Monday, April 25, 2016

A Spoonful at a Time

Thank you for your kind words regarding last week's post. I didn't realize until later in the week that a friend shared it on Facebook, advertising me as being "amazing," or you better believe I'd have reread again to check for errors. Nothing like a parent being directed to their child's future English teacher's blog & finding misspelled words, comma errors . . . or a wing nut who's ridiculously obsessed with a deceased alcoholic who wrote sad stories. I mean, that would be embarrassing.

On that note, since I hit puberty, the least I have weighed at any point in my adult life is one hundred & twenty-five pounds. For a span of a few months in the spring of 2005, as my second semester in graduate school was drawing to a close, I weighed one hundred & twenty-five pounds. I could wear size six pants. I am not a size six, at least not down south, & not without looking a little emaciated from the waist up.

I wish I could reflect on my time wearing size six pants with more fondness, but I cannot. During this time I discovered that when I am under stress, I get these little spots of dry, red patches on my skin. They are pretty small, usually pop up in inconspicuous places, & don't itch, so not bad on the weird-skin-condition-spectrum. I did pay a visit to my dermatologist when they made their first appearance, as I thought I had ringworm or something equally nasty, but alas, it was just stress.

What is an absolute riot is that I *thought* I was under a fair amount of stress at that time. Graduate school was hard, no doubt. At the end of April of that year, while I was knee-deep in literally hundreds of sources that needed to be cited in APA style (a challenge at the time for this English-degree holding, MLA-at-heart girl), a person who was very dear to me in high school passed away. There was also some personal drama in my life about which I won't expound at this time, but it likely also shaved  a few pounds off of me. It may find its way in a book one day, but for now I'll just say that if I had to dedicate a song to the whole sordid mess, it'd be Britney's Toxic.

So, okay, there were a few legitimate sources of stress in my life at that time, hence my splotches.  I do still see the splotches from time to time, & I'll be honest & tell you I have a few right now, & am amazed I am not covered in them. I laugh at skinny, twenty-something Anna, fretting over writing a couple of papers & having to learn a new citation style. Ha, ha, ha, you thin fool!

I'm going to be taking a graduate course over the summer, which is likely the reason these graduate-school, skinny-pants, stress-splotch memories are assaulting me. It's an online class, & it's only one class, but I am having some intense flashbacks to the last time I was a graduate student, & some of them are not comforting.

In total I am staring down eighteen graduate hours (in English), but they can be earned at a snail's pace of one class per academic year. I can handle that. I can handle that. By agreeing to again become a graduate student, I'll be able to walk in the classroom in the fall & help those who wish to do so earn college credit for freshman level composition courses. Louisiana Tech is so jazzed about me teaching freshman composition for them that they're going to pay my tuition, &, and cut me a (small) check every semester. Stay tuned over the summer for updates on ENGL 500: Teaching College Composition. Stay tuned for the FRYE purse on which I will blow those checks.

The good news is that the class begins in June. Come June, I will have checked a few significant items off my current to-do list. My final semester at Delta, the current thorn in my side, will have ended, grades will have been logged, paperwork copied, stapled, & distributed to the appropriate offices. Done. It's great that this English gig came along, because I am over teaching public speaking.

Come June, I'll also have turned in my summer reading assignments. I sort of love working on them, it's just a matter of finding the time to sit & finish them. I have to be able to concentrate, to hear myself think, when I sit down with them; it's not like mindlessly roaming Facebook or writing this blog or shopping online. I am almost done. I am unsatisfied with the AP Senior assignment, however, & look at it & rehash parts of it once or five times a day.

I've actually done something unprecedented & jeopardized the completion of this month's book club read in order to read significant portions of The Sun Also Rises. Now, the book club is meeting later this week & I believe I will have plowed through All the Light We Cannot See by then, but if not, I can live with my choice. I started reading The Sun Also Rises & I didn't want to stop. It is good, & it also opened up this dark rabbit hole into which I plunged headlong.

