Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Keeping "My Sister's Keeper" Out of It

I saw the film adaptation of Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper this past weekend. Honestly, it was much better than I'd expected it to be. I only went to see it in the first place because my mother asked me to go--I very rarely watch films based on books I've read and enjoyed. I hadn't planned on being into it, on having tears pouring down my face for the film's duration ... but that's what happened.

If I'd walked out of the theatre at the requisite beach scene (this seems to be a requirement in films about the dying), I probably would have given it a grade in the B range.

However, I didn't. I stayed for the ending. And that's where my issue with the film came into play ...

******SPOILER ALERT: DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU DON'T WANT THE ENDING RUINED******

Picoult's novel builds up some heavy themes--death and dying, the bonds between siblings and the incredible depths to which they reach, legal rights for children whose parents aren't necessarily acting in their best interest, and so on.

After reading My Sister's Keeper, I kept the book in my heart. I thought about the agonizing choice faced by Sara and Brian Fitzgerald, who must cause two of their children agonizing pain (one physically through forced blood, bone marrow, and potentially a kidney transplant and one emotionally through serious neglect) in order to pour their energies into keeping their cancer-stricken daughter Kate alive. The book's denouement, which sort of puts their decade-long fight into a grim and terrible perspective, brings up questions about fate and God and karma. It makes you think.

The ending might not be realistic (as my ever-practical nurse practitioner mother points out, there's no way a girl weakened to the point of death by leukemia would ever survive a kidney transplant), but it makes you think.

The film adaptation went for the cop-out. It went for the cliche. It turned Picoult's carefully crafted work into a watchable tearjerker, sure, but it was a story we've all seen or read before: kid-with-cancer-suffers-terribly-and-so-does-her-family-and-then-she-dies-and-everyone's-really-sad.

This is where the English teacher and writer in me comes out. For one thing, and not to beat a dead horse, but that book makes you think. It leads to rich discussions, to moral debates, to mind-stretching. Furthermore, I know a lot of people who read that book that haven't read a book in years. I've recommended it to students, many of whom have never finished a "real" book, and they couldn't put it down. It's what bothered me about Holes, about Twilight, about Bridge to Terebithia. Here are these great books that kids will actually read, and they make movie adaptations that make reading the books obsolete, at least as far as many kids are concerned.

But anyway, if you've read My Sister's Keeper and you take in the film, leave after the pizza in the hospital. Trust me. You won't be disappointed that way, and you can imagine the ending how you want it to be.

Monday, June 29, 2009

When People Change, it's not Always for the Better

Everybody changes. It's the one universal fact of human nature. Although many hold onto certain personalities traits they've always possessed, there is still a level of changing, of molding, of growing that takes place.

Although I've changed in some pretty awful ways over the course of my life, I can proudly say that I've changed for the better in the past year. I have found courage I never knew existed within me, learned how to balance my less than praiseworthy traits such as a quick temper and impulsiveness with the nobler parts of myself, and reaffirmed that my children are the center of my universe. I love my job and feel very fortunate to have found success and daily joy there. Without some small but vital kinks worked out of my psyche, this would never have happened.

What I don't understand, though, is what could bring about the change from a kindhearted, honest, hardworking, overall decent human being to a sneaky, nasty, lying, manipulative guy who stays in bed all day instead of getting up to go to work. I have tried desperately to figure out what role I played in bringing out Pythagorus' Mr. Hyde, but I'm not successful. I truly feel that I've done everything I could do, tried desperately to stop the changes back in December when they were just starting to heat up, begged Pythagorus to go to marriage counseling, worked hard to find out the root cause of his misery ... but I just couldn't reach him, couldn't get him to reach out his hand and meet me halfway, wasn't able to lift him up when he fell despite my greatest efforts--I just don't possess the strength to carry him, I guess.

I know this is probably rather enigmatic, but I do not want to be accused of "talking trash" about Pythagorus, so it kind of has to be that way.

