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Reading Wonder

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” — Ian Maclearan

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 8.45.07 AMI just finished reading Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, assigned for a SPED class. In my opinion, the above quote encapsulates the spirit of the book as a whole, about the struggle for kindness in the most petty and mercurial of settings: middle school. The protagonist Auggie suffers from a rare, genetic deformity that leaves his face mangled, and Wonder charts his first year at Beecher Prep following years of homeschooling.

The events of Auggie’s school year are described by several child narrators, including Via, Auggie’s sister, sympathetic classmates Summer and Jack, Justin, Via’s boyfriend, Miranda, Via’s friend, Auggie’s bully, Julian, and Auggie himself. Each narrator grapples honestly with the ramifications of Auggie’s physical differences, from the need to suppress visceral, uncompassionate responses to his appearance, to the resentments created by Auggie’s special status. The good, the bad, and the ugly of Auggie’s special circumstances are explored; no attachment to political correctness dilutes the very real and present challenge of being in the world with an unusual-looking face. There are insights to be gleaned from each character:

Auggie…

possesses forthrightness, courage, and charm. Having been home schooled due to frequent surgeries, middle school presents Auggie with a new, formidable  world in which to immerse himself. He excels academically but is predictably subjected to a high quantity of teasing from his peers.

For example, Auggie is at the center of a game called “the plague.” As the rules go, any student who touches Auggie catches it. So Auggie watches as his peers make conspicuous efforts to avoid him. His charm stems from the detached, matter-of-fact resignation he exhibits toward his deformity, and toward the gaping and staring and knee-jerk immaturity that his appearance inspires.

In the opening pages, titled “Ordinary,” Auggie makes plain the severity of his physical differences — “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse” — and makes an equally compelling case for his commonness — “I think the only person in the world who realizes how ordinary I am is me.” I wonder how many children who are marked by visible, defining differences, either physical or behavioral, feel this way, feel regularly misjudged and misread on the basis of what is obvious about their appearance or demeanor, when for them, their differences are simply something to get past.

This disparity between what a person feels on the inside — ordinary hopes, fears, desires, aversions — and projects on the outside — extraordinary physical or behavioral qualities — is a heavy burden. It demands a heightened level of thoughtfulness and empathy from the outside world, and sometimes the world refuses to give it. Circle back to the need for kindness, the mindset that everyone is fighting a battle, that our eyes deceive us, that a second, third, fourth closer look reveals the shared humanity, the ordinariness, of every human being.

Jack…

is Auggie’s best friend. But even for Jack, it takes time to develop the maturity and compassion that Auggie’s differences demand. For example, Jack admits to the reader that he was initially averse to the principal’s request to meet Auggie prior to the start of school. Then, on Halloween, Auggie overhears Jack talking disparagingly to several boys about his obligatory friendship with him. This incident drives Auggie over the edge, emotionally — a shock, when he thought Jack saw the real person underneath the face. Auggie responds by giving Jack the cold shoulder, a shift that bewilders and flusters his friend. Jack asks their mutual friend Summer Dawson for an explanation and she drops him a hint.

Just before Jack and Auggie are assigned to be partners for a science-fair project, Jack puts two and two together. Auggie caught him in a moment of pettiness, smallness, projecting the attitude toward Auggie that he was supposed to have, according to Julian and the popular crowd. This look at himself, reflected through Auggie’s eyes, kills him. Back to science class. Julian tries to get Jack to switch partners, inciting, “You don’t have to be friends with that freak if you don’t want to be,” and impulsively, Jack punches Julian in the mouth. Underlying the punch seems to be Jack’s frustration with himself for trying to be someone he is not. It’s an overcompensating statement that says, “I am definitely not Julian, not a bully.” Needless to say, this action softens Auggie’s resentment toward Jack, and the two boys resume their friendship.

