I used to think prom was a waste of time and money, but last weekend I realized why we need it (and a sneak peek to book 8)

My inner anthropologist compelled me on Saturday night to go to our high school and witness a cultural phenomenon called “walking out.” At proms in the west, this doesn’t occur. But here in Downeast Maine it’s the event of the year.

Before the prom begins, the juniors (even though all grades were invited) link arms with a friend or date and march out on a catwalk to pose for pictures. In the audience seated below, their family and friends whoop and cheer as the music plays.

It was fun to see my students all dressed up: the muck boots and hoodies swapped out for buttoned shirts and jackets. The stretchy pants and plaid tops traded for beaded gowns and updos.

prom WA taylor and kistin

And the beautifully decorated gym never smelled better—the combination of perfumes and colognes replaced the usual waves of B.O. (Then again, the dancing hadn’t yet started.)

prom picture carissa

But, according to the comments I heard around me before I left, it was all very painful.

“Seventy bobby pins! That’s what’s holding this hair up—seventy. My head’s killing me.”

“Are dresses supposed to feel like your [bahonkas] are going to fall out of them every five minutes?” (If I had my sewing machine with me, I would have taken her to my classroom and made her straps, if only to get her date to stop staring.)

“I already kicked off my shoes. I don’t care what my mom says, I know I should have worn my moccasins.” (Still the dancing hadn’t started.)

PRom pictures madelyn and andersen

“Dude, I spent an hour with a Youtube video trying to figure how to tie this tie.”
“Why didn’t you just order a clip-on from Amazon like the rest of us?”
“What’s a clip-on? Man, that would have been WAY easier.”

prommikaila and friends

“No, I can’t eat anything. My mom rented this tux from Bangor [a two-hour drive away]. She said she’d kill me if I got anything on it.”

(There was a lot of “killing me,” and my inner English teacher was chanting, Hyperbole, Hyperbole.)

Overall, the kids looked great. Girls squealed in delight at each other and their dresses and hair, boys guffawed at their friends, punched them in the shoulder, and told them they looked “sick.” (That’s a compliment, by the way. Took me only a few months to figure that out.)

Another teacher murmured to me on our way out before the dancing began, “They clean up pretty well, don’t they?”

They really did.

A few boys who barely seem awake in my class were bright-eyed and dashing. I almost didn’t recognize a few others without their trademark baseball hats (oh wait–there they are, proving anything can go with a baseball hat if you’re a Mainer boy).

Image may contain: 6 people, people smiling, people standing

Then there was the girls who usually wear torn jeans and apathetic expressions, but were instead smiling shyly with smoky eyes and in gorgeous gowns. There were a few girls I didn’t even recognize in their glamour gear and huge grins.
(And occasional winces, because of shoes. And because of hairdos. And because of dresses which threatened to pop out strategic parts of their anatomy.)

I always thought the school had a lot of pretty girls, but that night all of them had progressed to “stunning.” And the boys were so close to “debonair” it was jarring.

I was surprised at my pride in all of them, especially when I recognized a few of my students strutting on the catwalk. (But calling out “AP LIT POWER!” would have sounded ridiculous.)

prom karli

prom isaac

I have a terrible confession to make: for years I’ve thought prom was a waste of time and money. I seconded the griping of one of my students about his date. “Her mom’s taking her all the way to Bangor to get her hair done. It’s gonna cost $200. For what?”

Exactly. All this effort, expense, fanciness—for what? Some of my own children went to prom, and I made dresses (less than $100) and helped (sort of) with hair, and hoped the dates didn’t spend too much money.

But why bother at all?

Saturday night, I knew why: to let these newly-emerging adults see what they can become.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, standing, ocean and outdoor

No, not some glamorous model on a magazine (but pink mermaid above certainly could be). But that with some effort, care, and attention, they can shine and dazzle.

Sometimes I’m given insights into people—glimpses into who they were before they were born and who they can become later in life. And it’s a good thing those glimpses are rare, because they overwhelm me. C. S. Lewis was right in that we never talk to “mere mortals:”

“There are no ordinary people. It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing

I sometimes see who my students were, and who they can become. It’s staggering. So much strength. So much potential. So much power, wrapped up in these tense bodies of anxiety and worry and worldliness. It’s good for them to see themselves—and each other—at their “best” that none of them knew existed.