I filed for divorce this morning. I am devastated, distraught, and destroyed, but it was the right thing to do for the girls, myself, and even Pythagorus if it means he will get help.

Even if you can't be married to someone, you can still care about them. That part of me wants more than anything for Pythagorus to face down his demons, to become once more a man of integrity, honor, and courage.

I wish I could say I truly believe that will happen ...

Monday, June 22, 2009

In the Face of True Evil, We ... are Fascinated

As my teaching load will be changing for next year and I'm maybe going to be doing a major unit on the Holocaust, I received an article about Miep Gies, one of Anne Frank's "Helpers", turning 100.

If for some reason you're not familiar with Anne Frank's story, she and her family hid for two years from the Nazis in a secret attic until they were eventually discovered and sent to concentration camps where, with the exception of Anne's father Otto Frank, they all perished. Miep Gies, a former employee of Otto Frank's spice business, agreed to help hide his family in a secret annex above the company's warehouse in 1942. After the betrayal (and who was behind the betrayal remains a mystery to this day), Gies picked up the papers Anne left behind, eventually giving them to Anne's father. Otto Frank published his daughter's memoirs as The Diary of a Young Girl in 1947, and since then the memoir has served as a stark reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust from the brutally honest view of a young teenager suffering atrocities that I, for one, cannot even imagine.

The article about Gies was interesting on a variety of levels, not the least of which was her tribute to the "unnamed heroes" who willingly risked their lives to help Jews escape certain death at the hands of Nazis. The prewar Jewish population of the Netherlands was around 140,000. Of those, 107,000 were arrested and deported. According to the Red Cross, only 5,200 made it out on the other side of the war. Another 24,000 Dutch Jews, the Franks being the most visible example, went into hiding through the help of others. Of those, 8,000 were betrayed in exchange for a payoff or were simply hunted down.

Gies worked for Otto Frank as he prepared and published The Diary of a Young Girl. She went on to be an active letter-writer to people with questions from all over the world. Even after Otto Frank's 1980 death, Gies has worked tirelessly to speak out against "Holocaust-deniers" and those who write Anne Frank's memoir as a forgery. Gies herself wrote a book, the 1987 offering Anne Frank Remembered.

This is of course a very brief overview of an article I found to be fascinating. I've read The Diary of a Young Girl. I've read Elie Wiesel's Night. The Devil's Arithmetic. After the War. Number the Stars. Summer of My German Solider. Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany. I've even read Mein Kampf, just to get a complete picture. Southern writer Pat Conroy tells some fascinating Holocaust tales in his novel Beach Music, although its only one strand of an incredibly complex storyline. And then there are the movies--my two favorites are Schindler's List and Vite e Bella (Life is Beautiful), although I cry copious tears at both.

Despite all that, the Holocaust is not an obsession with me as it is with many, in large part because it is so viscerally, unspeakably evil that the mere mention makes my stomach start cramping up. The world that I live in--the one that I've created in my mind, if that makes any sense--is one where people are willing to do whatever they can to help somebody else, where kindness and generosity are tantamount, where unspeakable horror doesn't happen. Of course I know academically that this isn't true, and I'm well aware that I'm quite alone in my insular world, but it makes it both easier and more difficult to focus on things like the Holocaust, evil incarnate.

That said, I do have a rather bizarre obession with the Manson murders that many people probably find out of whack. I can explain until the cows come home that it's the psychological mind control aspects and the time period that it happened in (I don't think Manson would have been able to pull off the deity thing any time before or beyond the late sixties/early seventies), but I suspect people might still find me weird for this one. Oh, and in case you're wondering, I certainly don't consider the Manson murders to be in any way, shape, or form similar to the Holocaust beyond the utter evil and blatant disregard for human life shown therein.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, evil is fascinating to a large percentage of people. It is! Are we trying to avoid evil potential in ourselves by learning about genocides or gruesome murders? Does it make us feel better to say, "I know I'd NEVER do that?" Why the interest in the macabre?

