Category Archives: Parenting

Twice Told Stories

My nine year old daughter came home from school a few days ago and told me that she is writing an adaption. It took me a minute, but based on her description — “a story I already know, but different” — I realized she was talking about an adaptation. I was excited to hear her version of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. One of my favorite things in the world is a well-worn story in new clothes.

The new Beauty and the Beast is a great example of the way a retold story can gain resonance for one who already knows the story well. Whereas the animated film from the 1990’s is fun and heartwarming, the 2017 live-action movie gives viewers more to think about.

In this version, a real man is made into a beast as a result of his cold-heartedness, and a real woman restores his humanity through love. But it is the character of Gaston that really got my attention this go-around. Because he, too, is a real person and not a cartoon, his words and actions take on new dimensions in this latest iteration of the classic fairy tale. Played by the Welsh actor, Luke Evans, Gaston has the kind of eyes that crinkle at the edges in seeming sympathy and understanding. He wants Belle because she’s beautiful and smart. That, he says, “makes her the best.” He pursues her with a doggedness that mostly annoys and doesn’t intimidate, and for the first many minutes of the movie, I found myself rooting for the suitor I knew to be the real villain of the story.

But when Gaston assumes the mantle of Belle’s savior, won’t take no for an answer, and is determined to kill the competitor who won his girl’s heart, it is surprisingly jarring, not comical. At least, it was to me. Watching the movie with my daughters, ages 14 and 8, I couldn’t help wanting to say something about Gaston, about the way he was behaving toward Belle, her father, and the Beast.  I wanted to ask my girls if they thought Gaston was funny or scary. If they noticed that he was “beastly” despite how handsome he was. If they could discern where interest ends and obsession begins.

But I held my tongue. I didn’t want to break the movie’s spell. Instead I thought about the importance of story telling in its many forms and versions, in the experience of stories together, in and out of the classroom, today and every day.

Orwell’s Powerful Premonitions

As a fiction reader, I sometimes experience confusion about what is real and what is not real, and this double consciousness can be dizzying — I’m seeing things for the first time, but they don’t feel new to me. I can’t deny that fictional stories have often informed how I experience my real life. When I meet new people or listen in on conversations, read the news or travel to new places, I feel a quickening in my mind as I shuffle through images and impressions of similar people, conversations and places I have read about in fiction.

I was holding back from writing about George Orwell’s postwar novel 1984 because the parallels are so evident and are already being explored by many smarter than I (see the great piece by Adam Gopnik that came out this past week in The New Yorker). But after this week, with the closing of our borders, the proliferation of blatant dishonesty, and the reversal of policies and protections that benefit millions of people, I decided to choose a single passage from the novel to help me illustrate the power of Orwell’s story.

To be sure, Orwell’s book offers a number of resonant passages. Where he explores the internalization of guilt and shame that comes from always being watched and recorded by the Thought Police. Or the systematic way in which the Ministry of Truth disseminates lies by editing, revising, and ultimately erasing history. Or the passage describing the hypnotizing effect of the Two Minutes Hate, when citizens get riled up and furious at a made-up enemy and then slide back into servitude and submission to the nonexistent Big Brother. All feel appropriate.

But I’m going with one concerning Winston’s neighbors, the Parsons. I’m choosing it because of all the things I am confounded by right now, the biggest one is this: when we close our borders, when we villify others, when we reverse laws that were put into place to protect human and civil rights, when we confuse and cajole people into questioning their own ability to discern the truth, I wonder, what are we teaching our children?

The passage goes like this: in the midst of writing his rebellious thoughts in a forbidden journal, Winston is summoned to his neighbor’s apartment to help Mrs. Parsons with her kitchen sink, which is clogged with cabbage leaves and human hair. Her husband is at work but her children are home, and they are both excitable and mean. The nine year old boy sees Winston helping his mother and says, “Up with your hands!” Holding a toy gun, he threatens Winston in a very real way: “You’re a traitor! You’re a thought-criminal! You’re a Eurasian spy! I’ll shoot you, I’ll vaporize you, I’ll send you to the salt mines!”

