May 26, 2016

How not to stop bullying

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 2:43 pm by chavisory

When I saw this story popping up on social media all week, I was uncomfortable with it.  When I heard the author speak on WNYC earlier this week, I got queasy.

I think this mother is wrong.  Not to not want her daughter to be a bully or to say that parents need to be proactive about stopping bullying at its source, obviously, but the way she decided to go about that is teaching some collateral lessons that I don’t think are good ones at all.

It’s not actually wrong to just not enjoy someone’s company and not want to spend time with them.  Someone trying *really hard* to be your friend can be incredibly invasive and draining, and it’s not wrong to be irritated by that behavior.

If this had been a little boy, I’m wondering whether Blanchard would have reacted the same way.  Or whether she’d’ve decided she’d rather teach her kid that she has a right not to have contact or relationships with people she doesn’t want relationships with.

(Same-sex romantic relationships exist, and stalking and harassment and domestic violence occur between same-sex partners as well as opposite-sex ones.  This girl could just as easily have internalized the message that she’s obligated to give time and attention to a female romantic pursuer who won’t take no for an answer.  This lesson won’t necessarily not carry over into someone’s romantic relationships just because this situation was a same-sex interaction.)

I don’t think the other little girl was probably a budding stalker rather than a lonely, over-eager kid.  But that doesn’t mean she has or had a right to another person’s time and attention.  That she does is a dangerous lesson for her to have been taught, too.  That if she’s relentless enough, eventually people will break down and change their minds about not wanting a relationship.

Sometimes a kid might need to be prodded to look more closely at their rejection of a person, at whether prejudice or misunderstanding is at its core.  Sometimes they have utterly correct instincts of discomfort with someone that they can’t verbalize or explain.

Apparently things turned out okay with Bethany.  But a lot of other kids grow up and realize that their “friends” were directed to be their friends by parents or teachers, and that has really not great consequences for self-worth or good relationship skills.  Volumes of writing at this point have also been done on the harm of knowing that you’re somebody’s assigned friend, and how you learn that people are only ever just tolerating your presence, that no one genuinely likes you and that being your friend is an act of charity that you should be grateful for.

“I dug in deeper. I refused to drive her to school the next morning, until she agreed. It seemed that, at least until now, I had the car keys and the power.”

This isn’t anti-bullying, this is an adult demonstrating her absolute power over a child’s choices, and it’s not impressive or endearing, or harmless.  At its heart, it’s just “might makes right.”

“I’ve had a few people say, I don’t tell my children – force my children to be friends with people, but these very same people force their children to brush their teeth, force their children to eat green vegetables.”

That you teach kids to take care of their own bodies is a world away from teaching them that they owe their attention to whoever wants it badly enough.

I was a bullying target, but I also had a couple of relationships in which I didn’t really have choices about whether or how to be in them.  Each of those things did its own kind of lasting damage.  In some ways the effects of being pressured into friendships that other people wanted me to have, have been far more insidious.

It’s one thing to encourage a kid to see past her preconceptions about a dorky classmate (which I say as the dorky classmate) and to give her a chance, or say she can’t be snide to her or be mean about her behind her back.  Maybe she could spend a limited amount of time with her.  Maybe a teacher could get involved in matching the other girl up with another lonely kid.  Maybe there could be a lunch or recess reading or game group so that no one winds up sitting alone if they don’t want to be.  Maybe a kid needs to learn how to say “no” without being a bully, but maybe the other girl also needs to learn to take “no” for an answer.

It’s sad when someone doesn’t want to be your friend, but that doesn’t mean you can just make them be.  Or hound them until their parents get mad and make them be.  There’s no level of popularity at which you owe someone friendship.

There’s such a thing as saying no to a relationship gracefully.  There’s a difference between not being a bully and not being allowed to say no.  Ostracism can be subtle, but I can’t believe that makes the answer “You don’t get a say in who you have friendships with or spend time on.”  And if I have a daughter who comes home one day and says she doesn’t want to be friends with another girl, that will not be my worst nightmare.  It won’t even be close.

It was hard to not have many friends, and to like people who didn’t like me back.  Their total disinterest was a hard lesson to learn, but the very last thing I would’ve wanted in response is for a relationship with me to be seen as an investment or an ATM transaction or a point to be made.  For someone to see indulging my presence as a character-building exercise for their own kid as being my real utility as a human.  For someone else to have been told they didn’t get to say no to a relationship with me.

That’s not what it is to truly be seen as a person.

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April 30, 2015

When schools hate it when kids read

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 6:14 pm by chavisory

gaston

[Image is of the character Gaston, from the Disney film Beauty and the Beast, known for his dislike of girls like Belle reading books, and Belle, whose book he has stolen.]

I used to write more about educational issues than I have been for the past couple of years. Partly due to the fact that as I’ve known more of my own friends who have become teachers, and more parents especially of kids with complex educational needs, my feelings have moderated a bit. So many people are doing the best they can with not enough time or money. Perhaps I’d been too strident. I was actually wondering recently if I might more or less give up the topic. Maybe I was a little bit crazy.

Well, the New York Times has come to the rescue with this story of school districts that require students who opt out (or whose parents have opted them out) of New York’s state assessment tests to sit at their desks and do nothing while their classmates take the exams.

With sadness, I conclude that I was not crazy.

The article details that while many districts have relented to parental pressure and allow test-refusing students to either do other work, read quietly, or go to the library, some are sticking to policies of prohibiting them from doing anything but sitting and staring.