Stephen King wrote a short story called "Apt Pupil" (it was made into an absolutely dreadful movie). Your typical All-American boy has a certain fascination with the Holocaust. Imagine his surprise when he discovers through observation and young adolescent detective skills that his neighbor was once a member of the SS. A fairly powerful, very violent member of the SS. He blackmails the old man by requiring stories about the concentration camps in exchange for his silence. Of course, things get out of control and the boy obsessed with all things Holocaust learns how to become a violent killer himself through his relationship with the old Nazi.

Obviously, it's a work of fiction, but it emphasizes some obvious questions ... Why the obsession with the true face of evil? When does it cross the line to being unhealthy and even dangerous?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Cemeteries

This morning, I went to my stepdad's grave to plant a flower for Father's Day. It was a yellow flower, very cheerful and upbeat. My stepdad was a very cheerful and positive person, utterly remarkable in too numerous to count ways. I miss him each and every day.

While I was at the cemetery, I looked around and made an observation that hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. Every single gravestone in the cemetery had been put up by a grieving family, people who cared deeply about the deceased. There were varied signs of visitation, of course, although the cemetery was aflutter with American flags and there were a lot of very pretty flowers around. Some of the headstones were accompanied by little benches with inspirational quotations, some with angels or other statues, and others with fairly elaborate landscaping.

Death is the one common in life, of course, the great equalizer. It doesn't matter if you're a prince or a pauper, you'll end up the same way when all is said and done.

I know this isn't a very happy post ... this is just a sad day for me on a number of levels. I actually visited my father yesterday, which I'm glad about since I was much more positive yesterday. It was nice to be cheerful for him, since I don't see him as often as I should.

Happy Father's Day, Gordo. Love you!

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Cycle of ... Circles

The Roman philosopher Seneca said, "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." This concept has been on my mind often today as my seventh year of teaching came to a close.

I am finally old enough, I think, to do some serious reflecting. I'm kind of ashamed to say it, but the idea of reflection is fairly new to me. The main reason for this is that I rarely get a chance to just stop and take a deep breath, but I still feel kind of schmaltzy saying, "It never really occurred to me before the last few months to take a long, close look at myself and try to learn and grow from the things that have happened to me."

This is the first year that I've felt truly pleased with the experience my students had in my class. Although as usual I can think of a hundred things I could have done differently, I am nevertheless confident that my kiddos learned a great deal about reading, writing, and respect from me. It's not like I think that the students forced to deal with me in the six years before this got nothing out of my class, but I always felt like there were major gaps, that I hadn't reached enough of them, that their growth and opportunities had been somehow adversely impacted because of my limitations (organization, for example).

This year, I just feel proud. That's not to say that I won't change things up when I start over with a fresh batch of ninth graders in the fall ... it would be short-sighted and frankly arrogant to say, "I'll just do what I did this year. Good enough." I have always had glowing observation write-ups and such, so maybe I'm just way harder on myself than other people are, I don't know.

I used to just trudge through days just to get to the next one. I didn't take the time to look back on what I did on a given day (or a given week) and how much I could learn from just thinking about all angles of what transpired. I've gotten to be very zen, for lack of a better way of putting it. Everything is connected, and the lessons you learn in your career or through your friends or from your marriage or whatever are almost always applicable in other parts of your life if you're willing to open your mind, pay attention, and think.

I've learned that the idea of cycles, of circles has definite legitimacy. Whether we're talking about the so-called circle of life or the water cycle, everything matters. Everything has its place. Everything plays a role.

Now why did it take me thirty-two years to figure this out?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Final Exams and High-Stakes Opportunities

Today was the last day of final exams for my students.

As someone who struggles mightily with high-stakes testing (I had to take the SATs five times to get a decent score, my GRE math score was in the third percentile which was fortunately overshadowed by my ninetieth percentile language score, and so on), I find myself questioning the veracity of putting kids under the proverbial gun as the school year winds to a close and there are various other things hanging over their heads. I decided this year to make the most relevant final exam possible.