Mrs. Parsons explains that the children are angry because she didn’t let them witness a public hanging. They are members of the Spies, a state-sponsored youth group, where they have been encouraged to verbalize, and act upon, their every violent and suspicious whim. Winston thinks, “With those children, that wretched woman must lead a life of terror. Another year, two years, and they would be watching her night and day for symptoms of unorthodoxy… It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children. And with good reason, for hardly a week passed in which the Times did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak — ‘child hero’ — had overheard some compromising remark and denounced his parents to the Thought Police.” Indeed, these Parsons children turn in an old man for being old and later turn in their own father who, along with Winston, is tortured and reprogrammed to properly love Big Brother.

In 1984, Orwell chillingly depicts what happens when a pernicious education takes hold of society’s children, and we need to pay attention to it even though — precisely because? — it is fiction. And we need to ask ourselves, what are our children learning from us right now, in real life?

The Devil in the Details

One thing that teachers consistently tell student writers to do is to add details into their writing — details that paint a unique picture and effectively, sometimes even jarringly, communicate an author’s voice and perspective.

Students rise to meet this challenge in varying degrees. But detail is, in the end, the fuel that propels words from ideal to impact and, sometimes, action.

Take the work of Ta-Nahesi Coates, who earlier this fall was named a MacArthur genius and just last week the winner of the National Book Award for Between the World and Me, a memoir-manifesto in the guise of a letter to his son. I bought the book a few months ago but didn’t delve into it until after I heard him speak at Davidson College last week to a packed gymnasium of nearly 4,000 people.

At Davidson, Coates spoke about many things, including the “presumption of black criminality deeply written into the bones of this country.” Hearing him speak about the loss of his friend, Prince Jones, who was killed by a police officer for no reason other than the fact that he was a black male, and the man that police officer was looking for was also a black male, moved me to pick the book up and let Coates’ words wash over me again.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything so tragic as this, or as thoughtfully constructed through detail:

“Prince Jones was the superlative of all my fears. And if he, good Christian, scion of a striving class, patron saint of the twice as good, could be forever bound, who then could not? And the plunder was not just of Prince alone. Think of all the love poured into him. Think of the tuitions for Montessori and music lessons. Think of the gasoline expended, the treads worn carting him to football games, basketball tournaments, and Little League. Think of the time spent regulating sleepovers… Think of soccer balls, science kits, chemistry sets, racetracks and model trains. Think of all the embraces, all the private jokes, customs, greetings, names, dreams, all the shared knowledge and capacity of a black family injected into that vessel of flesh and bone. And think of how that vessel was taken, shattered on the concrete, and all its holy contents, all that had gone into him, sent flowing back to the earth.” (Between the World and Me, p. 82) 

In writing like this there is no shortage of lessons to be learned. First, the need to not only name but also fully describe injustice. Second, the importance of paying tribute to the dead by memorializing the uniqueness of their lives. And third, the lesson of creating impact through detail. Prince Jones, a young man with an infant who will never know him, was a fully realized person who loved science, played piano, and was the recipient of countless other people’s sacrifices.

It’s easy to understand why Coates felt he had to write this book — ostensibly to his son, and certainly in memory of his friend — but also for all of us.

Failing and Rising

Two new books — The Gift of Failure, by Jessica Lahey, and Rising Strong, by Brene Brown — take up the merits of making mistakes and being vulnerable.

Lahey’s book, targeted toward parents, teachers, and coaches, reminds us that we learned best when we struggled through challenges, and that our children and students need to be strong enough to do the same. Brown’s book takes the topic in a slightly different direction, arguing that we grow in significant ways when we act without any guarantee of results, when we allow ourselves to be open to the possibility that we may stumble or never achieve what we set out to.

Both of these books are about coping with discomfort, about reckoning what we hope for with what we have, and I think most adults quickly recognize the merits of their wisdom. But do young people relate? I often hear from my own daughter and some of my students that we (adults) don’t understand how much pressure they feel to never fail, to always be perfect, and to always hew as close to the lines as possible.

I try to really listen when I hear this, and I think back to when I was teaching American Literature. One of the best days of the year was when I took my students outside to lie in the grass and read or reflect on Thoreau’s Walden.  I told them they could get ahead on the homework or lie in the grass and do nothing. It was ok to “waste” an hour if that was what they wanted to do, because Thoreau “wasted” two years and two days just living, observing, and writing, and look what he had to show for it.

