly virulent effort to kill everything that young readers of color might use to lift their spirits and inform their futures. Back in the 1960s that so many red hats pine for, just a four-hour drive up the coast, they poured acid in the pool rather than desegregate it. It's a different kind of acid they use today, but it works about the same. They flood the school board meetings with it, storm the libraries with it, and drown social media with it, usually using anonymous accounts to hide their faces like a digital hood. The goal seems to be to get rid of every library book like Beloved, and every library worker like Mychal.

    So what can we do? My plan is to continue teaching a diverse group of novels and handling the complaints with patience and advocacy. I'm also trying to write the books that center families like mine. This summer, my youngest kids, and my grandkids, if I can handle it, will be in the library where we live now, as well as the local pool taking swim lessons. The more that we use these resources, the more they get funded. In addition, we can support our libraries with donations and deal with the trolls with whatever means are safest for us, whether those are words or blocks or violation reports. Most of all, we all have elections coming in a few months, and, at least in my state, these issues are on the ballot. Vote for the candidates who are going to protect our books and our librarians instead of running them out of town.

It's time for library adults to stand up for library kids.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Shooting the Canon

In a class I'm taking on writing, the discussion of the literary canon came up, and the idea that classics are classics because they have stood the test of time with their superior craft and universal characters and themes. As an English teacher for over twenty-five years, it's been a constant struggle to diversify the curriculum and get authorization to assign readings, especially novels, that aren't the "canonical" white male authors. Even when I've taught in schools where the majority of students were of color, there's always some pushback. To be sure, some of it is just resistance to change, as well as a concern for the maturity of the content and themes that young students read. That's always been an issue, and even more now that parents, and somehow non-parents alike, are storming school board meetings across the country to challenge texts they don't like. At best, the argument usually relies on the fact that the old reliables like The Scarlet Letter are already proven to be superior examples of writing and have been tested for content by years of students reading them, where a novel like Beloved is considered less worthy because it's style is "modern" and full of "slang," and contains subjects that parents might not want their children exposed to, like slavery and sexuality.

But the reality is that no matter how good the writing or how "safe" the content, novels by authors of color still tend to get rejected. One argument I had to personally deal with is that we don't have time to read everything, and while it would be nice to diversify the curriculum, these "classics" are too important to get bumped for what amounts to an interesting beach read. Aside from discussing how important representation is, the fact that my students and my own children need to see themselves in positives roles in novels in order to become lifelong readers, I'd like to make the case that classics like The Scarlet Letter are neither as innocent nor as well-written as we'd like to think.

First, all of us have seen the "gotcha" reels where some YouTuber will stun one of the crusaders at the school board. They'll get them monologuing that a book should be pulled from shelves because of some racial, violent, or sexual content, even going so far as to call the writer, teacher, and librarian nasty names. Then they hit the complainer with a passage from the Bible that's far more graphic than the one they want pulled. Invariably, the crusader always fumbles to find a reason why the novel has to go but the Bible has to stay. This is the same argument I see with the classics. Somehow, by virtue of its age or the brilliance of its prose, novels like The Scarlet Letter gets a pass on content. Granted, there are moments of sexuality and violence in Beloved, but they're certainly not graphically depicted. In fact, some go right over the average high school student's head, and many teachers who dare to teach Beloved just watch those scenes fly away without addressing them. Similarly, we somehow find a way to gloss over the fact that The Scarlet Letter is a story about Reverend Dimmesdale grooming, seducing, impregnating, and then abandoning Hester Prynne. 

In terms of writing ability, the assumption by many English teachers and curriculum coordinators is that The Scarlet Letter is an impeccable work of prose (mainly because it's old?) and Beloved is harder to read, what with it's dialect, slang, and "modern" sense of craft. I might just be getting old, but I'm realizing more and more that what passes for craft in the classics often wouldn't make it past the slush pile on the desks of today's literary agents and editors. With so many aspiring writers, the bar for what makes good prose is extremely high these days. Ask me how I know. 

