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December 2009 entries

On a Lighter Note . . .

Gabrielle and I were in the shower together this morning -- this is starting to be a morning habit for her, in her never-ending quest to be a "big girl"-- and she observed, "Momma, I have a tiny butt.  You have a big butt" . . . complete with wide-armed gesture indicating the size of my rear and minuscule pinched fingertips indicating the size of hers.


Sitting in a Room with Death

On Christmas Eve, Michael's grandmother, Theressa, died at age 78.  After suffering with Parkinson's disease and devastating weight loss and despite what seemed to be an increase in strength and vitality, Theressa succumbed to her mortality.

As we sat with her in the funeral home, we couldn't help but reflect on our own deaths.  After all, it appears to be the sole option for the conclusion of life.  My brother-in-law, Adam, takes a matter-of-fact approach: "It's a part of life" he said without so much as a blink.  His wife, Michelle -- Michael's sister-- and I had a rare opportunity for a nearly two-hour discussion about all things crucial to a meaningful existence: love, inner peace, family, faith.  We reflected on the fact that even though Gram Myers was in the room with us, in a casket, we still found it difficult to believe she was dead, that she wouldn't be at the next family gathering.  We realize that some day, we will be the one in the casket, that our children and grandchildren would be exchanging memories as they held our vigil.

And that is scary as hell. 

Of course, neither Michelle nor I -- nor Adam nor Michael -- are ready to die.  That is also, as Adam would say, "a part of life".  We are at the "life" part, not the "death" part.  I can't imagine my children being old enough to attend a viewing for anyone, let alone their mother.  Michelle can't imagine being anything other than a grad student, a newlywed, about to start an internship to complete her degree.

We weren't the only ones thinking about our demise -- after an hour or so, Adam and Michael and "Uncle" -- Mike's uncle Harry, the only son of the Connor siblings (the rest of whom are Mike's aunts and mother) started to plan their wakes -- no silence and hushed conversations laced with sorrow.  Uncle wants a rock band; Adam beer; Michael an Irish wake with music and dancing.  I believe it's only natural to consider our mortality with sitting in a room with Death.   I even suggested copying Morrie Schwartz's living funeral and inviting my friends and loved ones to give their eulogies before I actually die.

I also discovered that I'm not the only one who fears death -- Uncle sometimes can't sleep for wondering, "Is it tonight?  Is tonight the night my heart just stops?"  and even placid Adam admitted to two periods in his life when he had recurring premonitions of his death.  I find myself longing to ask everyone I meet: "What do you think will happen when you die?"  But I refrain -- for no other reason than social constructs limit deep questions in most situations.

The finality of it all is striking.  There will be no more words spoken to Theressa on this earth; there will be no more interactions with her.  It's over.  Done.  The presence of Death should give us pause, should give us perspective concerning our mundane, pedestrian complaints in our daily walks.  Most of the time, we get so upset by things that matter very little in the grand scheme.  It is my hope that, as we lay a shining soul to rest tomorrow, people will be moved to a deeper sense of life, a deeper sense of its sheer fleetingness and fragility.  That those whose lives are interwoven with Theressa's in one way or another, honor her life by living their own with integrity and purpose.

Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

 
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
    and let perpetual light shine upon them.
 

Autobiography of a Face

I just finished reading Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face(1994) -- it, on one level, is the story of the author's struggle with a rare type of cancer at age 9 and her recurring battle with surgically altering her jaw (a bi-product of the cancer).  But, as Grealy's friend and fellow author Ann Patchett says, it is much more because of "the beauty of her language and the complexity of her reasoning".  Having experienced Lucy's story from Patchett's eyes in her memoir, Truth and Beauty, I had a richer understanding of Grealy's adult life, her desperate longing for love and affirmation, her gift of language and the poetic, her contagious personality and wit. 

As I read Lucy's own words, I found that the times in the narrative when she stops to reflect on the significance of a moment, of a conversation, to be the most moving. At one point, she remarks, "Sometimes the briefest moments capture us, force us to take them in, and demand that we live the rest of our lives in reference to them."  What a powerful sentiment -- powerful in its prose and its universal application.  As a poet, she recalls with fondness the moment she was introduced to poetry, to the idea that "beauty was somehow related to mystery" yet "mystery was not just a cause but a natural result of beauty".   Denied the superficial world's beauty in her face, Grealy sought beauty in words, in their precision and power.  At the same time, though, she recognized their limitation, their sheer inability to truly capture the essence of a moment, the essence of love, the essence of beauty. 