I like the character Jack because he represents a response to physical difference that is at once sincere, good, human, and imperfect. He has moments of selfishness, as evidenced above, but his feelings toward Auggie are sincere and strong. His friendship with Auggie is an honest depiction of a relationship with a person who is different — sometimes it involves hurt feelings, sometimes loyal friends make mistakes, sometimes the differences get in the way. Jack reassures the reader that he/she can also overcome the small, pettier impulses that strike (well beyond middle school, if we’re honest with ourselves), and that authentically embracing others’ differences is possible even for judgmental, selfish, not-always-so-nice folks.

Via…

is another ally of Auggie’s, fiercely loyal but without a resentment-free relationship to Auggie. As Auggie’s sister, just a few years older, Via has born witness to his unusual struggles more than anyone, to the point that her own identity is partially defined by her brother’s special needs. When kids stare, point, or register disgust on their faces, Via feels it by extension. When the janitor at Via’s elementary school calls the home-schooled Auggie by name, it’s an invitation for Via to resettle into the familiar role of Auggie’s sister. Or when she can’t play so as not to disturb her brother after surgery. Or when she sees mom hovering nervously outside Auggie’s bedroom door, and wonders, for her mother’s sake, how many times she’s done that, and then, if it’s ever been her bedroom door. Or when she lies about taking the subway and gets away with it, because mom is distracted.

Via’s is a lifetime of choices, moments, that link her to her brother, which is both a source of great affection and angst. In “A Tour of the Galaxy,” Via writes that “August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun.” Later she recalls a four-week visit to her “Grans” during one of Auggie’s surgeries. For the first time, she experienced normalcy — no Auggie, no one pointing or staring in public. Before she left, Grans let her in on a very taboo secret: she was Grans’s favorite, even more than Auggie. Knowing this meant the world to her, given the galaxy at home.

As much as Via’s self-concept is shaped by forces beyond her control, she demonstrates a strong and consistent ability to step outside of herself, to regard her brother’s problems and her parents’ reactions with a high level of empathy and objectivity. For example, she follows up the comment about Auggie being the sun in their familial galaxy with the admission that her “worst day, worst fall, worst headache, worst bruise, worst cramp, worst mean thing anyone could say has always been nothing compared to what August has gone through…” In “August Through the Peephole,” Via wonders what her brother sees when he looks in the mirror — his face, or the person behind the face? She professes to feeling profoundly sad when Auggie cuts off his Padawan braid, associated with his lifelong obsession with Star Wars. This signal of a desire to conform, of heightened self-consciousness, also signals Auggie’s loss of innocence, perhaps, a lagging insulation from the cold, hard perceptions of others, kicking in Via’s protective instincts and her profound sense of empathy.

What does Via teach us? That sibling relationships are complex, enduring, and deep. And the existence of special needs further complicates things. And we shouldn’t forget the sister, the brother of the kid with special needs. Theirs is a ongoing world of “wonder” (and worry): who am I in relationship to this person? To his problems? What would life be like if…? What can mom and dad deal with today?

Summer…

More than any other character, Summer embodies the spirit of kindness invoked by Ian Maclearan. In “Weird Kids,” Summer admits to befriending August on the first day of school because she felt sorry for him. But what starts as a kind gesture — sitting next to Auggie at lunch — quickly develops into something more mutual. “I keep sitting down with him because he is fun,” Summer writes. When an insecure Auggie accuses Summer of befriending him because the principal, Mr. Tushman, requested it, Summer gets the chance to set the record straight directly to Auggie: She just plain likes his company, and “he was such a good sport about himself.” Summer is curious, open, non-judgmental, and in the end, she benefits from Auggie’s friendship.

Julian…

is, in many ways, the opposite of Summer. Julian is anxious kid, and decidedly unempathetic. He’s a jerk to Auggie for the majority of the school year; to the point that he gets called into the principal’s office for bullying. But Julian gets the last word — his chapters close out the book — perhaps this is the author’s way of asserting that his and Auggie’s stories are deeply intertwined.