But in fairness, let's compare the first paragraphs of both The Scarlet Letter and Beloved

First, The Scarlet Letter:

"A THRONG of bearded men, in sad-colored garments, and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.

"The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison. In accordance with this rule, it may safely be assumed that the forefathers[52] of Boston had built the first prison-house somewhere in the vicinity of Cornhill, almost as seasonably as they marked out the first burial-ground, on Isaac Johnson’s lot, and round about his grave, which subsequently became the nucleus of all the congregated sepulchres in the old churchyard of King’s Chapel. Certain it is, that, some fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of the town, the wooden jail was already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front. The rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than anything else in the New World. Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era. Before this ugly edifice, and between it and the wheel-track of the street, was a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pigweed, apple-peru, and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilized society, a prison. But on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him."

I'm not saying that the writing is terrible here, although there are parts of the novel that are clunky and confusing. I do enjoy the novel, but the verb phrases are almost all either linking verbs or passive voice. The sentences are very long and flowery, with some strong imagery, but sometimes hard to follow for the same reasons.

One the other hand, consider Beloved's first paragraph:

"124 WAS SPITEFUL. Full of a baby's venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old--as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the door sill. Nor did they wait for one of the relief periods: the weeks, months even, when nothing was disturbed. No. Each one fled at once--the moment the house committed what was for him the one insult not to be borne or witnessed a second time. Within two months, in the dead of winter, leaving their grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road. It didn't have a number then, because Cincinnati didn't stretch that far. In fact, Ohio had been calling itself a state only seventy years when first one brother and then the next stuffed quilt packing into his hat, snatched up his shoes, and crept away from the lively spite the house felt for them."

The sentence structure is more intentionally varied, with very short sentences giving the reader some rest in between long ones. Even the long ones don't meander the way that Hawthorne's do. The final sentence, one of the longest, uses clear parallelism to hold the reader's attention and make sense of the flow of words. 

These two novels have a lot in common. Both historical novels and both based on an actual person, but fictionalized. Both novels center on a woman struggling with what it means to love her children, to love a man, and to love herself. Both evoke discussions of sex, power, and abuse. Both contain supernatural elements, especially pertaining to children. But because of this idea of the canon, because certain stories are elevated despite the fact its flaws and some are denigrated despite their greatness, one gets taught widely as an exemplar of American lit, and the other is contested as a type of genre fiction at best, and a crime against young readers at worst.

We have to confront the biases that force the one story on our students and relegate the other to the recesses of the library, or maybe the AP Lit classes, if not removed from schools altogether. Granted, any student can choose to read Beloved on their own. But by refusing to teach the novel, and others by minority authors, we're saying that these stories are not worth studying, discussing, and celebrating. In fact, we're saying the same about many of our students' lives and stories.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Homework and the Blended Family

Recently, I had the honor of giving a seminar on implementing a no-homework policy in elementary, middle, and high school classes. It's a policy that took me some time to come to, but one that I can't imagine ever changing now that my eyes have been opened. At the beginning of my teaching career, over twenty-five years ago, I was exactly the opposite - piling on homework in the name of rigor and punishing students who didn't do it. The turning point for me was the realization that there really was no rigor to be found in this approach. I could assign reading, but most students just wouldn't read it. At best, even the smartest would look up summaries and fake it. I could assign writing, but they'd cheat. After some careful consideration, I decided that I couldn't even blame them. Why are they working at home, sometimes harder than they're expected to work in class, without supervision, and often without even knowing what they're doing? After researching the effects of homework, I fully made the switch to no assignments outside of class time.