Grealy's authentic reflection of her own maturation is captivating.  For example, there are several times in her life, and indeed in all of our lives, when Grealy is blissfully innocent -- she doesn't realize that the potentially terminal illness she has is cancer, despite the no-nonsense approach taken by her doctors and parents.  She understands that her dog and her gerbil died, but it doesn't occur to her until much later that people die, too.  (I can certainly relate to the obsession with death that follows such an epiphany.) 

As Ann Patchett advises in her afterward, Grealy's Autobiography of a Face must be considered for its literary merit: "Read this book twice, and then read it again later.  It will take that much time before you can get past what she went through and come to see the perfection of her sentences."   


Goodbye, Burger King

Wow.  I'm seriously stunned.  A fellow teacher sent me a news item for Gender Studies from USA Today (http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/food/2009-12-20-burger-king-carls-jr-ads-sex_N.htm).  It's about Burger King's latest promotion -- a website featuring a "shower cam" of an unnamed 20 year-old South Londoner.  She wears a burger-themed bikini and you can "watch her shake her bits to the hits" every day at 9:30 a.m.  I confess.  I just watched a few painful moments of the "world's first guilt free shower cam".   The target audience, according to USA Today is "teen guy prime customers" who will appreciate the "triple combo of hot babes, fast food and web cams".

Burger-babesx-large

One "seriously lucky" may even win a date with Burger King's "shower babe". 

And Burger King isn't the only restaurant relying on the age-old adage, "Sex Sells".  Carl's Jr. chains are promoting their new salads with a nearly pornographic commercial featuring Kim Kardashian on their facebook page.  I know I always eat my salad in lingerie and follow my meal with a bubble bath.  Don't you?

As the CEO of Carl's Jr. aptly puts it: "You can say 1,000 times that you have a great burger and no one will listen to you, but if you put a beautiful woman in the ad, they will."  So who cares if we filter pornographic images to the mainstream?  Who cares if we flood our adolescent boys' minds with images of scantly clad, near orgasmic women?  It doesn't matter as long as we sell a burger, right?

I, for one, am done with Burger King.  (And Carl's Jr. if I ever encounter one -- there are none in my area.)  I don't even care that this promotion is for the UK.  The fact that the corporation would endorse such a disgusting idea does it for me.  And I don't say this lightly -- Burger King fries are much better than McDonald's.  Just another reason not to eat fast food, I suppose.


Are Our Schools Failing Boys?

In the very literal sense, the answer to the question, "Are our schools failing boys?" is "Yes."  Nationally, boys account for 70% of the Ds and Fs handed out in schools (Raising Cain-- PBS Documentary).  As an English teacher, I am interested in the gender disparity I observe in my classes.  This year, I am teaching Advanced Placement English Language and Composition at the 11th grade level.  It is a rigorous course which can yield college credit, depending on performance on the national AP exam.  I have 46 students in 4 sections:  12 are boys. 

Research indicates, not surprisingly, reading is on a decline in America.  Additionally, young women read more than young men do.  This difference is becoming what researchers Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky call "a decided marker of gender identity" ("Why Johnny Won't Read").  To put it bluntly, and they do, "girls read; boys don't."   I see this in real time on a daily basis.  My female students almost always balance a novel atop their mountain of textbooks -- an unassigned novel, a just-for-fun novel, a leisure-reading novel.  I can think of 3 males students who regularly read aside from required assignments.  Three.  And bear in mind -- I teach high-achieving, advanced placement kids -- the outliers, if you will.