“We were not going to reward them by having them do something that other students may perceive as either fun or more interesting than taking the assessment,” says one superintendent.

Either fun or more interesting than taking the assessment, as in doing other assigned homework or reading a book quietly.

I’m just going to throw this out there, school administrators: If you sound like a villain from a Roald Dahl book, you should possibly reconsider your life choices.

Funnily enough, when this story came to my attention, I’d just been telling a friend the story of how my middle school assistant principal had tried to disallow me from reading at lunch.

It actually started with A., a new student that year, who was sitting at a table behind me quietly reading a book one day, when I overheard her being told to put it away by Assistant Principal Jones. A. complied and didn’t say anything else about it, though I asked her later if what I thought just happened really just happened, and she said yeah, she thought it was really odd, too.

Already a lot of things about the way things were done in this school felt stupid, mean, and unfair to me, but this was above and beyond. Not long afterward, having a book I was eager to finish, and not so much trying to be deliberately snarky but definitely curious as to whether I’d draw the same reaction, brought my book to lunch.

Sure enough, Mr. Jones was along shortly to tell me that I needed to “put that away, young lady.”

It wasn’t a school library book, it was mine, so the objection couldn’t have been that food would get spilled and ruin it, or that I was reading and not eating, because I’d eaten and had my empty lunch cooler to prove it.

And this doubly didn’t make any sense, because Mr. Jones was also the person who, every other day or so, was selecting for punishment whole entire classes of sixth and seventh graders for supposedly being too loud. If we were reading, we weren’t talking, so shouldn’t he be thankful for our not contributing to the noise?

In telling Sparrow the story, I finally figured it out.

He didn’t like us reading because then we were proof that he was just picking tables randomly to punish without a care in the world for whether we’d actually done anything wrong. If we were reading…we were obviously innocent of being part of the discipline or noise problems, and he wasn’t thankful at all because that undermined his excuse-making ability for the bullying and scapegoating he enjoyed. Collective punishment of whole classes was common, and treatment of everyone as guilty was justified because “we can’t always tell who the troublemakers are and aren’t,” but now that was demonstrably not true. And this development was not appreciated.

I know this sounds like childish reasoning, but if that wasn’t what was behind it, somebody else solve this for me, because I haven’t come up with a better answer in nearly 20 years.

(Long story short: Our gifted teacher was enlisted to protest to the principal, and before long there were about five of us participating in defiance, and he actually kept fighting the issue, like we went through two or three rounds of this, but eventually our right to read at lunch without further harassment was established.)

Is it self-evident enough that when school faculty would rather kids actually do nothing than read or be tempted by having to see another kid reading, that something is extremely wrong? I mean I’m just inarticulate at the logic that if they can’t control how you use your time, you won’t be allowed to use it at all…but not disbelieving.

Because the effect isn’t only to not make refusing the tests look attractive, it’s to prevent any kid from showing that they can and will use their educational time more constructively.  And they can’t be allowed to generate any evidence that their time is being ill-used, that they know it, and that they do know how to do better with it.

It’s almost like the people implementing these policies are more interested in safeguarding their own ability to see their students as the problem. Their interests aren’t served by their students’ taking an opportunity to prove that they aren’t the problem, by reading on their own initiative.

Now where have I seen that before?

(I know, I know…somewhere down the line it all comes back to funding. School districts ultimately need kids to take these tests for reasons of funding and school quality rankings.

I humbly submit, though, that when growing percentages of students are saying No, this is not a good use of our time and we’d like to be educated as people, not test scores, that maybe schools should try standing up for their students.)

In point of contrast, my senior year of high school, some new set of standardized tests was introduced for which we were a test group for the state of Missouri, and for some reason that made sense at the time, they had half the class take it in the fall, and half in the spring. This left half of us with nothing to do for four hours a day, for two full weeks. They put us in a spare classroom with only the typing teacher to keep an eye on us, but otherwise left us alone, to do whatever we wanted as long as we could do it in that room and without being heard too far down the hall.

People did homework, or just talked while sitting on the combination desk-chairs in contortions not normally allowed, and I have a vague memory of some Hangman getting played on the blackboard. I finished reading Les Misérables and started and finished The Three Musketeers and I think also some Kurt Vonnegut.

And as much as part of me decried the waste of time that we were required to be there when no one cared what we did, part of me was actually pretty overloaded with AP classes and happy enough for a chance just to read a book which has turned out to have stayed with me in a lot of ways besides being how I passed the time while stuck in a room so half my classmates could take a test run of a test.

I remember The Three Musketeers. I don’t remember one single thing about that test. It’s an absolute blank in my memory.

I’m not making this stuff up, and I wish I were. I don’t actually enjoy being obsessively critical of the American educational system more than anything in the world, but it just keeps going to inane lengths to show that it doesn’t really love it when kids independently demonstrate, like, enjoyment of literacy, or ability to act in their own best interests.

I think it might not be a coincidence that those are things we’re supposed to believe that kids don’t have.

If I can boil anything down from this, maybe something like “If school officials can’t fucking stand the sight of a child reading…there is something else going on, and it’s probably nothing good.”

April 18, 2015

Hair color, hypocrisy, and warped priorities

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 12:05 am by chavisory

So my school district had this policy, too–no unnatural hair colors, including red that was too bright. Kids were sent home under this policy a fair bit and it did not make international headlines.

