Monday, April 3, 2017

Let It Rain

Good morning. 

Well, it's April; she is here. Last week I handed out around fifty copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four which, after we officially lay the Victorians to rest, is how the seniors & I will spend our final weeks together. If you're familiar with the novel you know it's fitting to cover it in April.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. 

It's my hope that one day, in ten or twenty years, a former student of mine will be playing Trivial Pursuit, or be a Jeopardy contestant, or something else equally exciting, & will stumble on a "most famous opening lines" category or something & absolutely nail this one.

March did not go quietly. Last week was a short week at school for me as the high school students were only required to be at school Monday through Wednesday. They were dismissed from school Thursday in order to primp & preen themselves for Thursday evening's banquet; they were dismissed from school Friday so that they might sleep off Thursday evening's merriment.

The children & I were required to be at school Thursday morning; they had class as usual & I spent the morning in an inservice devoted to helping students raise their ACT scores. Post-inservice, I grabbed lunch & then spent the rest of the afternoon alone in my darkened, abandoned classroom reading this month's book club book until the kids were through with their school day. Something traumatic happened as Thursday afternoon unfolded; I will of course tell you more about it momentarily. 

Before I address the trauma, I'm going to bombard you with pictures from Thursday evening because, well, I got all dressed up (in a dress, wearing all the make-up) & that doesn't happen often & also so I can show those of you reading some of the young men & women of whom I've spoken often since meeting them in August. 

Here we go.

I begin with two of the juniors I teach. Readers, meet Corbin & Katie. I teach eight juniors this year who're in Honors English & fortunately I like all eight of them because the nine of us will be together again next year as they progress to AP English.

Below are siblings Jacob & Kaitlin. Jacob is a senior this year; Kaitlin is one of the juniors I teach. Their personalities are as strong & lovely as their obviously good genes. 

Here come the seniors. Let me preface this by saying that I am, oh, maybe 5'7 or 5'8. I wore heels Thursday night, & so what resulted was a fairly tall version of myself, which led to the awful old lady bend thing I did in most of the pictures I took. 

Miss Hannah:

Miss Sarah & Mr. James:

Mr. Luke: 

Miss Aubry (in red) & Miss Francie . . . who look lovely while I appear headed for the nursing home:

Mr. John Mark & Miss Mary Claire: 

Last but not least, my favorite people on the planet a handful of my AP students. 

This is Jack. Jack enjoys sarcasm & reading & has strong opinions about everything what he reads. We do not get along at all & he will not be missed.

This insecure bunch below, from left to right: Matt, Grant, Faith, Sarah, & Jack. They are pretty, yes, but their ACT scores would make you hate them . . . & then their personalities make it impossible for you to hate them & you might find yourself buying them cookies when what you should be doing is forcing them to write another poetry analysis. 

They let me join them even though my ACT brings down our average. 

I didn't manage all the pictures I wanted Thursday night unfortunately. Tomorrow the seniors are taking their class photo; while they won't be coming to school in formal wear, they will be wearing ties (you will be wearing a tie, gentlemen) & ladies will be in dresses so I hope to take more pictures then.  

So, back to Thursday afternoon's trauma. As exciting as my Thursday evening plans were, I had to stay focused & also look ahead to Friday night, which was this month's scheduled book club meeting. In the month of March we read Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale. I didn't read as much as I should have throughout the month but, but, I knew I had a rare Thursday afternoon ahead that would be spent alone & planned to read then, & read I did. 

At this point it's only fair to tell you that if you plan to read The Nightingale but have not, spoilers are ahead. The Nightingale follows two French sisters during WWII. That's right; we read another WWII historical fiction book because, I don't know, we are masochists who like to read books that rip our hearts out & then come together, drink coffee, & share with one another which parts of the book emotionally stunted us the most. 