I've had more than one panicky moment over the last few weeks about how exactly I am going to address some of the issues raised in the literature I'll be covering. It's adult stuff. Literature contains adult situations, themes, language, etc. I am considering & reconsidering the eyes that are upon me, or that will soon be upon me. There's my own children, obviously. They're getting older & I'm having to think about things a little more deeply than I have up to this point. Reagan is smart & she remembers everything & picks up conversational nuances that sometimes floor me. I am having to go beyond the general rule of not listening to Matchbox 20 while Reagan & Henry are in the car with me because there is one curse word in every Matchbox 20 song it seems. And it's just one, you know, like they knew their target nineties demographic would soon be aging moms driving filthy cars full of loud kids & they wanted to try & cling to shreds of coolness by inserting just one curse word.

As I read & reread these books & plays I'll be covering with teenagers beginning in the fall (teenagers whose parents are paying tuition for them to attend a private, Christian school), I occasionally break out in a sweat (or a new hive!). Somewhere between five & fifteen we go from avoiding foul language in a Matchbox 20 song to reading literature that contains the full spectrum of humanity's sinful tendencies.

I've told you before how I feel about all this. Remember when I wrote about Fifty Shades of Grey, & I said that the initial premise of that story could have been done well, used to tell a story worth telling, namely the story of an abused little boy growing up & confronting his demons in a positive way, rather than dragging the woman he claims he loves into his dark world? Well, in order to tell such a story (which E.L. James does not do, by the way), in order to arrive at the moral, or at least raise a few worthwhile rhetorical questions, sometimes you read (or write about) ugly, ugly stuff.

Sometimes, after trudging through the many sins of the characters in a work, you reach the end & there is no obvious moral. What then? Why is Stanley Kowalski, a brutish alcoholic who rapes his sister-in-law, worth studying? Why was Mr. Kowalski's creator, Tennessee Williams, awarded a Pulitzer for his efforts? The weight of these questions is settling heavily upon my hive-dotted shoulders at the moment.

I am also spending a precious few moments alone with Edie & we are at a bit of an impasse. She's a very stubborn young lady. She is the age I was when I was in graduate school (the first time) & I am trying to write her as she is, with the wisdom (& foolhardiness) of a twenty-something, not as I am, ten years older, married with two kids, broken out in hives & often dealing with other people's urine. I suppose this is another reason my first graduate school rodeo is on my mind. While she's not an idiot, she is young & she will make some mistakes & suffer the ensuing consequences & heartache. I hate it for her, but that's life (p.s.: don't worry too much, I've no plans for a love triangle . . . at this time, that is).  

Essentially I am, as a writer, struggling with the same issue presented by some of the works I'll be covering with high school students, & that is content that is realistic, but that might raise a few parental eyebrows. This is bothering  me enough that I talked to my therapist about it. Okay, not really, but I did ask a few questions of a friend who is also a therapist, but the former sounds better, you know?

The answer, obviously, is to publish anything I write under a pen name. Okay, no, not really. I suppose that try as I might, I don't do such a hot job of compartmentalizing my life, & now I am writing as someone who'll have (at least a little bit of) influence over young minds, beyond those of my own two children, that is. I feel the need for a disclaimer, a label slapped on anything I read with students & anything I might write: Literature reflects life, & life can be horribly sinful & messy at times.

Matthew Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook, says it this way:

Life is not a PG-feel good movie. Real life often ends badly. Literature tries to document this reality, while showing us it is still possible for us to endure nobly.

One thing I have learned from blogging is that it is pointless to attempt to figure out what people might want to read. It's best to write for yourself. I know, that sounds selfish, but it's the fastest way to begin enjoying writing. You'll eventually crave it. You have to try & forget anyone else will read it. Odds are, it'll resonate with a handful of people, because readers, like writers, are human & our triumphs & struggles often overlap, sometimes in ways a writer may've never imagined.

That right there is why my students will read most, if not everything,  they'll be assigned to read. You know for whom Kate Chopin wrote The Awakening? My guess is Kate Chopin.

The Awakening is certainly one that's giving me pause, & I don't know exactly how we'll cover it, but we will & I think it'll be so worthwhile. I read it with the book club a year or so ago, & the immediate response of a few of my book club lovelies was exactly what I'd anticipated: she is selfish. Is Edna selfish? Maybe. It's debatable.

What my students may not know, but will, is more about the world of Kate Chopin. These young women who'll soon be able to vote & go to college & become doctors or lawyers or senators may have no idea why Chopin felt compelled to pen her masterpiece. Is adultery ever praiseworthy? No, but the novel is not, at its heart, about Edna's adultery. Her awakening cannot be neatly summed up by her affair, & I think Chopin wanted to make this clear, which is why Edna's affair is blatantly depicted as meaningless. She loves Robert! If it was about her having an affair, the affair would be with Robert, & (spoiler!) it is not.  