Inevitably, some students got down to work and worked for the entire hour. Some stared at the sky, some fell asleep. But all reported a very good time and begged to do it again, which I always meant to do, but never did. Today, I thought about how much good these kinds of low stakes experiences can do in terms of showing young people what we mean when we say that failing and taking risks is not only ok, but sometimes even fun.

Remembering the Blessing of a Skinned Knee

IMG_5847

The endearing summer movie, Inside Out, was more impactful than I expected it to be. As I watched 11-year old RIley navigate adolescence with help from Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust, I was reminded about the importance of discomfort and struggle in achieving growth.

I have read and re-read the research, most prominently by Carol Dweck, showing that when children are praised constantly and often hollowly, they become both immune to the praise and also don’t develop coping mechanisms that build resilience, undermining  character development and growth. As a parent and teacher, these findings can be difficult to remember and faithfully follow. The bottom line is that watching and letting someone struggle with something can be unpleasant—even when we know it’s okay and, ultimately, for the best.

It often takes committed intention to keep ourselves in line with what the research tells us. For example, last week at the beach, my 7-year-old daughter barreled into the mudflats and sliced her toe on an oyster shell. Moments earlier, I had warned her that without shoes, she could get hurt, but she wanted to go for it anyway. I wanted to tell her she couldn’t. But instead, I let her.

She played happily for a full six minutes before she came wailing back to me, pointing to her bloody toe. I quickly assessed that it was only a small cut and told her we’d need to clean it up at home.The fifteen-minute walk home was pretty ordinary. I stayed completely calm and largely unhelpful. She talked and talked about the cut, but also pointed out birds and flowers on the route. She walked; I didn’t carry her and she didn’t asked to be carried. At home, we cleaned the wound together, applied antibiotic ointment, and wrapped her toe in an Ariel band-aid.

It was hard, in some ways, to keep myself from swooping her up, sharing her panic, and trying to lessen her discomfort. But in other ways, it was easy. I knew she’d be fine, and after we fixed her toe up, so did she. As Wendy Mogul, author of The Blessings of a Skinned Knee, wrote, “our job is to prepare our children for the road, not prepare the road for our children.”

Once Upon a Time

Last weekend, I visited Atlanta with two of my best friends, both former English teachers. Susan and Laura have always been like big sisters to me, giving me great advice throughout our 15 years of conversation. We try to spend one weekend every year together, and no matter where we are, we always end up at a bookstore, where we furiously ask each other who has read what, what we need to read next, and what we should leave on the shelf.

This past weekend was no different. The bookstore was Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, GA. We tore through the place, looking for titles the others had not yet discovered. My older daughter and Laura’s daughters were with us, and it was fun to see them being as active in their competition to suggest the best books as we were. We all left the store with more books to read than time to read them in.

It wasn’t until we returned home to Charlotte, though, that my daughter and I noticed the paper bag that our books were loaded into back in Decatur. The front side was plain enough, light blue with a yellow outline of a book and a chair. But the back, we quickly discovered, was both plain and brilliant.

“Chapter One,” it began, “Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome.”

Densely packed type that was easy enough to read covered the bag’s entire backside, listing many of the most famous first lines in the history of literature.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

“All this happened, more or less.”

“I am an invisible man.”

“I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.”

“It was a pleasure to burn.”

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

There are doubtless hundreds of links to lists of “Top Ten Famous First Lines from Literature” being passed along the social media power lines as I write this blog. But seeing these famous lines packed in tight print on the back  of the bag holding our heavy stack of books nearly took my breath away.

Happiness filled my heart — I knew where these lines came from, and so did the person who designed this bag, and so did my friends, and so will our children.

For me, the idea of slipping six news novels onto an e-reader that fits neatly in my handbag has never been terribly appealing. I will always want to see and to hold tangible artifacts like books and the bags we use to carry them. I will always need them to do what only they can do: prove our existence, strengthen our relationships, and secure our legacies.

My daughter’s and my books are waiting patiently on our respective bedroom floors and bedside tables for us to pull them into our laps and minds. The bag sits on the floor of my home office. I’ve already reread it. I think I’ll reread it again now.

photo (5)

In the Neighborhood

On a recent Friday night, my 12-year-old daughter and I wandered through some vintage SNL skits on YouTube before landing on Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood. While I laughed nostalgically at Eddie Murphy’s hilarious and at times outrageous lampoon of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, my daughter was unusually quiet.