Emily-Reay_1_3268848b

But aside from just thinking it was unfair and stupid when I was in middle school because I thought people should have a right to self-expression in ways that are harmless to other people, I actually just realized something, while commenting on a Facebook thread about this particular instance, about why it inspired such intense contempt in me for the school personnel upholding it.

The adults making and enforcing policies like this were people claiming that we should look up to and respect them, that they were entitled to our mental time and attention and a huge degree of control over our lives.

But supposed adults who could not deal with a child having green hair…were no way, no how, going to be people who could teach me how to survive in this world or make a life that I wanted to live.  That was a huge signal that the challenges relevant to our lives were…on a different order of magnitude.

Something in me was going “You cannot help me, if you seriously think that this is a big deal and expect me to as well.”  If a student’s loud hair is way outside the range of your ability to cope, if that is what bends you out of shape…you don’t have the maturity or adaptability or the ability to teach them that I need, to put it somewhat mildly.

It really undermined my ability to take those people seriously as grownups, let alone as teachers or authority figures.  It also really put the lie to the claim that so much of what happened in school was necessary to teach “social skills” or ability to work with people different from yourself…when how much clearer could it have been that tolerance for difference was for some people but not others?

September 16, 2014

The innocence and experience of Empire Records

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 3:09 pm by chavisory

The past few years have brought a series of movie and TV series anniversaries that…while I still can’t say I feel old, really put the relentlessness of time into perspective. The X-Files turning 21. The Princess Bride turning 25.

Empire Records turns 20 next year, making it older than I was when I first saw it. A generation of kids who weren’t even born when it came out are old enough to see it now.

This article (which is long, but worth reading all the way through) came up in my news feed recently about the story of its making and total commercial flop in 1995.

I first saw Empire Records when I was 15. I was at summer camp, one of the multiple summer academic programs where I spent my summers as a teenager. And literally all of my friends from the previous year had gotten too cool for me and stopped talking to me. It was the final night of camp, and the movie that had been voted on for everyone to stay up late and watch, was Empire Records.

I asked for it for, I think, my Valentine’s Day present the following year, and my mother bought it on VHS for me. I would name it without hesitation as one of my favorite movies for years, without ever being able to articulate why.

The article is an incredible nostalgia trip, and suffice it to say, the story of the making of the movie sounds almost as much fun as the movie. It’s comforting somehow to know that the cast of the movie were all truly friends, who loved making it as much as we’ve all loved it as we’ve grown up. Things surprised me (Coyote Shivers was Liv Tyler’s stepfather?! And A.J.’s checkered shirt was an “old-man” shirt? I thought it was the sexiest thing I had ever seen, though maybe that was just A.J. in it), and things didn’t (mischief and mayhem on the part of Ethan Embry), but a passage that really gave me pause finally gave me the scaffolding to explain how this became such an important movie to me:

Part of the feel of the film was also lost via Regency’s insistence that it remain PG-13, rather than have the R-rating of the original script; that’s why none of the characters could be shown actually smoking cigarettes or marijuana, why they couldn’t swear like actual teenagers, why Eddie couldn’t run his weed operation on the roof—why they couldn’t, in other words, fully behave like the teens they were meant to portray.

See, I actually have to epically disagree with Petersen and the filmmakers about this. I think it’s an immense strength of the movie that those sorts of depictions were dispensed with.

Because much as I love the movie, it’s not actually because I can particularly identify with any one character in it, as opposed to characteristics and combinations of traits and struggles of multiple characters (Corey’s academic prowess, with a hint of Warren’s resentment and insecurity and A.J.’s artistic ambitions)…and that even if I wasn’t there, the world they inhabited was a world I could inhabit.  (In some ways, unlike the world I actually did inhabit.)

And a huge part of that was the lack of completely rampant drug use and callous language. It’s not even that drug use or abuse wasn’t depicted in the world; it was—in Marc’s spending the day stoned on Eddie’s “special” brownies, and Corey’s admission of amphetamine abuse to keep up with schoolwork. It’s not, by a long stretch of the imagination, an anti-drug movie, but the world in which Empire Records exists isn’t one that revolves around getting fucked up. In some kind of wake of cynicism left behind by Generation X, there was this oppressive sense that real kids with real issues were all doing this stuff—and the movie as it turned out, apparently inadvertently, tacitly rejects that premise.

Because believe it or not, kids of my generation not doing drugs or acting out in those ways actually existed. Teenage culture without pervasive drug use actually existed, and the outlook that “oh this is what teenagers really do, though,” was a hugely alienating aspect of other movies about misfit teenagers for me (like Dazed and Confused, of which I remember not one single important thing).

I would hazard a guess that this aspect has actually contributed hugely to the movie’s long-term success, especially among, as the article notes, an audience slightly younger and more sheltered than that originally intended by the producers. The writing of Empire Records treats the problems and internal life of all of its characters with equal sincerity and seriousness, and that’s something that I really felt the lack of in a lot of media aimed more successfully at Generation X (even in things I did like and identify with in some regards, like Daria). It’s an unabashedly sincere and hopeful movie.

A movie like that, with a PG-13 rating, could be shown for movie night at summer camp, where a desperately lonely 15-year-old could fall in love with a story of hope that belonging somewhere exists. An R-rated movie with all the characters drinking/smoking/cursing for two solid hours, couldn’t.