I don't want this post to get too technical, but in case there are any teachers reading for arguments or support for no-homework policies, or maybe parents looking for ammunition to fire at their local school boards, here are the bullet points of what I shared with my colleagues:

  • Homework does not provide the rigor we assume it does, because all the work is unsupervised.
  • Homework does not teach students study skills or time management any more than kicking a kid into the deep end of a pool teaches them to swim. At best, it activates survival instincts; at worst, it drowns the student.
  • Homework gives students a distorted concept of work-life balance and robs them of positive interactions with family members, often replacing them with very negative ones.
  • Homework does not effectively build skill through repetition, because the students who practice correctly every time already have the skills, and the ones who don't already have the skills often repeat and ingrain incorrect practices that then have to be retrained. (See: "Dad said to do it this way.")
  • Research that supports the practice of homework is dubious at best, and much of the research shows that homework is ineffective and makes students hate school.
  • At best, research shows that 30 minutes or more of homework per school night can increase learning by 4%, at the cost of family harmony, social interaction, leisure time, artistic pursuits, and extracurricular activities.

One quote I found in my research that has really guided my thinking on the subject is from Jackie Glasheen, principal of Kelly Elementary School in 2016. "We really want kids to go home at 4 o'clock, tired," she says. "We want their brain to be tired." Essentially, if your students even have the brain power to do any homework after school, then you probably haven't had them work rigorously enough in the classroom to begin with.

After making the switch to a no-homework policy, I've seen rigor and student skills increase, even though we can't necessarily "cover" everything students previously did for homework. The difference, to me, is that the students really learn what we study in the classroom, and they weren't really learning what we were doing (or not doing, if we're being honest) for homework before.

But one thing that I never considered in my extreme pro-homework days is how homework affects different types of families in different ways. Wealthier families can hire tutors to help with the workload and maintain positive boundaries for parents and children. Middle class families generally have at least one college-educated parent in the home who can assist with the more taxing assignments. But poorer families generally have none of these advantages. The very families who already have the most stressors and the least amount of quality time between parents and children are exactly the ones that the burden of homework hurts the most. 

In addition, before I became a single parent and then a parent in a blended family, I never considered how these dynamics could be exacerbated by the load of homework I assigned. As a single parent, who was also a college graduate and educator, it was often more than I could handle to even enforce quiet time for my kids to do their homework, let alone help them with it. Doors were slammed, tears were shed, and voices were raised, but not a lot of learning happened. I had two kids that were already hurting from the pain of separation and divorce, and instead of spending healing personal time with them, we were fighting over how long it should take to do thirty math problems. 

Then later, as a blended family, we saw that dynamic change even more. Sure, there were more hands and brains in the home to help with homework, but the relationships were new and fragile, and the added stress of homework created even more angst and drama at a time when we could have been bonding as a new blended family. The truth is, homework causes stress, makes kids feel stupid, and complicates the parent/child relationship. What it does to the step-parent/child relationship is absolutely terrible. In a home where remarks like "you're not my mom" and "you can't make me" and "I'm calling my real dad" are still shouted on the regular, the added burden of making a child write an essay or read ten pages of Hatchet can set familial progress back months, or stop it from ever progressing to begin with.

So, here's my advice for teachers: Consider the effects of your homework assignments on the most fragile of your students. The ones who are sailing through your class are probably not benefiting from it at all, but the ones who are struggling, both personally and academically, are possibly seething with animosity towards school and towards the parents and stepparents who are trapped in the role of enforcing the status quo. Consider the cost/benefit analysis of every assignment you send home, and try to imagine what really goes on once your students leave your room.

And my advice for parents: Put the onus for teaching material back on the teacher. I've adopted this policy myself, and it's been difficult, but it's definitely improved my child's stress level and our relationship. Instead of becoming frustrated with her for not understanding an assignment or not getting math problems correct, I simply tell her not to do it. Math, in particular, doesn't come naturally for her, so when she doesn't understand what to do, or asks me to show her how, to essentially teach the material, I just refuse to do it. I tell my child to mark the problem she doesn't know how to do, skip to the next one that she understands, and make sure to be the first to raise her hand in class tomorrow and tell the teacher she needs help with the problem. It's not my job to teach my daughter math. Period.

My job is to encourage her personal, spiritual, and intellectual growth as a father, and to foster goodwill between her and her other parents and stepparents. I only have a few hours on a weeknight to get that job right, and I'm not wasting that time trying to figure out how many hours it takes for Fred's plane to land in Cleveland if the flight leaves forty-five minutes late in ten degree weather with twice the normal load of baggage and one engine operating at eighty-five percent efficiency. Fred's gonna get there when he gets there.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

If You're Angry and You Know It

 I love my granddaughter.