My final consisted of three parts--a multiple choice section, a formal essay due on the day of the exam that had been assigned two weeks earlier (drafts were strongly encouraged), and reading a short selection and writing a "Found Poem" on it. The multiple choice component was focused on The House on Mango Street, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and Romeo and Juliet and included an element of reading assessment and test-taking strategies. What this means is that students willing to take their time, read carefully, and synthesize information given out in various questions did very well on this.

The found poem was intended to assess on-the-spot reading and taking out what was important. Not surprisingly, this was considered the easiest part of the exam for my students.

And then ... the essay. My hope was that students would use the two weeks to create drafts or, at the very least, to put some thought into what they would slam out the night before. To be fair, a number of students did this. Several went so far as to provide me four or five drafts of their essay over the last week and a half, I gave them feedback, and their essays are unbelievable. The kiddos that worked the essay are the ones that received the highest scores on the overall final exam grade. However ... the number of students that seized this opportunity was just not as high as I would have hoped.

I am myself a world-class procrastinator, so I guess I can understand the lack of enthusiasm for doing multiple voluntary drafts. I just wish that there was some way to demonstrate to kids that, if you aren't able to pull off the last-second magic, you should probably emulate the workhorse.

This post is nowhere near as clear, concise, and (I admit it) interesting as it sounded in my head. However, I needed to get back on the blogging horse, so I guess I accomplished that, at least :).

What do you think of final exams for high school students? Are they worthwhile or a waste of time? Are they similar in value to high-stakes tests like the SAT, the GRE, and (for us educators) the PRAXIS? Does this really mean anything?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Spoiled Children--WHY?

Belle graduated from pre-school today. I am extremely proud of her for this accomplishment and thoroughly enjoyed the songs her class sang as well as the presentation of diplomas. It was very cute.

I have to mention that I felt, as always, a little out of place. I think I'm the only mother that works a full-time job, so I'm not part of the coterie of mothers. Belle's babysitter, one of the kindest and most dedicated human beings on earth, drops her off and picks her up. She is a lot more a part of the school world than I am. I don't like social situations where I don't know people well anyway, so putting that together with my neurosis that these people are looking at me and thinking, "Yeah, she's having a babysitter raise her kid because she works a full-time job" and they're probably not even thinking that at all, but it just makes me incredibly anxious. But anyway, that's a story for another day.

After the ceremony, families were invited to a local park to eat lunch and give the kids a chance to play together. This was where things headed south quickly.

I expect my children to be respectful, kind, and polite at all times. This has been an expectation since they were babies, and both Belle and Addie always make me proud with their behavior in public. Of course, both Belle and Addie have been carried kicking and screaming out of Chuck E. Cheese's and the play area at the mall because they did not want to leave. Both learned that behavior like that meant they didn't get to go back for a long time and, when they did, they needed to follow the rules. To me, it doesn't seem that complicated. You make sure your kids know the rules, you enforce them, you help you kids process any behavior issues, and you give logical consequences when necessary (as in, if Belle throws a ball at her sister, she loses the ball; if Addie is on MySpace when she's supposed to be doing her homework, she loses her internet).

I kept pretty close to Belle as she moved from slide to swing to seesaw; she's five, after all, and when there are thirty or forty kids running around, I don't think too much supervision is possible. This is especially true since a lot of parents seemed to think it was okay to let their children run amok while they stood around talking with each other a fair distance away, completely oblivious to what their children were doing.

The prime example I can think of is the little girl who held up the line at the slide by climbing up the other side of the stairs and standing on the ladder, refusing to move. I didn't feel like it was my place to say anything, and neither of the other two parents standing by the slide with a line of ten kids being held up by this one kid did either, evidently. Finally, a kid went and got "Sherry"'s mother, who came reluctantly.