I can easily identify which part of the book was hardest on me. Let me give you a little background. The eldest of the two sisters, Vianne, lives in occupied France. Her husband is sent off to fight for the French & Vianne & the reader eventually learn he is in a POW camp in Germany, so I wrote the husband off early in the novel. I've read a good many books set during WWII, & I put the husband's odds of ever returning home at around fifteen percent. So, Vianne & her daughter are alone until a German solider named Beck (he has a longer, very German-sounding name but we're going to stick with Beck) billets with them. Do you know what billets means? I think I was familiar with the term before reading the book but it's not a regular part of my vocabulary. Anyway, billet is a term used to describe a member of the military taking up residence in a civilian's home. So, Beck shows up at Vianne's door one day to announce he'll be living in her home. 

When Beck first arrives Vianne's younger sister, Isabelle, is also living in Vianne's home. Thankfully Isabelle leaves not long after Beck arrives. Here's the thing. Isabelle plays a major role in the book. There is a lot of text devoted to Isabelle & her doings during the war. However, I do not care for Isabelle, which leads me to the part of the book that was (is) difficult for me to handle. 

I wish I could talk to Ms. Hannah about her book. I'd like to ask her if she ever considered a different path for Beck, or for Vianne & Beck, because she was writing them into an interesting place, & then she just blows it all to pieces. It is awful, in my opinion. I lost interest in the book after Beck's death (yes, he dies), & while I am still reading & will finish the book in the next few days, a great deal of my enthusiasm for the book died with Beck. I intended to finish the book before we all met Friday night but there was little chance of that after Beck's death, which unfolded for me as I sat alone in my classroom Thursday afternoon.   

Beck is a fascinating, wonderfully written character, in my opinion. He is a gray character, a Professor Snape, if you will, & there is perhaps nothing I enjoy more in literature than a well-written, morally ambiguous enigma of a man. Beck is a German soldier, so that's a strike against him obviously. But should it be? This is the question I kept asking myself as I read more & more of Beck. The more I read of Beck, the more his most interesting relationship with Vianne unfolded, the more I loved him, & the more I hoped Ms. Hannah had grander plans for the two of them. 

A major theme of the novel is, I think, subtle resistance, of doing what you can where you are even if it is not the grandest gesture, & even if the whole world seems to be on fire all around you. All the major characters - Vianne, Isabelle, Beck, etc. - are caught in the middle of the second world war. They find themselves in unthinkable circumstances, & in their own way they each try & help others. Beck goes to town daily & polices the French inhabitants of the town the Germans have overtaken. He is a German solider, after all. He also brings Vianne & her daughter food & wine & other provisions they'd otherwise go without. Then, then, he warns Vianne of the impending deportation of her Jewish friend, & he later secures a new set of (false) identification papers for the Jewish friend's son, whose true identity Vianne is attempting to hide. So, yeah, Beck is not evil. Beck is not Hitler. 

I won't give you all the details of Beck's death. I hate that Ms. Hannah kills him off, & I hate the way it is written. I haven't said a lot about Isabelle, the sister. Many of the ladies at book club love Isabelle, & that's fine. That is their prerogative. Isabelle's part of the novel is interesting, I suppose, & she has her moments, but it is a foolish (& I think incredibly thoughtless, selfish) act on her part that leads to Beck's death & so I'll never be an Isabelle fan. 

I should've known, too. Ms. Hannah's books can best be classified as Women's Fiction. I've read some good Women's Fiction, but it is not the genre to which I speedily run. I actually suggested we read this novel as so many people have told me it is wonderful. As far as Women's Fiction goes, it's fine. I just don't love Women's Fiction & this is something I've discovered about myself pretty recently. In Women's Fiction, often the relationships that drive the story are between sisters (as is the case with Vianne & Isabelle), or a mother & her daughter(s), or two friends. Meh. I need love. I need the German solider who billets with a French woman & the unlikely but powerful relationship that develops & blooms amid the pain & devastation of war.  

Sitting in my classroom Thursday afternoon I had some dark moments. I thought Ms. Hannah had written the one thing I've yet to read in a WWII historical fiction. I thought she was about to pull off something pretty incredible, namely turning a German solider into a romantic lead. I fell in love with Beck, & Vianne was halfway there herself, & then Ms. Hannah *literally* blows it all to pieces. Before I continue, please, if you've ever read a historical fiction about a German solider who billets in the home of a French woman with whom he falls in love, please let me know of that book's title. 