What I mean is, I really love my granddaughter. She's five now, almost grown, but still my Babay Girl. She lived with us for a while when she was little, because my daughter was a young mom herself. In some ways, you could say that I got robbed of the traditional "spoil them and split" experience that most grandparents get, but I'm not sure why that's supposed to be a good thing anyway. When she's with us, or whenever we're on the phone, I try to treat her like another of my own children, the best I can. She has her father, but I can also fill in some gaps and father her without overstepping or crossing boundaries. 

One thing that I love about her is how resilient and honest she is. She's been through some stuff, both seen and experienced some disappointments that have aged her in that way that life does to little kids sometimes. "Wise beyond their years," we say, forgetting that the wisdom we're praising comes with a price. It's cost her some of her childhood to get that wisdom.

For instance, we went on our annual camping trip, just me and the girls without my grandson, because you have to be night potty trained to sleep in a tent with me. It's her second trip, her (one year younger) auntie's first, so she knows more of the routines - the sleeping arrangements, activities, cooking over a fire and whatnot. The first night of the trip, the sun has gone down and everyone is around the campfire, several families with someone leading in happy kids songs, and she gets that look that tells me she's about to drop some knowledge.

"Papa," she says, serious as she can be, "why do they say 'If you're happy and you know it stomp your feet'? You're supposed to stomp your feet when you're mad."

I didn't have an answer for her. She's so right. It's weird. The song is so weird, too. Why am I so happy? And why are there so many different ways to show it? Instead, I responded the same way I always do when she stuns us with some deep thoughts.

"You're so right, Baby Girl," I said, "That's crazy."

She nodded and went back to licking the marshmallow off the sides of her hand. I thought about it for a while longer, looking up into the night sky and getting more serious than I should for the occasion. I Tweeted about it (because saying "I x-ted about it" is stupid) to record the moment and so the family could weigh in. Then I forgot all about it.

That is, I forgot about it until a couple of weeks later when I was listening to the audiobook of She Deserves Better by Sheila Wray Gregoire (great book, by the way). At one point, she referred to the song, noting that the lyrics used to be different. Apparently, the song used to be about all the emotions, all kinds of different feelings and how to show them. That specific line really did used to go "If you're angry and you know it, stomp your feet." And Baby Girl is so right; that makes a lot more sense. I looked up the original lyrics, which are hard to find, believe it or not, and sure enough, they're all there. Apparently, if you're sad and you want to show it, you can cry boo-hoo. If you're scared and you want to show it, you can either shout "oh no" or run away, depending on which lyrics source you trust more. There's even one for if you're sleepy, which encourages kids to take a nap, which is something I've always endorsed myself.

I was so shocked, as if a major part of my own childhood had been a lie, which, I guess, it kind of was. The original song goes back almost a century, probably Russian, and got to English audiences around the 1940's, possibly. But what happened since then? When did we decide that it was inappropriate for kids to be sad or angry or scared? When did we banish all the so-called darker emotions and start telling kids that if they felt any of them and they knew it, they weren't allowed to show it?

Besides her wisdom and perception, another thing I love about my granddaughter is her resilience. With everything she's been through, she's learned not only to express her emotions and ask for things in more constructive ways, but she also helps take care of her little brother, and even leads her (younger) auntie with so much patience. That's an odd sentence, I know, but still impressive. When Baby Girl was three and early four, she used to either throw tantrums or just lock up completely when she got overwhelmed with emotions. Trying to get her to calm down and stop screaming, in some cases, or to open up and say words in others, was a daily trial. And the overwhelming emotion could be a bright one, not just sadness or anger. If she got a toy she really liked for Christmas, she might get so happy about it that she would freeze for a minute. 