Mother: Sherry, get down from there. The other kids can't get up.
Sherry: So?
Mother: There is a big line of kids waiting, and they can't move because you won't get down.
Sherry: So?
Mother: You need to get down from there right now!
Sherry: (with big huff better suited to an adolescent than a preschooler) Fiiiiiiine!
(At this point, Sherry starts swinging around one of the legs of the slide)
Mother: Sherry, get off the slide.
Sherry: You said not to climb on the ladder.
Mother: You've lost the privilege of going on the slide. Find something else to do.
Sherry: I want to go on the slide.
Mother: Fine. But make sure you are behaving yourself.
Sherry: Oh, I will.
(Mother goes back to social gathering; Sherry cuts the next kid in line and lays flat on the slide.)

When Belle finally got to the ladder of the slide, I told her that we'd be leaving after she went down the slide. She said, "Okay, Mommy." She came down the slide. She took my hand, and we walked together to the picnic table to get the remains of her lunch and to thank her teachers again. We talked about how we knew by the shape of leaves on one tree that it was a maple and by the white bark of another that it was a birch tree. She held my hand as we approached the parking lot. She thanked me for taking her to the park.

It's not like I think my children are perfect. They're not. It's just that I was overcome by how many spoiled children (Sherry was the worst, but she wasn't the only kid with issues like line-cutting, sand-kicking, and name-calling) there are in the world--and the correlation between misbehaving children and parents who were caught up in their own endeavors.

Perhaps it's just because it's a real treat for me to be able to spend a day with Belle, but I don't understand how people would rather spend time socializing with their backs turned than enjoy their children. It's not like I'm anti-social, nor do I think people should hover around their kids obsessively, but it seems like there's a happy medium. When it's children who are in the middle, shouldn't parents be willing to tilt the medium in a child's favor?

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Allure of a Dunking Booth (and the Evident Masochism of Human Nature)

Today was Field Day at my school. It seemed that lots of fun was had by all (including me).

I ended up supervising the dunking booth (all staff had a "station", and the word was you'd get assigned perimeter duty if you didn't volunteer for something). What this ended up meaning is that I was the first person sitting on the platform of the dunking booth ... and, consequently, the first person to get dunked.

Now, I love the water. I've been swimming in the New Hampshire Atlantic twice already this year and had my feet in Lake Winnapesaukee in early March. The idea of being dunked didn't bother me, nor did the dunking itself. Truthfully, none of it bothered me, per se. It was just ... odd to see a certain side of human nature.

What does it say about humanity when people come in droves and line up to throw a ball at a little tiny target for the sole purpose of knocking someone into a big bucket of freezing cold water?

It was kind of funny, actually. I forgot my contact lenses in the car (I was running VERY late this morning, so I figured I'd just pop them in when I got to school, but I had morning duty so I had to be there earlier than usual, then my gas light came on so I had to stop and get gas ... yeah, one of those mornings), so I ended up wearing my (rather expensive Ralph Lauren) glasses onto the dunking platform. They flew off on the first "dunk", and I had to fish them out with my foot. I gave them to a kid to put on my backpack, which he kindly did, then I realized that some of the kids were giving me a hard time for not going under when I got dunked (I'm 5'2", so it's not like I wasn't pretty much soaked). Well, the next four times I got dunked, you'd better believe I went fully under : )

Then my supervising colleague had a turn so I could warm up, then I went back up so she could warm up, and so on. We finally got enough other teachers to brave the dunking platform so we could both actually get changed out of our "dunking attire" and stuff. That water was freezing, and it wasn't exactly warm in New Hampshire today.

This probably sounds like I'm complaining, but I'm honestly not. I had a fabulous time today, a great chance to relax with my students, my colleagues, and my friends. I enjoyed being in the dunking booth, but the ferocity and intensity that some (of all ages) brought to the task at hand was just ... odd.

Anyway, what do you think the allure of a dunking booth is? Do you think it would be entertaining to cause another person discomfort if it's in the name of fun? Would you ever go into a dunking booth : )?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

In the Blink of an Eye ...

It's utterly amazing how the events of a single moment in time can have repercussions that resonate far beyond.