It’s not an everyday occurrence that I aim heartfelt thanks to the MPAA for its contributions to a brilliant narrative decision, but today I do.

Because the themes of love and ambition, and enforced conformity vs. what it means to find a place where you really fit in the world, are pretty universal to teenagers, but contrary to a lot of mythmaking, pervasive drinking, smoking, and drug abuse actually weren’t. That wasn’t what teenagers all just did.

If Empire Records failed to coherently indict “The Man,” it did effectively undermine something snide and dismissive that had arisen in factions of teen culture, that very much conveyed that you had to be edgy or cynical or damaged enough for your problems or issues or dreams to matter.

Empire Records is exactly the movie it should have been.

empire records[Image description:  The characters Warren, Eddie, A.J., Corey, Jane, Joe, Lucas, Gina, Marc, and Deb sit on a building rooftop at night, under a lit neon sign reading “EMPIRE RECORDS, since 1959.”]

January 25, 2014

Minimum wage discrimination

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 1:16 am by chavisory

I was listening to WNYC on the radio recently, as is my habit in the mornings—to a segment on proposed minimum wage increases in New Jersey.  Part of the argument centered on how to balance the original premise of the minimum wage—that a single full-time worker should be able to afford a home and support a family—with projected costs to business and job creation of an increase.  The host made a suggestion which I’ve heard before—that a possible compromise might be to institute a graduated or split minimum wage, allowing teenagers to be paid a lower minimum wage than full adults or single parents.

This proposal always viscerally disturbs me.  It’s a dangerous message to send to teenagers and young workers, that for no other reason than their age—not the quality of their work—their work is less valuable and less respected.

Aside from that we should be increasing, not decreasing, opportunities for teenagers and young adults to build assets and economic stability, it is an invitation to job and wage discrimination on practically every level.

What exactly is to keep minimum wage employers from hiring only people they know they can pay a sub-minimum wage?  This has every potentiality to backfire and hurt young single parents more, not less.

The rationale behind this is also the exact same reasoning which was once commonly used to justify wage discrimination against women—that because men were more often supporting families on a single salary than women, women just didn’t need to be paid as much as men.  Or, if we’re going to say that teenagers who are parents would be paid a higher wage than teenagers who aren’t, then we’re punishing teenagers who don’t have children before they’re ready for that choice.  If the goal is to convince kids not to have children themselves too young, how can we then justify underpaying them for upholding that ideal?

And if we’re trying to instill in teenagers the conviction that higher education is the way out of being stuck in minimum wage jobs for life, how hypocritical is it to then hobble their every effort to be able to afford to get that education?

It’s engaging in dangerously utopian thinking to presume that working teenagers are only working for movie and pizza money because their parents are sufficiently providing for all of their actual needs—and not that a teenager’s income is quite possibly significantly helping to support their family, that they’re helping to keep younger siblings fed, or are actually supplying most of their own basic needs and transportation costs because their parents can’t.  Or that they’re not a foster kid who’s going to be out on their own the day they turn 18 and are going to need work history and assets in order to not wind up homeless.  Or that they know that their parents are not going to be able to help them pay for college and are trying to minimize their future student loan debt.

Maybe they just want to be able to put down a security deposit on an apartment and get out on their own sooner rather than later.

It’s reinforcing this cycle wherein we infantilize teenagers and young adults by falsely constraining their choices and opportunity, by arbitrarily and prejudicially restricting their autonomy, and then blaming them for the results when they can’t afford to start independent lives.  At the same time as we ponder whether young adults’ failure to buy homes, get married, build savings, and have children means that they’re cognitively incomplete, or “emerging” adults, rather than that they can’t afford to meet those expectations, we talk openly of further economically disenfranchising them.

What do we even expect if we won’t afford them the decency of the absolute minimum that we’d expect anyone else to consider an economically fair shot?  What are we telling them when we say that they, and their labor, are worth less than that?

The minimum wage should actually be that–the actual minimum that we consider fair compensation for hourly labor, no matter who you are.

December 2, 2013

Adulthood, green bean casserole, and cats

Posted in Reality tagged , , , , , , at 1:03 am by chavisory

“What do you suppose it means?” he asked.  “‘DO WHAT YOU WISH.’  That must mean I can do anything I feel like.  Don’t you think so?”

All at once Grograman’s face looked alarmingly grave, and his eyes glowed.

“No,” he said in his deep, rumbling voice.  “It means that you must do what you really and truly want.  And nothing is more difficult.”

“What I really and truly want?  What do you mean by that?”

“It’s your own deepest secret and you yourself don’t know it.”

“How can I find out?”

“By going the way of your wishes, from one to another, from first to last.  It will take you to what you really and truly want.”

“That doesn’t sound so hard,” said Bastian.

“It is the most dangerous of journeys.”

-Michael Ende, The Neverending Story

I’ve drawn this comparison before, but I was thinking about it again a few nights ago as I made myself a green bean casserole for dinner, for no better reason than that I wanted it and I could.

Life is like Cats.  The Andrew Lloyd Weber musical.

One night when I was nine, my parents were going out to see the touring production of Cats that was in town, and we were getting left with a babysitter.  I whined and begged to be allowed to go see the show—cats were one of my principal obsessions at the time.

“No honey, you don’t want to see this,” my parents told me.  “It’s not really about cats.  You’ll be bored.”

For many years, I tacitly accepted this—that the musical Cats was not really about cats.  I never even questioned what Cats was really about.  Something for adults, and therefore opaque and boring.  Not cats.