On the one hand, Julian has special needs of his own, albeit psychological and behavioral, making it easy to write him off before putting his behavior in context. Julian has nightmares and anxiety issues, and Auggie’s face exacerbates them. In the chapter, “First Look,” about Julian’s first time meeting Auggie, Julian says about the moment he first saw Auggie’s face, “I think I said that word [dude] a thousand times to myself.”

However, Julian’s anxiety about Auggie is separate from his outsized, mean-spirited response to that anxiety, which includes trying to turn all kids in the grade against Auggie, creating “the plague” game, and posting taunting notes in Auggie’s locker. Julian’s tactics don’t work in the end. While he ends up switching schools, Auggie becomes a class favorite after a school camping trip, and wins a big award at the end of the school year. Julian is left to feel embarrassed by his lack of kindness.

Like Auggie, Julian has a chapter called “Ordinary,” in which he defensively claims that despite being mean, he’s just an ordinary kid responding to an anxiety-producing situation in an ordinary way. Julian’s mom encourages him to justify his mean behavior — she’s a member of Beecher Prep’s board of trustees who engages in her own acts of meanness, such as photoshopping Auggie’s photo in the class picture and expressing outrage at Mr. Tushman, the principal, for allowing a “special needs” child in a non-inclusion school. Julian mimicks his mom’s tendency to translate anxiety into anger.

It’s not until Julian spends some time in Paris with his grandmother over the summer that he breaks down and admits that he was in the wrong, that he was afraid of Auggie, that his fear drove him to do unfair, immoral things. His grandmother, who lived through the Holocaust, tells him a moving story about being hidden by a crippled classmate that she had previously mocked. Her admission of similar guilt allows Julian to fess up, and motivates him to change. He writes a letter of apology to Auggie and Auggie responds generously.

So what do we learn from Julian? That angry, intolerant kids are fighting their own battles, ones they don’t know how to handle. That it’s a choice to let one’s fear of someone else’s differences translate into anger and bullying, it’s not something to be justified. That parents set the tone for their kids…and sometimes, grandparents need to intervene!

Wonder

So…Wonder. The title of this book seems so appropriate to the reality of living with special needs — from the wonder of how one individual’s circumstances, differences set in motion an altered reality for so many other people (think Julian switching schools to Via’s identity being defined by her brother), the wonder of the ordinary and the extraordinary being embodied in one person, the wonder of the human body, its strange complexity magnified by having certain limitations, the wonder of how families and individuals push through challenges and overcome tremendous obstacles.

As teachers we are trained to use people-first language, as in, “students with disabilities” versus “disabled students,” as a sign of respect for the humanity of the children in question. But I think the best way to dignify the experience of students with special needs is through storytelling. And Wonder, with its kaleidoscope effect of multiple narrators exploring all sides of Auggie’s story, keeps the reader questioning, and marveling, at the richness and the struggle of an utterly special, utterly ordinary life, fully lived.

Something Simple

Alice Henneman Eggplant CC BY 2.0How shall I describe this roasted eggplant salad — it’s meaty and succulent, with big chunks of sweet eggplant, and it’s got bite, with tangy touches, including pickled red onions, diced feta, and a swig of red wine vinegar.

I wanted to write another post about Teacher Wars, the new book about the history of the teaching profession by Dana Goldstein that I just finished, but the lazy writer in me is having an easier time finding words for roasted eggplant.

What can I say — the history of teaching is intricate, enigmatic, and cyclical, with many of the same debates being tossed around for decades, and many of the same ineffective policies being stubbornly reinstituted in the name of innovation.