I tried to explain to her the humor behind the parody, and the jarring differences between the crude, rude Mr. Robinson and the proper, kind Mr. Rogers, but my daughter’s blank gaze remained unchanged. It was the same expression I see fairly often in my own classroom, an expression that says, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Ms. Flaxman,” if I make reference to something that I think they must know about, but they don’t. Like Dante. Or Milton. Or The Truman Show.

While I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by my daughter’s lack of knowledge about these cultural icons, I couldn’t let it stand. So off she and I ventured into the Internet’s seemingly infinite realm, Googling this and that.

When we finally settled on a clip from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on YouTube, it was as if we had stepped into a time machine and traveled to a foreign yet familiar world. It was impossible not to notice how slowly Mr. Rogers spoke; in fact the entire episode’s action moved at a painstaking pace by today’s standards. Yet it was completely mesmerizing to watch Mr. Rogers entering his house, greeting each of us, changing his shoes, walking into the kitchen, singing, showing us how three very large puzzle pieces fit into three very large holes in a puzzle.

I felt sentimental seeing the old neighborhood again. My daughter, on the other hand, seemed concerned, even a little sad. “He’s all alone,” she said. “And he’s so sweet. Who is he? Does he have a family?”

For a few minutes, my daughter was walking in a neighborhood not her own, in a neighborhood no longer real or often considered, but nevertheless a place she could recognize on some level as home. This could be considered technology’s magic.

Digital Citizens, Unite

I recently had the good fortune to hear Catherine Steiner-Adair speak about how technology affects family, education, and our culture as a whole. I had previously read her book, The Big Disconnect, which helped me wrap my mind around the concept of “digital citizenship” and why it is so important for educators and parents to model.

Digital citizenship is an ever-expanding set of best practices to guide our navigation of the digital world. It is inclusive of things like netiquette, giving credit where credit is due, and creating a positive digital footprint on social media sites and beyond.

While the phrase is no longer foreign to most, Steiner-Adair reminds us to continue the hard work of thinking – and acting – more intentionally when operating in the digital world. Being a consistently “good” digital citizen is not easy,  and we adults have some blind spots that aren’t helping.

For the most part, public dialogue has focused on the intersection of youth and technology as the place where digital missteps most often occur. But Steiner-Adair and a growing number of others urge us – adults, parents, educators – to look in the mirror first when a child does something he or she shouldn’t do while engaged with the digital world.

Were our expectations clear? Did we speak about and teach those expectations effectively? And, most challengingly, did we model the very behavior we expected to see our children emulate?

In her talk last week in Charlotte, Steiner-Adair said some things that were hard to hear. For example, research shows that we don’t just lose empathy for those we are engaging with online – we also lose empathy for those we love most, like members of our own families. When they interrupt us while we are in the midst of digital communication with someone who isn’t in the room, we can be short tempered, even rude to the very people we depend on. She said that she interviewed more than 1000 children about what it’s like to grow up in the digital age – and overwhelmingly, they said that it’s lonely.

How terrible but true that a tool with the power to bring us closer together leaves children – and adults, too – feeling alone . With more attention from the adults who make or enforce the rules of our roads, real or digital, perhaps it doesn’t have to be.

 

Common Sense

I recently received an email from Common Sense Media with a list of resolutions for 2015.

Common Sense Media is my go-to resource on all matters related to technology, education, and parenting, so I read on with interest. The truth is that although I’m evolving, absent their informed advice, my default instinct would be to worry more than may be necessary about technology’s impact on family and education.

Their first resolution was to “focus on the content quality, not the screen-time quantity.” Given the fact that we are dialed in to our devices a good amount of every day, this is good advice indeed. It was their second resolution, however, that really struck me: “Play a game with your kid.”

Such a simple directive – everyone knows that kids love to and need to play– but still, it took me off guard. Do I play enough games, computer or otherwise, with my students and my own children? And is playing a game on a computer or device the same as sitting on the floor with a board game?

When I was little, I always wanted someone to play a game with me. I am the youngest of four and both of my parents were academics, so it was rare that anyone actually said yes to my pleas. But I wasn’t completely relegated to games of Solitaire. My grandmother and I played cards after school sometimes, and to this day those memories are some of my best.

So while I still worry about technology and “screen time,” I have resolved to play more games with my kids and students – the old kind and the new.