Monthly Archives: May 2011

Lose the Suit, Keep the Sentiment

            This
time of year I don’t go too many places where someone, knowing I’m a teacher, doesn’t ask, “How many more days?” 
And with more rapidity than most people can spew out their name, I can
answer–twenty-one, in case you’re interested.  Between our countdowns and our constant griping about humid
classrooms and antsy (read that, obnoxious) students, people might start to
believe the bad press that implies the majority of teachers really do go into
education for the (UNpaid) summer vacations.  I’ll let you in on a well-guarded secret: we didn’t; we
actually like our jobs.

            So
why all the bitching?  Because when
it comes down to it, it’s much easier to be sarcastic, than sincere.  Our sardonic remarks and witty quips
about pain in the butt parents or kids can entertain a crowd for hours.  How much fun would we be at the bar on
Friday night if we shared that our job was really all about having an impact
and making a difference?  I can see
the eye rolls even through cyber-space. 
So instead we complain about having to be educators, parents,
counselors, cheerleaders, and drill sergeants, all at once.  What we don’t admit to is that the
opportunity to fulfill these other roles is why most of us went into
education–or at least why we stay in it.

            I
feel pleased when I conference with students third term and realize they have
learned what a thesis statement is and where it goes (even it they can’t yet
write one to save their young lives). 
But when a student comes to me Monday morning shaking me out of my
pre-coffee coma because she can’t wait to share with me what she did that
weekend, or when another I don’t even have in class asks for help editing her
seventy page “masterpiece” (that doesn’t have a paragraph indent anywhere
in sight), or when yet another catches me after class to ask for advice about
being bullied, I feel much more than pleased.  The fact that another person trusts, respects, and relies on
me makes me feel a little like a super hero–albeit without the super powers.  Luckily, though, like most people, kids
just want someone to listen to them, and I can handle that even without the
ability to leap buildings in a single bound. 

            I’m
not sharing this as a means of patting myself on my back or putting teachers up
on some grand altruistic pedestal. 
Far from it.  I’m coming
clean about a dirty little secret everyone knows, but no one likes to
admit: people like helping people, not just to make others feel good, but also
to make themselves feel good. 
Teachers happen to have the benefit of being able to do this on a daily
basis, but we all have a little super hero complex, we just fulfill it in
different ways.  Some people choose
careers that impact people, others raise children, others volunteer.  There should be no shame in admitting
we do these things, at least partially, for selfish reasons.  We’re still giving of ourselves for the
benefit of others, we just happen to benefit as well.  It’s a win, win situation.

            Frankly,
I’m quite glad moms choose to tell the amusing horror stories of parenting and
my colleagues and I exchange our most outrageous emails–raw sentiment makes me
squirm a little.  And I’m beyond
elated that my neighbor who volunteers at the local food pantry has not decided
to walk around the condo complex wearing a lycra unitard–lycra unitards make me
vomit a little.  But I’m all for
embracing our inner super hero desire to help those in need, whatever our motives.  I wouldn’t even object to a cool cape.

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Author or Apparition?

           There’s
something strange in your neighborhood…bookstore, so I’m digging deep into my
eighties-baby memorabilia and pulling out my proton pack, not to eliminate, but to
illuminate a phenomenon that seems to be more prevalent or at least more
conspicuous lately: the use of ghostwriters. 
Call me crazy, but when I go into a bookstore (yes, I still go into
actual bookstores, at least I did until they all started closing) and pick up a
book with the name of an author whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past, I kind of
expect that the book was written by…um, that author.  I’ve only recently discovered that is a naive notion.  Because only recently have some very
popular best-selling authors started actually giving credit to the writers
helping them write their novels.

            I
understand the use of ghostwriters is not new.  Politicians, entertainers, and sports stars have employed
ghostwriters to help them write autobiographies and other works for decades.  This makes perfect sense.  We don’t pick up a book by our home
team’s shortstop because we appreciate his sentence structure or
characterization; we want to read his book because of the way he plays ball, or
in my gramma’s case, because his buns look good in those tight white pants
(hey, she’s 87, she can get away with that).  But fiction is a different story.  Writing a novel involves craft, art, and creativity.  If the writer passes off one or more of
these aspects to someone else, who does the authorship truly belong to?  My seventh graders know that taking another
person’s characters or storyline and crafting their own story, without
acknowledging the original creator, is a form of cheating.  But does that mean that if they spend
weeks writing, editing, and revising such a piece, that their name shouldn’t
appear in the heading at all? 
Perhaps books should start having two bylines–a created by and a written
by. 

            It’s
a slippery slope and one that, at least in some cases, seems to stem from the
pressure for some popular authors to produce more books in a year than is
feasible.  Instead of writing fewer
books themselves, they hire someone to help them write novels in the style for
which they are known and loved.  If
that’s the way they want to work, great. 
But it seems to me at that point the second writer should stop being
treated as a ghostwriter and simply be considered a co-writer.  It’s very clear from the book jackets,
though, that this isn’t the case. 
While the names Clancy and Patterson dominate the front covers, their
partners’ names are hidden in microscopic font.  It makes me wonder what’s really being sold, their writing
or their name.  Are authors going
the way of designers, whose names on a product represent a style, or a brand,
and not an actual creation by the artist? 
And if the stories are still compelling and the style still palatable,
should we as readers care?