This all brings me back to something I wrote about a few months ago (& some semblance of a point), namely why I write, a question a student asked me that I attempted to answer here. One of my given reasons, if you recall, is the control, the complete, delicious control. I can't control what Kristin Hannah writes. I can't undo Suzanne Collins's decision to kill Finnick. I can't go back in time & explain to Stephenie Meyer that Renesmee is incredibly lame & will forever be a blight on the Twilight series. I can choose what I read, but once I make that choice I am in the author's hands. Some authors are downright abusive. I can control what I write, which is one of the reasons I enjoy it so much. Frustration over authorial decisions that rocked my world can be quite the driving force. 

I've begun a letter I may or may not share with the seniors here in the next few weeks. There's a paragraph that begins with, Understand and accept that the one person you can control in life is you (I promise it's not one long lecture). When things do not go my way, be it in life or in a book I'm reading, I am not famous for my calm reactions. I am so interested in controlling everything (& everyone) around me that sometimes I give not one moment's thought to controlling myself. At our book club meeting Friday night, once most of the food had been eaten & we were heavy into book discussion, I was told that I was stomping at one point. 

As I age I've learned to try (try) & let go of my desire for control (diabetes has taught me a heap of lessons about control). What I take away from Beck is, first, German soldiers: not always terrible. There's a lesson there about labels, in my opinion. Countries are not inherently good or evil; men who rule countries are constantly presented with choices, & those choices often have sweeping consequences. Beck is a good man, in my opinion. 

The second thing Beck taught me, or reminded me of, is that in books & certainly in reality, things often do not unfold as we hope. Even if you're a Debbie Downer & fill your head with one apocalyptic scenario after another, thinking you're preparing yourself, what does actually happen will probably be something you never imagined (like diabetes, for instance). If reading fiction & having kids have taught me nothing else, they have taught me that surprises are inevitable. The only thing you can control is how you react. That's it. It is useless to make a list of who & what you cannot control; it would be miles & miles long. Opt for the shorter list of what you can control: YOU. 

Today was originally designated as the day the seniors would take their group picture. That plan was scraped yesterday due to inclement weather that, while it is out of the area now, left behind wind & mud. I recently showed the seniors Sense & Sensibility, & I'm reviewing The Great Gatsby with my AP students right now as we attempt to cram their heads full of everything they might possibly need to know for their AP Exam. From Austen to Fitzgerald, the greats have always made use of the weather & the infinite ways it can affect & direct plot in fiction. Weather certainly plays a large role in every WWII novel I've ever read, & The Nightingale is no exception. When you're frustrated about something over which you have no control, picture yourself standing outside in a driving rain, face to the sky, fists in the air, yelling. Picture that. You look foolish, right? (I assume you look foolish as I know I do when I insert myself into this little play) You cannot control the weather any more than the people who froze to death inside Leningrad during the siege could warm the temperature by even one degree as they died agonizing deaths. Do what you can do; build a shelter, dig a drainage ditch, get to higher ground & help others do the same. 

I obviously needed to unburden myself after Beck's death, but I thought this would be a nice (read: metaphorical) way to usher April in, what with her infamous showers, & it's something that's been on my mind lately as I watch the seniors lose their heads from time to time over things they cannot control, knowing what frustrations await them out there in the world.

I hope your April is off to a good start. I've got to finish The Nightingale so I can begin reading April's book, Fried Green Tomatoes. I have of course seen the film so the trauma ought not hit me so hard when I'm reading this month. I don't know that I have ever read a book after seeing the film, so we'll see how this goes. In truth my only goals right now are to (1) enjoy the month I have left with the seniors & (2) not begin writing a book about a woman who falls in love with the German solider billeted in her home during WWII. I think what will keep me from attempting to begin writing such a book is the research that would be required. Fortunately for Americans (but unfortunately for my purposes) Germany never occupied any part of the United States so the novel would have to be set in another country about which I know little geographically, linguistically, etc. It was hard enough writing a novel set in Boulder, Colorado in the present day so here's hoping I can keep myself away from German-occupied France in WWII because I don't have that kind of time right now.  


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