To feel, just for one night, the grandeur of what may be.

No wonder their parents were there, proudly taking pictures and cheering. They have glimpses, too, I’m sure. At least they have hope. They sigh and think, “Almost there . . . almost there . . .”

prom nevin

(Uh, Nevin? It’s not “hoodie optional.”)

And as their teacher, it was good for me to see them, too. These are the moments when I think, “There’s still hope for the future. Look at these kids. Don’t despair just yet. Give them a chance to shine like this all the time.”

(NOTE: I didn’t take any of these amazing photos, but gleaned them from Facebook and emails, and my students agreed I could use them.)

[Sneak peek to Book 8: The Last Day]

Cloud Man smiled as he wiped Young Pere’s face, as if he were washing up a toddler. “Chin up. Up, up. Too bad there’s no time for a shave. You grow the most ridiculously splotchy beard. Now, behind your ears . . . And over to your forehead . . .”

Sergeant Beaved, observing the cleaning up of his prisoner, rolled his eyes and turned around in embarrassment.

Young Pere struggled to keep his face from contorting. Cloud Man was the best.

“Now close your eyes. We need to get all that dust off. Why, you’re not as tan as I thought you were. Most of that coloring is dirt. Tsk, tsk. What would you mother say? Oh, I guess we’ll find out soon enough, won’t we?”

Young Pere snorted.

“Now your hair . . . hmm. I think I have a comb somewhere. Ah, here it is! I don’t think I’ve even used this. Let me comb through this . . . It’s as if you haven’t bathed in days, Young Pere.”

“Because I haven’t, Cloudy. None of us have. We’ve been invading Salem, remember?”

“Tsk, tsk. Your hair would be better if it was shorter. Guess there was no time for a decent cut after they released you from the dungeon. We’ll just comb it up and over your ears. Now, let me look at you. Hmm. Guess we need a woman’s opinion. Do they generally consider you handsome?’

“Generally.”

“You might pass for handsome. Ruggedly handsome, since you’re not cleaned up properly—”

“Are you about finished?” Sergeant Beaved interrupted hotly. “Because I’m supposed to bringing him at any moment!”

Cloud Man nodded and patted Young Pere’s hand which still held the unlocked chain together. “I think we’re almost ready.”

~Book 8, The Last Day, coming Summer 2018

Don’t judge me=I’m already feeling guilty

Some time ago I came to the realization that whenever someone throws out the “Don’t judge me!” line, it’s because at some level they suspect that they’re in the wrong, but they’re not ready to admit it, and certainly not ready to resolve it, and would rather that everyone STOP REMINDING THEM about it.

It’s called GUILT, and for some reason we often think we shouldn’t have to deal with that emotion.

My most amoral character agrees:

“Man’s greatest weakness! Guilt, regret, feeling bad about behavior . . . It’s a forced condition, you know, shame about a misdeed. A behavior taught to humans that can, and must, be overcome. Ignore it long enough, it dies away as simple as that . . . Humans abuse themselves. With guilt. With regret. It holds them back, makes them feel as if they owe some duty to others, as if there should be some level of behavior all should aspire to. Well, there isn’t! 
~Chairman Nicko Mal, Soldier at the Door

Well, there is!

And my, do we hate it when someone tries to remind us that the purpose of our lives isn’t to indulge ourselves and hope there aren’t any consequences.

I first encountered this very weak logic back in high school in the 1980s, when punk music hit the US. I had a few friends embrace the culture, dyeing their hair black and using a bottle of mousse each morning to make it stand up straight, putting spikes on every inch of clothing, then scowling when people stared at them.

“Don’t judge me!” I never understood that; they purposely put themselves on display, then didn’t expect people to look?