Then in my senior year of high school, I took an acting class.  And to give us an easy day one class period after a long week, we got to watch the PBS video recording of the musical Cats.  “Oh great,” I thought, “I’ll finally see what Cats is really about.”

It was a somewhat mind-blowing moment when those actors, in cat suits and gorgeous cat makeup, started to creep onstage.  Because let me tell you something, in case you’re not familiar with the show…

Cats, the musical, is really, literally, about cats.

It isn’t not about cats just because it’s also about life, death, faith, loyalty, and memory.  Like Watership Down isn’t not about rabbits, just because it’s also about persecution, oppression, idealism, and hope.

Likewise, I was told a lot that “Adulthood is not about just doing whatever you want.”  As if the freedom and autonomy to live and work in a way that was acceptable to me was some trivial, stupid thing that I was just going to have to get over.

I decided I would never be an adult, then.  Because if that’s what it meant, that wasn’t something I was capable of.

And then I grew up.

As it turns out?  Adulthood actually is about doing what you really want.

Adulthood really means making your own decisions about what kind of life you want to lead, what kind of person you want to be, what kind of mark you want to leave on the world.  That doesn’t mean that it’s not work, that there are no consequences or costs to those decisions, or that you never have to do anything you don’t want to do, or face things you don’t want to face.  It doesn’t mean that there are no obstacles or hardships.

But the decisions themselves, about what you’re doing on this earth and why—those belong to you.

So that’s how adulthood is like the musical Cats.

For some reason, people tell you that it’s not really about exactly what it is really about.  It’s just that the truth is both harder and better than anyone wanted you to know.

May 25, 2013

The wisdom of Nickelodeon (circa 1991-96)

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 2:34 am by chavisory

I was working on a film shoot a couple weeks ago, and standing around on a break one day, somehow I got to talking with our costume designer and the 12-year-old member of our cast about how much better Nickelodeon shows were in my childhood than they are now.  While I was a little embarrassed to have almost no idea what is even on Nickelodeon these days, he was a connoisseur of vintage Nickelodeon, and we wound up talking about shows like Clarissa Explains It All, Doug, Rugrats, Salute Your Shorts, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, You Can’t Do That On Television, and The Adventures of Pete and Pete.

And one of the things we realized, in trying to figure out why those shows were so cool, and felt so good to watch, even though they were in some ways ridiculously wholesome, was that they managed to make you feel like they were always firmly on your side as a kid.

Although almost wholly non-objectionable in any way, they weren’t family shows.  They were kids’ shows.  They weren’t so much trying to teach any lessons, or make your parents happy, as they were dealing with the world the way that kids actually have to deal with the world, with all of its petty injustice, anxiety, and ludicrousness.  There was lightness in the situations, but there wasn’t trivialization or mockery of kids’ problems.  Adults were not always ultimately right, or even good or well-intentioned like they were in other network family shows.

And as I thought more about it, I realized something else that day.  Those shows weren’t just on the side of kids…they were practically always, as far as I can remember, on the side of vulnerable kids, underdogs, and oddballs.

Compare, for instance, the way Sponge is portrayed in Salute Your Shorts compared to Screech in Saved By The Bell.  When Sponge is called names and pushed around and valued only for his huge memory for random facts, it is actually wrong.  Or Sam the weird neighbor in Clarissa and Skeeter the weird sidekick in Doug compared to Kimmy the weird neighbor in Full House.  The bullies and jerks were the bad guys in those shows, and while you’re still supposed to have compassion for those characters in their own way, they are the actual antagonists of those worlds and you are not supposed to approve of their behavior and join in laughing at their victims.  There weren’t characters who were there to be ridiculed.

Heroes and protagonists of Nickelodeon shows felt dorky and inferior…and it was okay.

And I was thinking about it some more as I was going through an old journal this week (which I almost never do), and re-reading an entry about realizing that the things I’ve tended to really love–music or books or TV shows–were things that made me feel like a person.  Things that I liked okay were things that at least let me feel like a person.

Things that I could never manage to like much at all, even when everyone else around me loved them, tended to leave me feeling like I couldn’t laugh at the characters I was supposed to be laughing at.

Nickelodeon shows never did that.  And while I was warned all too often that the amount of TV I watched as a kid was going to rot my brain, I’m starting to suspect that the more subtle lessons of those shows may actually have been among the most quietly but deeply impactful sources of strength to follow me into adulthood.

(And then there was this.  How many things in life have you really been more afraid of than that?  The top comment reads “This is why we 90’s kids are so intact”…and I think she may not be wrong.)

September 9, 2012

Let’s talk about sex (education)

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 1:21 am by chavisory

So apparently school started again this past week, and (in)appropriately, I ran across this article on Salon.com (Americans Want Sex Ed), summarizing a report from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.  The report presents the seemingly paradoxical findings that while a solid majority of both adults and teens in the United States believe that teenagers should be taught about birth control, and also that anti-abortion leaders should support the availability of birth control, and also that they (teens) themselves have the information they need to avoid unplanned pregnancy…a somewhat scarily large percentage of teens then go on to report knowing little to nothing of contraception methods.

But I suspect that the discrepancy obscures, at least in part, a disconnect between the fairly binary way in which we conceive of what “sex education” can and should be–either abstinence only or abstinence plus safety and contraception–and the nuances of students’ real lives, or how well what students are taught about contraception does or doesn’t match up with how they really need or want to be educated about sexual relationships.