            Part
of me says no.  I’ve always read
what I liked, even if it was scorned for being commercial, or childish, or a
bit smutty.  Another part of me,
the part of me that’s spent more hours than I care to admit working on writing
two novels this year, screams yes! 
There are very few aspects of our culture that haven’t been cheapened by
commercialization.  It’s bad enough
we feel the need to take every great book and make it into a movie or
television series, but at least, for the most part, these are grounded in works
by authors who set out to tell a story through the art of their imagination and
the craft of their writing.  As
writer, English teacher, and bibliophile, I’d like to keep all books this
pure.  As an amateur, I may have no
place giving advice to authors who have had books on the best-seller list since
before I could read, but I going to anyways: if you want to write, write.  Write to entertain, to amaze, to
teach.  Write because it’s a
passion that resides in your soul. 
If you want to make over a hundred million dollars slapping your name on
things, go sell some expensive jeans.

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Here’s to Hoping

            Being
born in 1980 puts me at the tail end of Generation X.  Unlike my Greatest Generation grandparents, known for their
patriotism and work ethic, or my Boomer parents, whose generation was known for being free-spirited activists, my generation had the happy reputation of
being cynical about the world we grew up in, but too lazy or apathetic to do
anything about it.  As a bit of a
dreamer, a naïve optimist, I’d like to think I had eschewed such an attitude as
a teen and young adult.  Looking
back, I know I had not.  I had
pages of notes on how to fix the world, but scoffed when my high school history
teacher suggested my argumentative classmates and I go into politics.  Politicians were corrupt, scheming old
men; did he really think that was all we were good for?  Of course, we missed the real message:
if you’re so passionate about change, go out and create some.  Still, when the time came that I was
old enough to vote, I did.  My
first voting experience was the presidential deception, I mean, election of
2000.  It left a bitter taste in my
mouth for all things American or patriotic.

            But
like many people in my generation, September 11
th changed me and my
views of my country.  It was a
defining moment in our lives, the way Pearl Harbor or President Kennedy’s
assassination was for the generations that preceded us.  That night, when I finally pulled
myself away from the horrific images on TV, I went into my childhood bedroom
and did what I had done after nearly every important event in my life; I
wrote.  Too weary to worry about my
verse, I scribbled out two simple, honest paragraphs:

            As
an American, I have always felt I walked with a shield over my head.  I walked in a protective shroud of red,
white, and blue.  Now I feel our
nation wears a target, drawing aim from all the world’s evil and madmen.  Today I felt small, weak, angry, and
numb, all at once.  I felt nothing,
because I could not feel everything such terror causes one to feel.  Today I heard horror and fright in the
voices of those I love, and it only deepened my own horror and fear.  Today I watched people cheer and
children gleefully burn the flag that I revere, and it made me sick.  Does that child really delight in the
crushed skulls and charred flesh of a thousand mothers and fathers, simply
because we live under a flag of certain colors?

            Yesterday
I lived under a flag of steel. 
Today our flag was on fire. 
Tomorrow it will cover the coffins of thousands who were murdered with
such ruthlessness and cowardice. 
And as for the tomorrows to come, the action of the American nation will
determine whether that flag, the symbol of a free and independent nation, will
ever soar triumphant against the winds or forever sag as a sign of what once
was.

             Clearly,
that night I was still doubtful, afraid–but not cynical.  My cynicism had burned away in the
flames that ravished the Pentagon. 
And just a five days later my hope arose like the flag raised over the rubble
of the Twin Towers.  I was back to
writing poetry.

 9/16/01

            And
so we are a nation with a heart of steel,

            A
grade of which will not buckle or blaze in tragic times.

            We
are a people whose hearts are free and determined to fight

            for
that which has been fought for and won so many times before.

            Old
and young rally to the flag and wear the colors with pride.

            What
Monday we took for granted,

            today
we appreciate deeply and cling to so dearly.

            America
is the land of opportunity,

            out
of tragedy will rise heroes.

            Those
who previously pondered, “What’s to come?”

            “Where
have the ‘Greatest Generations’ gone?”

            look
around you, for they are being born.

            Young
boys and men have yielded playing games, and picked up shovels.

            Children
look to their mothers and teachers eagerly,

            “I
am young, but not useless, lead me.”

            And
let us lead them not to a land of fear and unfulfilled promises,

            but
to a land of the Free,

            a
home of the Brave.

            A
week ago, I would have reread my own words from that fall and raised a brow, questioning the
sincerity of such seemingly sappy phrases.  Because in the decade that’s passed a bit of that old
cynicism has crept back in, causing patriotism to be placed back onto the same
shelf as idealistic naïveté. 
Watching the news today, though, reminded me that those feelings were
very real and sincere. 

            This
morning, for the first time in a long time, I really listened to the words I
was saying as I recited the Pledge of Allegiance along with my students, and I
felt honored to have the opportunity to do so.  And when one of my students couldn’t be serious and quiet
for the ten-second moment of silence we observed for the victims of 9/11, I was
furious.  A part of me wished I
could have dragged him back in time to that morning, so that he could
understand what it was like to be twenty-one, and yet feel helpless, useless,
and afraid as he watched the institutions that were the symbols of his nation
be destroyed by hate.  I wanted him
to appreciate, like I now do, how lucky we are to live as we do.  With a few hours of reflection under my
belt, though, the better, more patient part of me hopes he can live out the
rest of his privileged youth never truly understanding what we all felt that
day.  Perhaps his generation will
be lucky enough to escape having a horrific event to unify them; perhaps they’ll
know peace.  And wouldn’t that
truly be the greatest generation?

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