As a senior in high school I became grunge before Kurt Cobain made a name for himself. I wore holey jeans, didn’t bother with make-up, spent only 5 minutes on my hair (and yes, a few boys commented that I needed to “do something with it”—which pronouncement meant they weren’t boys I’d ever be interested in) and I did so for a purpose. I wanted to prove that I didn’t care about my appearance, but wanted to focus only on trying to get a scholarship (since I hadn’t been the best student for the first 11 years of schooling). Yes, people looked at me–this was the height of preppiness; watch “The Cosby Show” to see how I should have been dressing–and I rather enjoyed it. It was also a good test for my vanity; am I still worthy, even though I don’t “look worthy.” I was trying to make a point, and I made it. Judge me! Go ahead!

Social media has given us even more ways to stand up and be judged, or to scream, “Stop judging me!” Today I read Matt Walsh’s blog on why Christian women should hate Fifty Shades of Grey. I’ll state right now that I think the novel is women’s porn, so I agreed completely with his position.

However, the real lesson is in the comments, as it always is; scattered among the remarks of “Thanks for stating what I always suspected about that horrible book,” were phrases such as, “Hey, nothing wrong with reading about a little sex,” or “So what if I like a little excitement in my books?” and, most common among the dissenters: “Don’t judge me based on what I read! How can you be a Christian and be so judgmental?”

Ah-ha . . . someone’s conscious has been pricked, yet again. If they didn’t feel any guilt, they wouldn’t be justifying themselves, and in the huge social media presence of Matt Walsh, no less. There, for thousands of readers to see, they declare their stance yet demand that no one judge them. How very odd.

Weird Al, Mandatory Fun, Word Crimes, Grammarly

I have no doubt a few grammar Nazis wished they could find a similar uniform.

I see pricks of guilt and judgment everywhere on the Internet, and it always tells much more about the responder than what they respond to. For example, Weird Al Yankovic just came out with a brilliant parody about common grammatical errors, and Grammarly interviewed him about it. Again, the great lesson was in the responses to the interview, because poor Al accidentally used the pronoun “that” instead of “who.”

Oh, there’s no group more self-righteous and unforgiving than Grammar Nazis. (I’ve ranted about them here. Grammar snobs put the Pharisees of Christ’s time to shame.) These responders, instead of appreciating the incredible work of Weird Al, which he shares freely on YouTube so that all of us English teachers can kill another five minutes of class time; instead of being grateful that someone with a greater sense of humor has taken up the grammar cause; no, instead of applauding him, Grammar Nazis vilified him:

“People that know me … people that still haven’t figured out” 😦 And he thinks he’s a grammar nerd. <shaking my head>
[As of this is some kind of special club, and he just violated its most sacred rule.]

I, too, was shocked to see that he used that instead of who. 
[Yes, she actually wrote “shocked.”]

Fortunately there was some reason among the rabble:

Alright, everybody caught the “that/who” error. He’s still a satirical genius. Disagreement with that proposition is dissent up with which I shall not put.

Judgment is everywhere on the Internet, and just as we’re quick to not have people point out our faults, we’re even quicker to point them out in others. I think that’s because when we’re feeling guilty, the fastest way to assuage that guilt is to point out how someone is guiltier than us.

For example, I read an article about a woman who recycles clothing from a thrift store, updates it, then donates it back. I was amazed and humbled to realize she’d done over 700 pieces. I can sew (sort of), but it never occurred to me to use that minimal talent in such a generous and creative way.

Again, the lesson was in the comments. There were plenty of judgments which, I suspect, arose out of guilt.

“Look at the photos—she’s just shortening the hems and sleeves. That’s nothing too special.”
[And yet, still likely more than you did.]

“She’s only taking fat clothes and turning them skinny.”
[And what have you done?]

“As a plus-size woman, I take offense that she’s reducing the amount of clothing that would fit me, making it for skinnier girls. They already have plenty of clothes . . .”
[Seriously, she wrote, “I take offense.”]

And on, and on.

What I don’t think people realize is how transparent they are, how they give the world a telling image of themselves through their comments. Invariably, the more defensive people become, the guiltier they demonstrate themselves to be. I find myself cringing at their responses, pitying them that they’d expose themselves so freely and easily, showing the world their self-centeredness and pettiness.

Oh, he’s not getting out. Trust me.