Roasted eggplant salad, on the other hand, is just plain good. There’s a saying that we write to experience life twice, which is especially apt for food blogging, I think. Here’s the recipe, adapted from Smitten Kitchen:

Ingredients

2 medium eggplants or 6 small, Japanese eggplants, cut into bite size chunks
4 tablespoons olive oil plus extra
1/2 teaspoon salt
Black pepper
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1/2 cup diced feta
1/2 cup pickled red onions*

Tools

Large mixing bowl
Spatula
Measuring spoons
Measuring cups
Chef’s knife
Cutting board
Sheet pan

*To pickle the red onion, dice half a medium red onion and place the pieces in 1/4 cup cold water mixed with 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, a tablespoon of salt, and 2 teaspoons of sugar. Drain it when you’re ready to add the pickled onions to the roasted eggplant.

  • Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
  • Combine the eggplant, olive oil, salt, and pepper in a bowl. Spread the eggplant evenly on a sheet pan and roast it in the oven for about 25 minutes.
  • Remove the roasted eggplant from the sheet pan and allow it to cool in a large bowl… such as the bowl you started with. Then add the remaining ingredients. Eat with a fork or enjoy on top of toasted bread, rubbed with a garlic clove and drizzled with olive oil.

Empathy As Change & We Are Not Trayvon Martin

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I recently heard Bill Clinton being interviewed on BBC News about his philanthropic work in Africa. When asked whether his poor, Alabama upbringing allows him to empathize with people there, he said that he is proud of his humanitarian work because it comes from a place of empathy, not necessarily of mutual experience.

It was so refreshing to hear someone elevate pure empathy as a foundation for social change. Often, it seems that leading social change requires a certain degree of “street cred”  in the form of a shared connection to the population or situation being served. I recently attended a non-profit gathering, during which several organizations shared their story. They attributed their success to effectively spreading a narrative. The story usually went something like this: I had cancer and I started a mentoring program for kids with cancer; I am Muslim and I started a theatre company to address issues facing Muslim Americans.

This is a beautiful thing.

But what if your struggles/experience/story don’t mirror those of the population you serve? Can you be a credible leader of change? Let’s hope so. It’s much harder to be complacent when experiencing other people’s pain vicariously, through imagination and compassion, rather than through personal experience, is a sufficient call to action. 

This is what I love about http://wearenottrayvonmartin.com.

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What an enlightened, beautiful, and courageous public forum for the pain we ALL feel, as in, all races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, and combination thereof, regarding Trayvon Martin’s death and the racial tensions that surround it.

I think the flood of responses shows how many everyday people of racial or socioeconomic privilege are affected by issues of race, but they don’t typically express their feelings. Why is this? Perhaps they feel uncomfortable or tentative about claiming any part of race-related struggles as their own, for fear of seeming insensitive to their own privilege.

I am not Trayvon Martin. I am a white female. I probably get more welcoming looks in a hoodie than I do in preppy clothes. Like most people, my upbringing, education, and day-to-day adult life defies and embodies stereotypes. I have lived with, been longtime friends with, attended school and church with, been neighbors with, been colleagues with, and supervised by “people of color.” My grandfather’s memorial service disproved the trope that 11:00 on a Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, for someone born long before the civil rights movement in Saint Louis, Missouri.

Growing up in Saint Louis, attending a private high school located in a very manicured, affluent, white suburb, I encountered excellent teachers, some cringe-worthy wealth, some outdated traditions, and some of the most open-minded, well-traveled, and socially conscious people I know. I attended undergrad in another affluent, manicured, and predominantly white neighborhood, but my peers were Egyptian, Indian/Muslim, Nigerian, Chinese, Sikh, Hindu, and Israeli.

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Living in Chicago, segregation is normalized. Racial inequality is one of many talking points in the news, built into segments between inefficient lawmakers or expensive city parking. Riding the el pretty well lays out the situation.

I do not have to make peace with, or normalize the possibility that my skin color might invite violence, legal trouble, or certain forms of harrassment. It would be easy to say that I live in a different world, but the truth is, it is very obvious to me that our society is racially tinged and driven by appearances and stereotypes.