Now that she's five, going on six, she's learned much better ways to express herself. She gets angry, and might even scream, but instead of a wild, incoherent scream, it's more of a focused, articulate scream. "Give that back!" is something I can deal with. She has a vocabulary that matches her moods, and she usually feels authorized to use it. Sometimes she might have to whisper it in your ear, or work herself up to it, but she gets it out. She shows it.

The whole discovery about the song is making me rethink the way a lot of us grew up. I'm trying to remember times when the grown-ups in my life really backed me when I was angry or sad or scared, and I have to say, I'm drawing a blank. It's like those emotions were too inconvenient or dark for the people around me, and they'd really rather just see me clapping and stomping and shouting in happiness, even if that wasn't what I was feeling at the time. Even as a parent, I think I can remember times when I might have redirected the some of the kids away from their emotions with distractions or commanded them to hide what they were feeling. I try not to do that anymore, and just get the littles to talk through their feelings, breathe through the moment. One thing anyone with much older and younger kids will probably tell you is that the youngest ones get the best Christmas presents and the best parents.

I can't go back to the older kids and change my parenting style, so maybe they can consider this an apology. But I can commit to doing better by the littles, helping them to identify their emotions and express them. The hard thing, the thing that's really going to take some effort and patience, is doing the same for myself. For those of us who grew up in an era where every verse was "happy," and every movement was only allowed to express that one emotion, it's difficult to be more honest, to allow ourselves to feel the feelings we feel, and to show them to others and risk upsetting them. There's so much unresolved, unprocessed anger and sadness today. Just scrolling through my social media feed, I get endless videos of road rage and public fights. This tells me two things: 1) That the grownups don't know how to manage their emotions any better than the kids, and 2) That I should stop clicking on every fight video in my feed.

So going forward, how about we all try to do better? If you're angry and you know it, stomp your feet, punch a bag, sprint a mile. If you're sad and you know it, cry boo-hoo, write it down, sing the blues. If you're scared and you know it, say "oh no," call a friend, meditate. Take your time, though. Sometimes, the hardest part is knowing it.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Whose Words Matter?

Recently, teacher Twitter flamed into uproar over a list of words compiled by a teacher who penalizes students for using them in their class. Aside from the truly draconian nature of the rule - students have to write an essay if they even slip and use one of the slang words in class - most people noticed that the list of slang words seemed decidedly focused on one culture. Every word on the list originates with Black slang or some form of AAVE.

The idea of Black students being penalized in the classroom or other academic and professional spaces is nothing new, and not even limited to the classroom. Around the same time that the list of banned words was lighting little fires all over Twitter, another grammar warrior went after Congresswoman Jasmine Crockett.

His contention was that she used the word "y'all," and that she may have mixed up the past and present at some point. If you follow the thread (at your own risk, of course, I certainly don't suggest it), you'll see he's got a lot to say about Congresswoman Crockett's speech patterns. Why he's chosen her as an example of poor speaking skills in a political body that includes Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert is anyone's guess, but he certainly seems passionate about scouring videos of Ms. Crockett's speeches with a focus on, in his words, diction.

Now, I don't have a bachelor's degree in psychology like Eric does, so I might lack the credentials to speak on politics, vaccines, and American history. However, I do have a graduate degree in English, several published works, and over twenty-five years of experience teaching the language, so I consider myself something of an expert on its usage. In my opinion, Ms. Crockett is a powerful speaker who clearly knows how to leverage formal academic language in her argument, as well as punctuating and emphasizing her points with more colloquial language. Her use of language is extremely effective, and a technique that older, white, male representatives and senators use all the time - that combination of formal language mixed with folksy aphorisms and word choices that sets up the speaker as both knowledgable and a person of the people. 

It's called code switching, and we all do it, just not for the same reasons.

Personally, I have about five or six English dialects that I use, both in and out of the classroom. They range in formality from highly academic to nearly "broken" English. As surprising as it seems, I don't whisper into my wife's ear with the same diction and syntax that I use to project across a room full of colleagues when I give a seminar. My students generally get a mixture of the academic and the deeply personal, the language of the critic infused with the language of a real reader with real feelings and sensibilities responding to the text. I use code switching in class because my job is to teach my students to use the full range of language, to abide by the rules when required or necessary, but then to bend and even break them when doing so is more effective.