If, for instance, you’re a 15-year-old lesbian, it may be true that you know what you need to about contraception at the moment even if that isn’t very much.  Or if you’ve genuinely decided to wait for sex–till marriage or just till you’re older–you might not be wrong that you don’t need to know everything about possible contraception methods right this minute.  Or if you’re on the asexuality spectrum and not seeking a sexual relationship…this information might not be taking up space on your hard drive, but you know where to find it if or when you want it…or if, like some students taking this survey, you’re 12 years old.

Or imagine how profoundly unhelpful a group role-playing game full of scare tactics about the dangers of promiscuity is to someone desperately trying to figure out how to have one good, safe, physical relationship.

It’s also easy to mistakenly think you know everything it’s possible to know, when what you don’t know is what you aren’t being taught.

I was, probably unsurprisingly, one of the kids who thought that I knew what I needed to know.  I’d been through fairly decent classes on what to expect from puberty.  I’d been given information on available contraception.  (In a totally brilliant move on my mother’s part, one day she had picked me up Seventeen magazine’s Environment Special Issue, which she said she thought I’d enjoy, environmental activism being my primary obsession at the time.  It also had Your Complete Guide to Contraception in the back of the issue.  It was years before I realized that handing that over had probably been deliberate and not an oversight on her part.)  I was a biology wonk and already knew more about disease transmission and risk than what was in the health class videos and graphic slide shows.

And, for reasons that turned out to be a good deal more complicated than I even thought they were at the time, I’d taken a stance that I was delaying sex…pretty much indefinitely.

In this state of affairs, I wound up, despite my protestations that the requirement was insulting, in my school’s “Health and Family Wellness” class.  In which I somehow managed to be continuously stigmatized for the very choices that the class purported to be encouraging, because the ways in which I’d made them did not comport with the core presumptions of What Teenagers Are Like or How Dating Works.  At the same time that I did indeed think I knew what I needed to, as far as what I saw available, I felt this gaping absence of anyone anywhere accurately describing how I actually experienced myself or my desires, and how to build a life or be safe and respected in those things.

Now I look back and know that I cannot have been the only one experiencing this, because people who were not represented as having sexual or romantic relationships worth talking about included gay people, queer people, trans people, disabled people…so also disabled queer people…any kind of gender fluid or gender variant people, people on the asexuality spectrum, or now that I try to think of it, very many people of color or of cultures other than Normal American Teenager.  Let alone any of those people having relationships with each other.

What worked for other people was clearly not going to work out for me, but there were no examples of what would.  Or of how to talk about what was true for you, if that wasn’t what was presumed to be the default.

There’s a quote from Adrienne Rich that I think of more and more often:  “When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.”

So…not getting pregnant was actually not my biggest problem.  The ways in which our school’s sex ed didn’t have much to offer me went way deeper than “I already know all about contraception, this is a waste of my time, and I’d rather be taking art.”  But that was all I was able to express—in no small part because of the poverty of education or language available about relationships, sex, and gender that went beyond the very superficial.  And so I sat in class day after day, feeling more and more alienated from my peers and from how adults presumed I should be treated based on the fact that I was 15 and not much else, being told by unqualified teachers “I’m sorry you think you’re too good to be here,” rolling my eyes at badly produced educational videos, and learning most of what I really knew about love and respect from Mulder and Scully at home alone on Friday nights.  (And I’m not the only person I know who says that I learned what love was supposed to be from those characters.)

How would I have answered a survey question “Do you feel that you have all the information you need to prevent an unplanned pregnancy at this time?”  Yes.  But it would’ve been a stand-in answer for the fact that the question didn’t address anything real in my life.

I can well imagine that if you go to a school in which the name of your sexual identity is literally a bad word (“Don’t say gay” bills have been introduced in both Missouri and Tennessee), or a subject that faculty feel forbidden to address, up to and including when you’re being violently victimized for it, that you might reasonably feel that your ability to name risks and benefits of five different kinds of contraception is a little bit beside the point.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t teach comprehensive information about birth control, obviously, or work to ascertain whether kids feel they have the information they need about it, but I think in the common conception of what sex education is, this is widely thought of as the ultimate question: whether to teach abstinence only, or whether to teach risk management methods.  But even the seemingly right answer to that question is misleading and even counterproductive when contraception as risk management is taught without a bedrock of positive and healthy attitudes about sex, real-life examples of all types of healthy sexual and romantic relationships, a vocabulary to describe what’s true and desirable for yourself individually, and knowledge and respect for your own sexual identity and those different from you.

Without that kind of knowledge, which should be basic and not controversial, I suspect it may be hard for students to draw easy conclusions about whether the health information they have matches up to the realities of their lives.

January 29, 2012

The Darkness of Oz

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 11:47 pm by chavisory

“Teenagers read millions of books every year. They read for entertainment and for education. They read because of school assignments and pop culture fads.

“And there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe despite the callow protestations of certain adults that books–especially the dark and dangerous ones–will save them.” –Sherman Alexie

So I got a Kindle for Christmas.  I hadn’t previously thought that I wanted one, but agreed to give it a whirl…and now that I have it, I really can’t deny its usefulness, even as some features irk me.