Depending on who I am with, what I am wearing, or what neighborhood I am in, people don’t look at me at all, or they look at me with curiosity, or they look at me with mild hostility. It doesn’t compromise my safety or tangibly impact me in a negative way. But the predictability of such reactions is a subtle, demoralizing reminder that “we” — the heterogenous mix of people that make up a city like Chicago, any city in urban America — go about our business in a state of quiet alienation and mistrust.

As the racial minority in my classroom, I have a glimpse of what it feels like to be judged on small attributes of my appearance, demeanor, or language. For example, pronouncing names correctly on the first day of school can bridge the unspoken racial difference. I am careful to offer unwarranted assistance with say, a reading assignment so that the help is not interpreted racially — otherwise, such “help” might cause a struggling student to shut down. I may consider myself enlightened, I may have diverse experiences, but I am also, unavoidably, a white authority figure. As such, it takes a little more time, a little more effort, and a little more care to build trust.

The polarized reactions to George Zimmerman’s trial, the racially charged criticism of President Obama, the various perspectives on Paula Deen’s racial slurs  — all are public, sobering reminders that race divides us. Apparently, whites, blacks, and all shades in between feel mutually misunderstood, or in the words of Ralph Ellison, “invisible… simply because people refuse to see [them].”

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To get beyond this state of mutual misunderstanding, we need to legitimize empathy and compassion as catalysts of social change, independent of shared experience. They may be abstractions, but they have concrete power.

Check out this story about Viola Liuzzo, the only white woman protestor to die in the civil rights movement. She acted on the belief that civil rights were “everybody’s fight.” For years, the purity of her motives was questioned. The family was finally vindicated when last May, Liuzzo was awarded the Ford Freedom Humanitarian Award, an honor shared by none other than Nelson Mandela.

I have to believe that the prestige of this award, and the magnitude of Liuzzo’s courage, reflects her ability to translate empathy into action, boldly, despite her status as a privileged outsider. For those of us who are not Trayvon, we are still hit hard by his loss, and we can still be part of the solution.

[Photos: Picture called “L’empreinte Digitale Oubliée” from Twistiti’s Flickr Photostream, “Rain on Hand Prints” from jcoterhals’ photostream, “Bean in Black and White” from james_clear’s photostream, “Raised Hand” by feverblue’s photo stream]

Pro Dev, Seriously

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As the school year approaches, those of us in the teaching profession start pondering things like “motivation,” “engagement,” and other intangibles that either invigorate our classrooms with the best kind of energy, or swallow our best efforts.

Hence, August Professional Development!

I was recently required to watch a video on the use of humor in the classroom, including appropriate targets for humor, explicit reasons why humor is important, and suggestions for incorporating humor cues into your planning. This breakdown could easily sound a bit OCD, but I thought it was one of the better professional development topics I’ve encountered.

I remember last year I was reading a teacher’s blog. It made the astute, somewhat taboo assertion that yes, you should care about your students liking you. Obviously, set limits with your students, build a structured classroom environment, set a goal of mutual respect and not personal popularity. Whew. That sounds familiar.

That said, teaching (and learning) are both benefited when students like the teacher. The importance of like-ability is widely accepted when it comes to landing a job or interviewing at a college, so why dance around the issue between teachers and students? What is the best route to like-ability? As demonstrated by Cosmo Brown in Singin’ in the Rain, “Make ‘em laugh…”

To me, the really smart aspect of the humor PD was the suggestion of scripting humor into your lessons, alongside transitions and pacing and other planned elements. This seemingly uptight approach to humor is perfect for the teachers who are more to the point, so to speak, who could most benefit from using humor to lighten the mood. Planned humor may be excessive, but it acknowledges the relationship building skills at the heart of teaching, and the fact that everyone can build these relationships in their own way.

It also acknowledges the importance of being yourself in a position of authority. So much of high school teaching boils down to effectively asserting your authority and respecting students’ sense of independence. One of the best pieces of “professional development” anyone gave me was this quote by Nelson Mandela:

“There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory within us. It is not just some. It is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine we consciously give other people permission to do the same.”