One of the contributing factors may be -- me.  Well, not just me.  English teachers in general.  English curricula in specific.   As Bauerlein and Stotsky note, "Unfortunately, the textbooks and literature assigned in the elementary grades do not reflect the dispositions of male students.  Few strong and active male role models can be found as lead characters" ("Why Johnny Won't Read").  If we send the message early on that reading is for girls, can we be surprised when boys learn that reading isn't for them?  We add insult to injury with our attempts later in middle school to push "young adult literature" -- typically filled with teenage angst, divorce, drug addiction, and of late, vampire/human relationships.  In high school, we fuel the fire of male literary frustration by insisting on multicultural literature which assumes that if a student shares "the leading character's ethnicity" ("Why Johnny Won't Read") then the student will be motivated to read.  Such multicultural literature has a nearly opposite effect in a school like mine, which is largely Caucasian.  Students stammer and stutter, attempting to pronounce ethnic names and grasp little of the theme or message of the work.

In high school, boys have adopted the posture of masculinity which promotes sports and downplays the arts.  When they are introduced to quality works -- like the ones that fill my AP textbook --  they struggle with the vocabulary and prose style so much that some turn completely off.  And, again, I must stress that this is at the advanced level.  What about the boys who are fed low-quality prose like the many mediocre compositions found in "general English" texts?  It is no wonder that many boys simply turn off, tune out, or act out in English class. 

I suppose, on one level, the question "So what?"  still remains.  Why should we care if boys don't like to read?  Why should we care if boys don't like school?  As New York Times columnist David Brooks posits, the "social consequences are bound to be profound" ("Mind over Muscle").  What has been limiting our success with boys in school, according to Brooks, is our tendency to ignore "innate differences between the sexes" ("Mind over Muscle").  We need to be cognizant of the differences between our male and female students and do something about it.  The latest craze in education is "differentiated instruction" -- accommodating multiple styles of learning to best reach all students -- and the same should apply to gender-based preferences.  As Brooks asks, "If boys like to read about war and combat, why can't there be books about combat on the curriculum?" ("Mind over Muscle").  Perhaps even the prevalence of female English teachers is a factor. 

Well, what can we do?  What can I, a female English teacher, do to reach our boys?  To avoid "failing" them literally and figuratively?  After all, any teacher will tell you it's easy to teach the students most like us.  I've become increasingly convinced that more English classes need to be designed like the AP English Language class that I'm teaching -- it focuses on non-fiction, which boys tend to like (including our next chapter on Sports and Fitness); it teaches step-by-demystifying-step how to reason logically and write effectively, which helps eliminate the misconception that only girls are good at writing; it provides an opportunity for students to develop rhetorical and analytical skills -- skills which appeal to both female and male students. 

I've had the privilege of having some of my current students for the second year now, and I can see an academic maturity in the way that the male students interact with the text in class -- and I know it is not just because they are a year older.  They see a relevance, a pertinence, a significance in what they are doing, and it shows.  They volunteer more in class, they write to me outside of class to continue academic discussions -- in short, they are finding a home in the English classroom.  If only this kind of association could begin at an earlier age -- then we wouldn't be leaving our boys choking on the scholarly dust left behind by our rapidly advancing girls. 


Shamless Plug

I am one of the freshman class advisors this year (can you say "sucker"?) and we are having an Internet-based fundraiser for magazines.  It's quite simple, actually, and since it's the holiday season, it might be a good gift idea.  If you are renewing a magazine, the additional year gets tacked on to your current subscription.

Here is all you need to do:
 
1. Go to www.qsp.com
 
2. Under "Supporters", click SHOP NOW.
 
3.  Enter school account 425003574
 
4.  Shop for renewals or new magazines
 
5.  Enter all information. 
 
40% of your purchase will benefit the Freshman Class.  If you choose to participate, thank you!  :)

The Search for the Perfect Tree

First, we went to a quaint tree farm in Picture Rocks, PA.  Then the search was on!  Gabrielle found the perfect tree:  "Tiny, like me."

Tree1


But we convinced her that we should probably let that tree grow a little more.  Aidan favored the really tall trees, of course.

Tree2


And Michael had way too much fun playing mountain man.  :)

Tree

Eventually, we found the perfect tree for us, and we brought it home.  This year, we used the truck my Mom and Dad gave us -- it was so easy not to have to tie the tree to the top of the Subaru!  And we all know I love any excuse to haul things in the truck! 

For now, the tree is simply decorated with white lights . . . and dinosaur toys, which are "protecting the toy tree" until Advent is over and we can decorate it for real.