Pythagorus was in a car accident yesterday (don't worry, he's okay). He was taking his car to the mechanic during his lunch break (I swear this is true) and he was stopped at a traffic light when a woman in the car behind him evidently didn't notice that the light was red and slammed into him going pretty fast. His car knocked into a curb then ricocheted into oncoming traffic (which fortunately managed not to hit him).

He called 911 and was told that they didn't have anyone available to send to the scene of the accident. Pythagorus pointed out that he could see a police officer sitting in his cruiser right in the parking lot of the pharmacy this happened right in front of. He was informed that "that officer is on speeding duty ... but I can try to find someone if you think it's really necessary." Yeah, surreal.

Anyway, it was clearly the other driver's fault, she had car insurance (believe it or not, this is often a problem with automobile accidents in New Hampshire--our state motto isn't "Live free or die" for nothing), and honestly the VW could use an overhaul (or a replacement, if it's considered totaled). Also, we have a PT Cruiser rental car for the duration, so that's a little bit of fun.

Pythagorus was a bit shaken up yesterday, but he didn't seem to be hurt (I suggested he go to the doctor anyway just to be safe, but I'm evidently not that smart). He woke up this morning with his neck so sore he could barely turn his head. Like a lot of men (overly generalized, I know, but it's still true based on my experience), Pythagorus is kind of a baby when he's sick and/or injured. When I have a cold, for example, I manage to make it through a day of work without the benefit of orange juice and chicken soup : ). In his defense, though, the doctor said it was a pretty bad case of whiplash, and they did a bunch of x-rays just in case (everything looked fine) and gave him muscle relaxants and vicodin and the usual happy drugs they give to people in pain (the down side of all this at the moment is that he has fallen quite deeply asleep diagonally, so I think I'll be couching it or sleeping on the floor tonight).

What I can't stop thinking about, though, is how much worse it could have been. Nobody plans to be in a car accident, but in the blink of an eye, there you are. One minute you're driving along in the safety of your car (because I further realized that I tend to think of cars as safe zones--I think this is connected to my fear of thunderstorms ...) and the next, your car is no longer drivable. One split second, when you take your eye off the road because you're reading a text message or you dropped your cell phone under the brake (I manage to do this more than you might imagine possible) or the ketchup in your cheeseburger drips onto your pants or you're rummaging in the glove compartment for a tissue, or ... well, you get the idea.

It's scary to think of the potential of "in the blink of an eye" moments. Pythagorus was very lucky ... but a lot of people aren't.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Feeling Like a Scrub

Clearly, I have not kept up with my writing goals. Not posting on this blog every day is the least of it. The W in my WIP has not had any P in quite some time. Although I like to pretend that I can balance the three tiers of my life--mother, writer, teacher--it is just not always possible.

Teaching is always a challenge after April vacation, like pulling teeth after Memorial Day, and ... yeah, it's kind of sucking my energy supply dry. I wish that, like Eragon, I could store energy in an inanimate object to be kept on my person for times of need.

I have the added stress of trying to complete a final issue of the school newspaper for the year. I don't know why I didn't start focusing more directly on it earlier. I have no idea why my procrastination takes over and screws with my common sense. I don't know why I ignore the voice that says, "You might want to get cracking on that. You don't want the first week of June to come, and ..."

Well, friends and neighbors, it's the first week of June.

We've also had some serious family issues going on. Things are moving in a positive direction, but they're moving slowly. It's kind of hard to be upbeat, to be strong, to focus on the good.

Suffice it to say, my writing's in the backseat at the moment. I'm not happy about that--it's a place I've never before shoved my writing, in fact, which bothers me more than I care to admit--but it is what it is for the moment.

The time stamp on blogger.com is crazy, but it's 10:08 p.m. at my humble abode right now. The fact that, much as I'd love to crawl into my Sealy Posture-Pedic and fall asleep, I decided to post this rambling and probably incoherent ... whatever the heck this is ... hopefully is a way of me saying to myself, "Get back on track with your writing, stupid. Get back on track."