There is always hope and options; bizarrely, we don’t seem to want them.

I’m astounded at the level of ignorance people numbly accept. Never have we lived in an age with so much knowledge and data so easily accessible, yet we want very little of it.

For hundreds of years–no, for thousands of years, education was the coveted goal of nearly all people. To learn to read? Have access to a scroll? Learn beyond the basic numbers? Luxury! Some families would sacrifice all they had just to send one promising child to get an education, hoping he’d bring some of it back to share.

Now, we want only entertainment and sensationalism.
Give us crying teenagers terrified by exaggerated claims of global collapse.
Give us elderly politicians screaming about non-existent cover-ups.
Give us celebrities and journalists telling us how we’re all stupid and wrong.
But don’t give us reports of real suffering where we can help, or solid data about the actual changes in the world.

And certainly don’t give us any hope.

The high schoolers I teach are convinced the world is a horrible place to be. They want no part of it, nor do they want grow old in it. Unsurprising, many are depressed and without hope.

Decades ago I visited Washington DC for the first time and got lost in a less-desirable part of town. The person I was driving with told me to lock the car doors, that the people who lived there were “willfully dumb and dangerous.” I thought that was harsh, and said so. The person pointed out that those under-educated lived within walking distance of the greatest museums in the world, all for free. They could learn anything and discover everything, if they just exerted some effort. But they wouldn’t.

They didn’t want to know.

That was before phones and the Internet, before we could carry the world’s knowledge in our back pocket.

And still we don’t want to know.

We willingly accept only the shallowest of knowledge, and we limply accept the worst of fates. Our youth feel powerless, their only option to whine and throw tantrums at the world. They fight problems that don’t even exist, while ignoring larger issues that truly threaten to swallow them up. They’ve been given hopelessness, and actually believe it. They’ve given up their imaginations, so they can’t imagine better options. There’s little rebellion against the angst they’re handed; they just pocket it and skulk away.

I teach my students a Holocaust memoir, hoping they’ll realize that the hopelessness Gerda Weissman Klein faced was far more real than any manufactured issue-of-the-day, and not only did she survive, but thrived, just like hundreds of thousands of others, and millions of people all over the world today.

We have to flood not only the Internet but the minds of our families, friends, and youth we associate with hope, success, and optimism.

We have to tell them how many times the world was going to “end” over the past so many decades (my husband’s yearbook from the 1980s warned about the impending ice age, and how to survive it). And how none of those predictions have come true. None.

Our kids don’t know this, that we’ve been shaking our heads, rolling our eyes, and sighing heavily for fifty years at these sensational predictions. They don’t know that hope always exists all around them, and that a glorious future still awaits them.

We have to tell them! In our conversations, in our interactions, and in our social media. We have so many options and possibilities for our future, and bizarrely those options are frequently ignored.

Our laziness and easiness will destroy us long before the earth will collapse. That’s one prediction I hope I’m wrong about.

Walls meme horizontal People stupid

 

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

Hoarding your praise doesn’t make it more valuable

When I was asked to be a “responder” for a writers and artists fest our school district hosts each year at the university, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. My daughter had participated when she was in middle school, spending five agonizing minutes reading her writing in front of two “responders,” several peers, and some of their parents.

Thirty people might as well be thirty thousand when you’re thirteen.

Knowing the fragile natures of both writers and middle schoolers—combining the two is Mentos and Diet Coke–I anxiously drove up to the campus this morning, praying that I’d say the right things to these young writers.

The purpose of the fest is to encourage budding artists and writers, to give them a forum to perform, and to receive feedback from professionals such as authors and teachers. Encouragement, not criticism, is the point, because heaven knows sixth, seventh, and eighth graders don’t need any hits to their very delicate egos.

Even love taps can shatter them.

The co-responder in my room had done this for a few years, and gave me excellent pointers as to what to say when the child was finished stammering nervously through their work. Karen Clegg pulled the most wonderful words out of the air, and bestowed them lovingly upon the trembling tweens.

I hoped I could do half so well.

I took notes as the kids read, told them what I liked, read back to them their triumphs (knowing how thrilling it is to hear someone else read your words out loud, in an appreciative way), and thanked them for their time.

After the first session, a mom came up to us during the break and said, “Are you watching the faces of those kids when you talk about their work?”

“No,” I confessed. “I try to avoid that.”

I’m not sure why or how, but quite often I get too much from someone, especially their eyes. While they tell me a few innocuous words, I perceive an onslaught of emotions, stories, experiences, and history. Hopes, fears, frustrations, and joy hit me in the face like a frozen snowball, often when someone’s only telling me something mundane. I’m one of those people who rarely look folks in the eyes, because I’m never sure when that deluge of data may suddenly hit me. It’s easier to just listen than look.