But some of my students code switch for other reasons. Some of them code switch because their careers or even their lives may depend on other's perceptions of them. In a society where even their name can get their resume deleted out of a slush pile if it's too Black-coded, the risk of letting any verbal Blackness show can have negative repercussions. See, if a Congresswoman with a doctorate level law degree can be openly challenged on her speaking abilities by a guy with a BS in Psychology, and a high school teacher can ban any language that smacks of Blackness from her classroom, it's not the language itself that's under attack.

In fact, this open attack on Black slang raises some very important questions I'd love to ask the creator of that list, if anyone knew who they were. What sorts of texts do their students read? Is all informal dialect banned from their classroom, or just the ones coded Black? If the students are allowed to read Mark Twain, are they allowed to read Zora Neale Hurston as well? Or are both of them too "improper" and "inappropriate" for the academic setting. In my experience, teachers and professors with such strict policies about slang and appropriate language have always found arguments for including Shakespeare and Twain in the canon, but never Hurston or James Baldwin. The white authors get their praise for "innovative use of language" and "playfulness with conventions," but the Black writers never seem to get the same benefit of the doubt.

This is what's so wrong about the list. This teacher will never give their Black students the benefit of the doubt. Their critiques, responses, and feelings will be disregarded as invalid and "inappropriate" if they aren't worded in a way that's coded "academic," which seems to skew too much to the white.

On the other hand, I'd also ask the creator of the list whether some of those slang words and phrases couldn't be acceptable, or even perfectly suited, for a discussion about literature. Instead of blank stares or fearful, timid, safe half-responses, I would die of joy if a student, any student, would comment on a text like Frankenstein or Mexican Gothic with something like "It's giving me Edgar Allen Poe." Heck, I would even take a response to Poe like "It's giving Wednesday vibes." 

Rizz might just be the most precise word to describe Richard's seduction of Anne in Shakspeare's Richard III. Richard literally has nothing else going for him - not looks, not power, not even really wealth - and yet somehow gets this woman to fall for him, and that after killing her father-in-law. Are there more academic ways to make the point? Perhaps, but a high school student might not have the vocabulary for that argument, and even so, some of the more formal words might not have the exactness for the occasion that rizz does. If I have to choose between staring at an oil painting of a class groping for some elusive formal vocabulary and some kid saying, "that guy is the rizz master," my response will definitely be, "Yes, he certainly has mastered the art of rizz. Let's unpack that response."

"That's cap" could be an insightful response to Iago's "Put money in thy purse" speech, which uses a fair amount of slang itself. In fact, when you consider the sheer tonnage of slang that Shakespeare produced, and how much of it has passed into common, even formal usage, the whole argument against slang falls apart.

Louise Bennett said it best in her poem "Bans a Killin." In response to the same tirade against "dialec," she points out that nobody is suggesting a ban on English dialect and slang, only Jamaican. Towards the end of her poem, she says that if you really want to "kill" all dialect, "Yuh wi haffi get de Oxford Book / A English Verse, an tear / Out Chaucer, Burns, Lady Grizelle / An plenty a Shakespeare! / When yuh done kill 'wit' an 'humour', / When yuh kill 'variety', / Yuh wi haffi fine a way fi kill / Originality!" The truth is that English is a language that has always relied on dialect and slang, even thrived on it. Ever since the Anglo-Saxons created kennings to both add lyrical color and name things they didn't have words for, English has only known progression through transgression. How else does the creator of this list expect their students to write with any variety, creativity, or, as Bennett puts it, originality.

Lastly, Bennett's point highlights what makes the war on (Black) slang even worse. The very language that's considered informal or slang today, if it catches on enough and gets validation from white folks, usually ends up passing into the common vernacular. Once a single academic decides that the phrase is okay (and not merely acceptable), all the same teachers so up in arms about other people's slang will be using it freely in class.