It’s the old crabs in a bucket. If any tries to climb out, the rest drag it down, until eventually the crabs have torn each other into pieces. We envy others who dare to climb higher, feel guilty that we’re not doing likewise, don’t want them looking down at us from above in judgment, so we drag them back down and tear them apart with our criticism.

Now, I realize that what I’m doing here is also criticizing, on the Internet, and demonstrating my own transparency. I’m judging and doing all of the same things I’m nagging about here. I’m not going to rationalize away my post, but I will draw a distinction: our society is very loath to declare something “moral” or “immoral.” You want to see declarations of “Don’t judge me!” fly? Then make a declaration of what’s right or what’s wrong. Oh, they’ll be coming out of the woodwork like termites exposed to sunshine to come after you.

Yet, this is what we must do:  make evaluations—of products, of ideas, of media, of people—in order to recognize the strengths and weaknesses, the logic and fallacies, the truth and errors, and publicly declare what we have recognized.

And then, this is very important, then do NOT be offended at what comes back at us. If we’re going to be brave enough to take a stand, we have to remain brave enough to let people see us standing there.

As a practicing Christian, I believe wholeheartedly in the Judeo-Christian beliefs of accountability to a higher Being, in following the 10 Commandments, in realizing that life isn’t about getting what I want and when I want it, but in serving others first. It’s crucial for me to recognize what elements in society detract me from pursuing my chosen lifestyle, therefore I not only read about but also comment on those elements.

However—and this is a BIG “however”—we must also be honest with ourselves as to WHY we are making these public evaluations, these statements of “this is bad, and this is good.”

  • Are we doing so because we are truly concerned about the direction of our society, and we want to point out the slippery slopes to help our friends and family avoid them?
  • Or are we critical online because it gives us a sense of superiority?
  • Because we displace our guilt when we shame others?
  • Because we’re merely crabs in a bucket, unwilling to let anyone else rise higher?

And when we decide–and it is a decision–that we are “offended,” we also need to be honest as to why.

  • Has someone pricked our conscience?
  • Demonstrated where we’ve strayed from our personal yardstick of acceptable behavior?
  • Were we looking for a reason to hate “X” or shun “Y” and so we’ve chosen to be offended?

Sometimes we swing that word around proudly, as if being “offended” is some kind of virtue.

Personally, I think it’s a weakness. Years ago I heard someone state this philosophy, and I’ve taken it as my own: “You cannot offend me, for I simply refuse to take your criticism, to see your opinion as overriding my own, to give your hurtful words any room in my mind. If I am right with God, then I needn’t worry about where you think I am wrong.”

(Yeah, it’s a lot like, “I’m rubber, you’re glue; whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you,” but a bit more eloquent.)

I’m not saying I live this philosophy perfectly—I took a beating from trolls not too long ago that really tested my resolve—but I’ve found that when someone says something that threatens to offend me, it’s usually because they’ve knocked something inside of me that I’ve tried to hide, like C.S. Lewis’s proverbial rats in the attic that we’re shocked to discover, but were always there, hiding despite our attempts to ignore them.

Over the years I’ve learned to not blast those “stupid people!” in online forums, but I instead I retreat to my closet, get on my knees, and ask where I should be doing better.

And I’ve also realized that God’s criticism is much gentler, more instructive, and more uplifting than any arguments I engage in on the Internet.

In the meantime, I appreciate those who state boldly their opinions on issues that concern me. Even if they declare, “There’s really nothing wrong with a little bit of porn,” I’m grateful, because then I know who I need to distance myself from in the future.

What you read matters

It is what you read when don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” ~Oscar Wilde

I’ve been thinking about a post I read of a woman bragging about how many books she read over the summer: over forty before she lost count. Since then I’ve noticed many other people claiming they read two or three books a week, and I’m astounded.
Why?
Not because I’m jealous (I’m assuming these women—all mothers—simply don’t sleep), but because I don’t know how they absorb what they read.

But maybe that’s my fault. I don’t read simply to zip through a book. Something inside me insists on devouring, savoring, then regurgitating the story. 
Uh, ok . . . that wasn’t very appetizing, but honestly I can’t come up with a more suitable metaphor.