“Watch them,” this mother insisted. “Most of these kids don’t hear such words from adults they don’t know. They devour what you say. Watch them.” 

So when round two arrived, with a new batch of fresh, pimply faces, I tried to concentrate on their expressions, and for the most part it was painful.

Have you ever had the experience of reading your work in public?

Try taking your heart, placing it on a plate, then setting it in front of hungry wolves. The emotion is roughly the same.

One of the readers that round was a tiny boy who puberty has decided it’ll visit later, maybe when he’s 17. He was the scrawny kind of thing that others sit on and don’t even realize it. He could barely look over the podium to see us responders at the table in front of him. Shuffling his pages, he wore a hesitant grin of expectancy, and dove in.

Karen and I were taking turns responding, and Tiny Man was mine. He read with great feeling the beginning of a sci-fi book he was crafting at the tender age of twelve, and later my cohort told me she was relieved he wasn’t hers, because she didn’t know anything about sci-fi. But I’m a nerd.

When he finished in his five minutes, I said, “So I’m sensing themes of steampunk in your writing.” And I looked at him.

His eyes were so bright and enthusiastic that I was startled, and I realized that I was probably the first adult he’d met there who knew what steampunk was. He nodded enthusiastically.

“How much more of your story have you written?”

“I’ve got 80 more pages!” he announced proudly.

“Wow. Took me until I was 40 to get 80 pages. So where does the story go from here?”

I’m sure I went over time with him, as he happily told me the rest of the plot, forgetting about the audience in front of him and the other kids waiting their turn. The boy positively glowed with delight to tell a stranger about his book. 

I could barely look at him, he so hurt my eyes.

For my next turn, a girl stood up, the very picture of thirteen-year-old gangliness. She, too, had been neglected by the Puberty Fairy, and trembled behind the podium, her straight brown hair framing her freckled face, and she began to read. It was essentially two pages of an ode to a special young man who had rescued her from some difficulties in her life, and there I sat, knowing that in a few minutes I’d have to deliver an encouraging critique of her description of a modern-day Thor turned mortal.

When she concluded, and the audience finished applauding, she looked to me with terrified eyes.

I couldn’t look at her for long, but I did manage, “What you’ve written is essentially a thorough character analysis. Most teens wouldn’t be able to see as deeply as you have. Heck, most adults can’t either—” and that’s when I was shocked by her response.

She had teal-tinted braces. How do I know that? Because her face split into such a wide grin that I could see every last tooth.

I wasn’t expecting that reaction, especially considering how somberly she had read her piece.

Unable to watch her anymore, I looked down at my copy of her words and did as I had with the others: read the lines I liked the best, explained what was working well, and what traits as a writer I felt she was demonstrating. I glanced up a couple of times, and nearly choked up.

Have you ever seen a tween grin out of pure joy? It’ll break your heart.

The same thing happened, again and again, and while I tried to make an effort to look at the kids, as my partner did so well, I found it much easier to sift through their pages finding more examples to praise.

At the end of each session, we stood at the front and handed back our notes to their work as they filed out, the kids giving me shy smiles as I thanked them for sharing their writing.

I was nearly in tears at the end. The fact that one of the last writers wrote a poem about her mom who died last year didn’t help much. Nor did parents coming back in to thank us for our words, to tell us that a son never gets such praise from anyone outside the family, or that a daughter is terrified to speak in front of others, and would be happy for the rest of the week.

All I did was listen, intently.

All I did was give 60 seconds of approval.

All I did was make an effort—and occasionally, it really was an effort—to find something to compliment. But there was always something to appreciate.

All I did was pray, “Dear Lord, tell me what this child needs to hear,” then I said those words which came to my mind, and the child nearly exploded in glee and relief.

After, we went to the luncheon where hundreds of middle-schoolers were collecting their food and talking about their experiences, that cute kid over there, and the author Tyler Whitesides, of the Janitor series, who had addressed them.

As I made my way through the noise and gaggle, I knew instantly which kids in the crowd had been “mine.” They waved timidly, offered me careful and happy smiles, and I’d wink back or grin, as if we shared some secret. We were friends.

I admit I shed a couple of tears as I left.

I’d never before realized how just a few words could mean so much, and I worry that I’ve been too stingy with my compliments in the past, as if hoarding my praise somehow makes it more valuable.

I realized that I paid out mere pennies of compliments, but what was received were pounds of gold that those tender teens will carry with them, hopefully for the rest of their very costly teenage years. They’ll need every ounce of encouragement to make it through.

And I’ll try to keep giving them more so that they never run out. Encouragement doesn’t cost me a thing.

“Mrs. Shin’s the only teacher who actually teaches. She’s also the only one who listens.”

~Book 5, Safety Assured Leaving East of Medicetti