I had the prospect of a long bus ride back home in front of me, and had learned the hard way on my trip out to Kansas City that Greyhound’s advertised free wi-fi is actually a deeply unreliable prospect.  A friend had recommended Gregory Maguire’s Out of Oz, the conclusion to the series that began with Wicked.  Though tempted to make that my first download and jump right in, it had been a long time since I’d read Son of a Witch and I barely remembered its plot, I hadn’t even gotten to A Lion Among Men yet, and I was feeling pretty rusty and unmoored in my Oz lore in general, so I figured maybe I’d better start back at the beginning…and read the original, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which, somewhat embarrassingly for a book-loving girl born in Kansas, I never had.

I got the complete original 14-volume Oz series for something like $4.50.   Okay…I started to admit that this Kindle thing could be pretty great.

So, rolling through the desolate wintery hills of Missouri and Indiana, I started reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Baum includes a note at the start of the book:

Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal.  The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations.

Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale.  Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.

Having this thought in mind, the story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written solely to please children of today [“today” being the year 1900].  It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.

My heart sank; I was sure to be in for a fatally boring read, and I had 28 hours ahead of me.  Compelling stories require real threats and real stakes; this was, like, the very first lesson of my college dramatic writing class…in which the movie version of The Wizard of Oz was Exhibit A.

But I was not to be disappointed, because let me just say, for a fairy tale supposedly stripped of nightmare and malice…The Wonderful Wizard of Oz contains a whole lot of death, dismemberment, and treachery.  Most prominent is the origin story of the Tin Woodman, who was once a flesh and blood human being, a poor woodcutter, whose love for a Munchkin girl was resented by the old woman she worked for.  The old woman went to the Wicked Witch of the East, who enchanted the woodman’s axe to kill him off one piece at a time…until having lost all of his original parts and thus lacking a heart, he didn’t die but simply became indifferent to the girl he’d loved.

There’s also the Wizard’s frankly admitted tyranny over the Emerald City and enslavement of its population, the complicity of the “good” witches with this, their rather transparent use of Dorothy as a pawn to regain the power of the silver shoes from the Witch of the West, that witch’s enslavement and abuse of the Winkies and flying monkeys…the field of poisoned poppies is still there, and some other nasty stuff, too…it’s a dark tale.

Even trying to write a children’s story without menace, morals, or survival lessons (if we believe that that’s what he was sincerely trying to do; I’m not actually sure that I do), Baum couldn’t do it.

It’s as if violence and hidden evil are things that must, one way or another, always be addressed in stories for children.  Because children know they exist even as well-intentioned adults attempt to deny them; they live in constant knowledge of their own vulnerability, and so a children’s story that attempts to deny or obscure their reality will always fall flat.

When we believed, as Baum did in his time, that morals and character were being explicitly and consistently taught to children in school, church, extended families and communities (whether they were or not, or what we might think of what kind of morals were being taught, is another story entirely), did writers for children feel less of a need to write explicitly or realistically about these things?  And now that, I think it’s arguable, we feel a widespread anxiety that these things are not being taught to children very well or consistently or at all, do children’s writers again feel an obligation to address them more openly and honestly, even in ways that are graphically, horribly violent?

Ironically, when our culture and educational system overwhelmingly address youth as shallow, technology-obsessed, and morally ungrounded, more compelling writing for children and teenagers addresses them seriously and respectfully as thinking, competent people, capable of astonishing empathy and courage.  Adults who lack regard for children as whole people who think and suffer and deserve to have their suffering taken seriously, can’t give them what worthwhile literature does:  examples of real strength, intelligence, and hope from characters their age.

I think particularly of the heroes of two series that I don’t think it’s unreasonable to predict will wind up as the defining examples of children’s literature of our time: Harry Potter, and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy.

And when I say “teaching morals and character,” I don’t mean talking down to children about these things, but addressing real problems of existence, conflict (including war and murder), conscience, and ethics in the serious way that children actually crave and are capable of handling, which is far greater than we as a society typically give them credit for.

The Wizard of Oz succeeds as children’s literature, not to the extent that it denies or obscures the reality of violence, evil, fear, and loneliness, but to the extent that it utterly fails to.

In her New York Times op-ed from October, “No More Adventures in Wonderland,” Maria Tatar says that we shouldn’t oppose the current dark and serious trajectory of children’s literature, “it is hard not to mourn the decline of the literary tradition invented by Carroll and Barrie….No other writers more fully entered the imaginative worlds of children — where danger is balanced by enchantment — and reproduced their magic on the page. In today’s stories, those safety zones are rapidly vanishing as adult anxieties edge out childhood fantasy.”

But I disagree that there ever was childhood fantasy untainted by adult anxieties.  Enchantment isn’t a balance to danger; it’s bound inextricably with danger.  Great children’s stories are safe zones precisely because they deal with very real adult danger in a safe medium, not because they make it zany or ludicrous.  There is no escapism here.  Good children’s stories are still almost always survival lessons, because there is no need for fantasy or enchantment without the reality of evil and heartache.  Hook may be ultimately contemptible, but he’s not an interesting character unless he’s a truly mortal enemy.

If I look back to the books of my own childhood (rather than the children’s stories I discovered as an adult), of course I’m fond of Goodnight Moon, Make Way for Ducklings, and The Caretakers of Wonder; but the book that hands down meant the most to me then and still does now, is Saint George and the Dragon, Margaret Hodges’ adaptation for children of an episode from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which spares no gory detail of Saint George’s three battles against a nightmarish dragon terrorizing the medieval English countryside.  It’s an enchanting tale, gorgeously illustrated with watercolors of whimsical fairies and English sunsets.  And everyone involved—George, Una’s people, the dragon—are fighting horrifically for their very lives and there’s no pretending otherwise.  (And I tended to identify with the dragon above either of the human protagonists, but that’s another story entirely.)