What I read becomes part of me, of my psyche, and shapes how I view the universe and the minutiae around me. Because of that I’m very selective as to what I read. I know that, like a large soup, this book in my hands will add to the recipe of me, and I want to make sure that I’m not tossing in something unsavory or unsuitable, like a box full of donuts.
That’s not to say donuts don’t have their place (and the gluten-free part of me is now in Homer Simpson-like mode drooling and saying, “dooouughhnuuuuts”).

But a steady diet of donuts is unhealthy. (Oh, how I miss donuts!)

I’ve started many more books than I’ve ever finished. By the third chapter of a novel I decide if I will continue to add this ingredient to my stewing mind because it will expand the flavor or add a unique and unexpected taste, or if I will set it aside because it will taint the entire pot.
About half the books I’ve picked up I’ve put down again after half an hour. Sugar-coated nothingness—or worse, caramel-covered excrement—doesn’t belong in my head. 

I’ve seen many examples of people unconsciously exhibiting what they’ve read. Once I was tutoring a young woman with severe reading disabilities, helping her to learn reading rules she never before mastered. As we slogged through a passage about a young man confused and bewildered and looking for answers, we came upon this sentence:
“He wandered into to the woods to —”

I knew the word was “pray.
But she read the word as “party.”

When I quietly corrected her, she chuckled and said, “Guess you can tell what I was trying to read right before I came today!”
I didn’t ask.

For many years I did the following experiment with my students, to demonstrate how what is on their minds alters how they interpret the world. I divided the class into three sections and had the groups close their eyes. Then I wrote some words on the board, had one group read them silently, close their eyes again, and I repeated the procedure with the other two groups. Each group saw only their collection of words.
I then had all of groups open their eyes and tell me what the word should be that I wrote on the board: r_pe.

One third would say “ripe,” because the words I put on the board were banana, apple, and orange.

Another third would say “rope” because they read the words string, knots, and boats.

That’s when the third group would squirm uncomfortably, because they saw the word as “rape.”
Why?
Because on the board I wrote anger, violence, and power.

I never had a class that wasn’t surprised at how what was most recently in their mind affected the innocuous letters put before them, requiring their interpretation.

So I worry when I see acquaintances posting about books they’ve read, or talking about stories they love, because those were books I set aside. I hope that the rapidity with which they gulped down those words means none of them really stick, but it eventually all comes out.

A friend of mine says she can tell the difference between when her daughter has been consuming Shannon Hale versus Manga. The level of her teenage angst varies drastically, and sometimes the entire family suffers.

When I read something, I read and reread and reread. For a long time I thought perhaps this meant something was wrong with me (aside from my bits of OCD and other endearing neuroses). Even as a girl I read the Little House on the Prairie series about ten times.

But then I ran across this beautiful quote, timely in that this weekend is the 50th anniversary of when this great man graduated to the next world.

“I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.

“The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. We have all known women who remembered a novel so dimly that they had to stand for half an hour in the library skimming through it before they were certain they had once read it. But the moment they became certain, they rejected it immediately. It was for them dead, like a burnt-out match, an old railway ticket, or yesterday’s paper; they had already used it. Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life.” cs lewis

Thank you, C.S. Lewis!
He also expresses marvelously how many of my other friends and I approach books:

The first reading of some literary work is often, to the literary, an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before.

On the other hand, I wonder if those who plow through novels like I tackle a tube of Pringles (blessedly gluten-free!) experience this, again from Mr. Lewis:

“When they have finished the story or the novel, nothing much, or nothing at all, seems to have happened to them.”

You tell ’em, Sean!

(But things happen to me when I eat a whole tube. Ugh.)

I have a few Terry Pratchett books which I’ve read five and six times, only so I can observe how he crafts the story. I watch intently for the tiny crumbs of foreshadowing he drops, savoring his turns of phrase and descriptions that dumbfound me in their creativity. And I laugh at the same spots every time, and I cry at the same places once I realize they are coming.

Somehow, it seems wrong to spend time in a story and not be moved and changed by it.

But perhaps even worse than being not changed, is being changed in all the wrong ways.