Humor is one, small way to give students permission to “let their light shine” by consciously doing it yourself. To be fair, certain instances of unbridled “self-expression” are not so enlightened — for example, doing a standing split against the door frame and farting in the middle of class, or sitting out a dance class, eating a tub of icing in the corner. These are horrible examples of “letting your light shine,” but I had to end with them. They make me laugh out loud.

[Photo is from Charlottes Photo Gallery on flickr]

A Place At The Table

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 3.18.13 PMI recently watched A Place At The Table, a follow-up documentary to the critically acclaimed Food Inc. This next installation puts a human, American face on food insecurity, piecing together the different causes and manifestations of hunger in the United States.

Sadly, the terms food desert and food insecurity are familiar to most people now. Nonetheless, the filmmakers document the wide-ranging extent of these realities to set the scene: convenience stores are the closest thing to grocery stores in parts of West Philly and rural Mississippi. The source of tomorrow’s meal worries a single mother with a full time job and an extended family living together in rural Colorado. I was surprised to learn the extent to which federal agricultural legislation perpetuates this cycle of hunger.

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 3.20.54 PMThe face of hunger takes many forms: Barbie is a single mother living in Philadelphia. She is shown boiling spaghetti with her two, pre-school age children, explaining that she has recently been laid off and is supporting her family on food stamps. On public transportation, it takes Barbie a total of two hours to buy fresh groceries. She describes her own vivid memories of sphagettios and ramen noodles, and her determination to prevent these memories for her children.

Meanwhile, a mild mannered second grader named Tremonica climbs onto the examining table of a local clinic in rural Mississippi. The lack of accessible, healthy food is affecting her weight. Her teacher is later shown exhibiting “a honeydew melon,” inviting her students to call out adjectives. Tremonica is shown cautiously biting into a juicy slice.

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 3.21.28 PMRosie is a sixth grader living in rural Colorado. It recently came to her teacher’s attention that Rosie’s academic and behavior struggles were caused by hunger. Rosie says that she sometimes sees a banana in place of her teacher. She seems sensitive, excitable, and lonely. Members of her extended family juggle various part-time jobs; they share a messy household. She gives the cameras a tour, complaining about the clutter, then shares her getaway spot in the woods.

How did we mire ourselves in a situation where “honeydew melon” is a novelty and factory-made spaghettios are spilling off our shelves? It’s not that I have disdain for spaghettios. On the other hand, I can’t tolerate people who only eat organic, grass fed chicken.

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 5.24.29 PMEssentially, our government subsidizes food that is making us sick. By allowing packaged foods to be made very cheaply from refined, processed corn products and strong arming independent-minded farmers, the government makes really nasty, unhealthy, artificial junk available to the poor and limits the availability of fresh produce. In addition to being cheap, this food is very addictive from a biological standpoint. The corruption aspect lies in the fact that most food industry regulators started their careers as agribusiness leaders, CEOs of highly centralized, heavily subsidized farm-to-factory companies.

According to this film, the power of food and agricultural lobbyists rivals that of the NRA. Really, now? The manufacturers of food — basic sustenance — qualify as a “special interest group”?

The film shows a clear cause-and-effect relationship between money, fear, and the U.S. government’s perpetuation of food-related health issues. This is demonstrated by a grieving mother who has lobbied Congress about food safety laws ever since her son’s fatal E. Coli poisoning. After several years, her efforts have not yielded any concrete results. Bound by legal concerns, she minces words with the filmmakers, but her reticence speaks volumes about the power of agribusiness. Meanwhile, a pediatrician and a group of women activists lobby Congress for school lunch funds. Congress “does not have the funds” to spend more than $1.00 per lunch.

The filmmakers also make a compelling argument that food pantries are not a substitute for systemic change to agricultural laws. To do so, the issue needs to have more prominence during election season. In the meantime, you can donate or learn more here:

[Flickr photos by Bread for the World’s photo stream and tpmartins photostream]

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