When Tatar writes that “It’s hard to imagine Carroll or Barrie coming up with something like that. They were as passionate about their young readers as they were about the books they wrote. In 1856, Carroll purchased a camera with the hope of freezing time through his portraits of little girls. By capturing them in photographs, he made sure they never grew up,” she reveals that the style of children’s literature she mourns says more about the prejudices towards children of its authors, rather than the actual needs or character of children or anything about their world.

What happens in a book can’t hurt you.  What happens in real life certainly will, if you have no prior example for how to cope with it.  People who actually respect children and teenagers as people, trust them to use books to learn what they need to.  Abuse, sex, violence, alienation, homophobia, hatred, etc., are things that happen to children and teenagers, and the fact that we think they shouldn’t isn’t enough of an excuse to deny them the emotional resources for helping themselves, and letting them do so privately and in their own time.  That is what good stories, especially the darkest stories, provide: precedent in a safe context for dealing with cruelty, the difference of others, and emotional complexity, rage, fear, and confusion.

“Instead of stories about children who will not grow up, we have stories about children who struggle to survive,” Tatar writes of our most successful children’s literature.  But it was never really otherwise, except in the fantasies of adults.

September 5, 2011

What we’re doing instead

Posted in Cool kids, Reality, Uncategorized tagged , , at 11:59 pm by chavisory

I so, so wanted to like this article from the Times, about what some recent graduates of prestigious universities are doing with their lives during the economic downturn instead of the stable, decently-paying jobs in their career field that just aren’t available.  (Generation Limbo: Waiting It Out)  I so, so almost did like it a lot.  Obviously, we didn’t get past the headline without another cute moniker for the latest crop of highly-educated youth left aimless and adrift by the recession (how many names have we had?  Gen Y, Gen Why?, The Millennials, the Peter Pan generation…I’ve had a couple of ciders and I’m losing track.  What are we now?), but it came so close to hitting a mark of sorts concerning how young adults are coping with this economy, without a heavy dose of the condescension and belittlement that so often accompanies Times articles about the generation that supposedly just won’t grow up.

It’s not the subject matter of this article that I find objectionable, because I’m very interested in what young adults and especially the newest graduates are finding to do right now.

It’s the slight tone of amazement and false levity that’s a little annoying.  A summary of the article could almost have read “Some graduates without corporate jobs decide to not be miserable, live lives anyway, do something creative.”

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my.

Some of the subjects profiled are Stephanie Kelly, who has two underwhelming part-time jobs, but sort of enjoys the spare time she has to cook and write; Amy Klein, who took up a friend’s offer to join a punk band when it was clear that a career in publishing wasn’t going to be forthcoming anytime soon; and Sarah Weinstein, who manages a bar while doing media relations for an animal shelter as a volunteer.

“No career? No prospects? No worries!” chirps the author in summation of the outlook of these graduates who are taking their situation in stride, or doing something unconventional instead.  But this is simplistic and patronizing.  No, there are plenty of worries associated with having no job stability, an irregular income, little affordable housing, no health insurance, and no idea when the economy might really turn around or how long you might be jerry-rigging a life this way.  But you can let them terrify you into paralysis and submission and mope around your parents’ house sending out resumés that may get looked at sometime around 2015, or you can go out and do something–anything–anyway.

“They are thinking more in terms of creating their own kinds of life that interests them, rather than following a conventional idea of success and job security,” says Klein.

This is sort of how it’s always been for people who, for many reasons, can’t find a place in the mainstream or corporate job market.  And I feel for the younger grads who are finding themselves not able to have the kinds of lives they were brought up to believe they should.  And there are definitely bigger problems of economic justice when a significant portion of a highly educated generation just can’t make money.  But that so many are relearning what they can and can’t do without, and what really matters to them, and questioning what kind of life they really want as opposed to what they once just assumed they’d have, I believe has the potential to be a great thing for America in the long run.

“They are a postponed generation,” intones Cliff Zukin, author of a study from Rutgers on the economic situation of recent graduates.  But people profiled in the article like Kelly and Klein…well…they’re not.  Just because they’re not doing what they might’ve been in a different economic climate doesn’t mean they’re waiting around with their lives on hold, as if the only life worth working for is comprised of traditional job stability, marriage, kids and home ownership.

Life doesn’t get postponed, though certain goals might; life gets lived, one way or another.  Bad economies don’t stop time.

Why should writing, cooking, taking a punk band on the road or doing whatever paid job you can stand to do while you work as a volunteer or activist for another cause be considered stalling on the life path?  Just because it’s a life path that doesn’t take for granted what the upper middle class used to, in the same time frame?  Why is this necessarily considered being stuck in neutral rather than just in uncharted territory?

I’d be willing to bet, for instance, that the day will come when Ms. Klein, whatever she ultimately ends up doing, will be glad for the creative and organizational lessons that she learns on the road with her band, as well as feeling artistically fulfilled.  Because life is funny and resonant and meaningful like that if you’re paying attention.

So godspeed to the young graduates who don’t see a reason to give up and stop living just because their expectations have been knocked around.  I prefer their attitude to that of the experts telling us how stalled and postponed they are.

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