I am toying with the idea of reading 1984 & having a weeks-long discussion about language, followed by reading The Awakening & then a weeks-long discussion about words like feminism. Young women today hear the word & they form various, often ill-informed, opinions about it, but there was once a different sort of feminism that is worth studying. There was once a time when the word actually meant something. The actual need for feminism arose long before the word became part of pop culture, & subsequently thoroughly corrupted. Obviously if I go this route, we'll also be discussing Pride & Prejudice (which they read as juniors, & which I'll be discussing with my juniors), & we may throw in Emma, too, because the book club is reading it later this year because no discussion of the roots of feminism is complete without Jane Austen, who was, despite her affinity for chastity & articulate men in suits (sigh), a radical.

Last Thursday night, I got in bed about eleven o'clock. I did the usual, sitting quietly for a few minutes deciding what I wanted to do: read for book club, read for summer reading purposes, write a blog, write Edie, or grade speeches (I never opt for the speeches, by the way). I realized I hadn't eaten supper. It was kind of a crazy night, which was partly my fault because I'd blown the afternoon reading about Prince while the kids made a few epic messes, so the evening was spent feeding them dinner & cleaning up the epic messes. Some gelatinous substances were involved (in the messes, not their dinner).

I got up & made my decaf & sat down with my coffee, a spoon, & the jar of peanut butter that I had begun working on earlier in the day while reading about Prince. This is my PB of choice right now:

A good friend, whom I met in graduate school, advertised this on Facebook a few months ago & I've been eating a fair amount of it ever since. One serving (which is two tablespoons) has nine carbs & seven grams of protein.

When I was in graduate school, I had a few spoonfuls of peanut butter for supper on occasion. One semester, when I was taking three courses & teaching two sections of Public Speaking as a grad assistant, I kept a jar of peanut butter in my car at all times. 

That I'm sporting a few hives, returning to graduate school, & reverting to my peanut butter jar has me hoping I'll be back in my size sixes soon. Okay, no. That dream died with the birth of my children. Seriously though, when compared with a plateful of food, three or six spoonfuls of peanut butter is not a terrible dinner, health wise. It has a lot of protein. And peanut butter & coffee pair amazingly well.  

I am anxious about how my current labels - mother, wife, book club devotee, pediatric endocrinologist - will mesh with "graduate student," "English teacher," & "woman editing a novel & trying to write another." I am ecstatic that I'll be dropping the "adjunct instructor" label in the immediate future. That'll clear up some space on my desk, & in my head.

Thank you to my friend who slapped the "amazing" label on me. That is humbling; that is daunting. There are few moments when I feel it truly fits, certainly not when I'm sitting on the couch, repeatedly plunging the spoon into the peanut butter jar. That's the other thing about writing, the other thing Chopin & Hemingway & Austen & others nail: be honest. Write for yourself, & be honest. Don't write what you think others want to read; don't present them with a faux version of the author. They eat peanut butter for dinner, too. They troll the Internet for Prince news, too. They will connect with characters who share their struggles, or they will gain perspective from reading about struggles they may've yet to experience. 

This, I think, is the key to teaching high school students, this perspective bit. They don't know yet. They haven't been on the couch with the peanut butter at midnight. They don't pay a mortgage. They don't tearfully pray for their kids. They likely, hopefully, at such a young age, have experienced few days that were endured one spoonful at a time, just enough in your gut to make it through the next hour, the next diaper change, the next tantrum, the next deadline. I thought Chopin's Edna was ridiculously selfish when I was introduced to her at fifteen, but twenty years, one husband, two kids, & a lot of peanut butter later, I don't judge her as harshly. 

I'll end by promising I've no plans to bring trash to the classroom, with the caveat that people have varying definitions of trash. Fifty Shades of Grey is trash, I believe, because it's poorly written & it glorifies abusive relationships. Is A Streetcar Named Desire trash? Is The Awakening trash? Is Lord of the Flies trash? I don't think so, & I am going to spend all summer with the peanut butter jar figuring out exactly how to convince teens (& their parents) I am right. 


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