My Creative Writing Students’ Poetry Blog

My high school Creative Writing class is focusing on poetry this year, and they’ve got a blog.  Pop on by if you’re interested and check out some of their work.  They’ve just started posting to it this week, so there are only a couple of poems up so far, but the kids are open to constructive feedback from other writers and readers, should you feel so inclined.  🙂

Here’s the link.

Thanks for stopping by!  🙂

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“I Am Worried About My Grade”

Today I finished my semester.  Grading finals is always a manic marathon accompanied by an earworm devised by my frantic brain.

Grading, grading, grading,
gotta do my grading,
get those finals graded, rawhide!  YA!

Have you ever noticed that manic activities are frequently backgrounded by some lyrically-varied version of “Rawhide”?

Maybe that’s just me…

Anyway, one of my colleagues sent this cartoon to me, and it cracked me up.  I’ll refrain from saying “story of my life” because, frankly, most of my students are awesome kids I really enjoy teaching.  But situations like this do come up on occasion.  They are admittedly rare at the school where I teach, but I’m told I have a reputation for being a frightening teacher, so maybe I’m just lucky and don’t have to deal with it so much.  (This sort of thing used to happen pretty often when I taught at a local college, back in the day.)

Check it out.  Enjoy the end of the school year, all those of you affected by it.  And have a good Memorial Day weekend!

Because Language Matters

Not terribly long ago one of my students deeply disappointed me by using the word “gay” in my classroom to refer to something he really thought was “stupid.”

Rather than directly point out the boneheadedness of his statement, I asked him whether he meant to say that the idea in question was homosexual.

He looked at me blankly.  “Huh?”

“Or did you mean to say that it’s really happy and carefree?”

“No,” he said, looking at me as if I’d just asked the most asinine question in the world.  “I mean it’s stupid.  I don’t like it.”

“Then why did you use the word ‘gay’ to describe something that clearly isn’t?”

“Because.  That’s just how I talk.”

I appreciated his candor, even though I vehemently disagreed with his logic, because his frankness led to a productive discussion about the words we use and why we use them, about the concept of “framing the debate.”  When people use “gay” to refer to something that they simply don’t like, they demonize a percentage of the human race, sometimes without meaning to and sometimes with malicious intent.  They’re ascribing a quality which is Other from themselves in order to show disdain for something, but the problem with this, of course, is that this practice implies that Otherness is somehow bad or wrong, when in actuality, it usually isn’t.

“Okay, so how about I don’t use the word ‘gay,’” the kid suggested, “and instead say something else.  How about…I don’t know, ‘pagan.’  I can say ‘pagan’ instead of ‘gay.’  Would that work?”

“Are you talking about ancient folk religions?” I asked.

“No, of course not, I’m talking about something stupid,” he said as if irritated, as if stunned that I hadn’t been paying attention.

“Then.  That.  Doesn’t.  Work,” I said as evenly as I could, angry that this otherwise smart kid either was goading me on purpose or was actually, unfortunately, sincere.  I wasn’t sure which possibility was worse.

“Then I’m not sure I see your point,” he said.

I explained that when you refer to something you don’t like in a pejorative way by naming it with a quality which is different from you — when actually there’s no logical reason to do so — you are, intentionally or subconsciously, demeaning anyone who actually does have that quality, solely because it is different from you.

We discussed Otherness and respect, and why respect and acceptance are different from tolerance.  (One person even pointed out the narcissism implied by the idea that anything which is different from oneself is bad.)  It took a while, but I think the student finally understood my point.

No one has used the word “gay” in that context in my class since.  And that’s good, but I’m not naïve enough to imagine that it’s because I changed the social thinking patterns of a bunch of young people.  More likely, it’s because getting read the riot act, no matter how politely, in front of one’s peers sort of sours the mood.

Or maybe it’s because I have a really big, colorful, eye-catching poster above the white board in my classroom that says, “F*G ISN’T FUNNY.  Stop hate.  Start now.”

***

In a particularly insightful essay about the n-word versus the f-word (and I don’t mean “fuck”), a friend of mine* once shed light on the conflicting ways in which American society treats discomfort with issues of race and sexuality.  He wrote about the “Black Codes” enacted after the Civil War which “limited the access blacks had to the basic rights the rest of the nation enjoyed,” such as the ability to serve in the military and the right to marry.  (Interracial marriage was outlawed in this country until just a few decades ago.)  He contends that today, there are de facto “Gay Codes” in effect which affect a range of life experiences from professional opportunities to what someone does in the privacy of one’s bedroom with another consenting adult.  Developments such as the recent repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and the very slowly increasing number of states which have legalized same-sex marriage are chipping away at these inequalities, but it’s a rough road.  Civil rights battles are always protracted and painful.

Witness, for example, the atrocities of lynchings in the first half of the twentieth century.  Witness the atrocity of the death of Matthew Shepard just before the turn of the twenty-first.  And note the way people reacted to both situations in their respective time periods.  As my friend wrote, “The fatal beating [Shepard] endured left his skull so badly shattered that the doctors in the hospital he was rushed to were unable to operate.  It also left most of the country shocked and horrified.  But it was only the brutality of the killing that evoked such a large emotional response; the anti-gay motives common to numerous incidences across the United States could not spark such a reaction on their own.”

These incidences he refers to include, among other thoughtless acts found in high school hallways, the use of the word “gay” to refer to something one does not like.

***

It’s probably obvious by now that I’m offended when people diminish the value of another human being simply because that person is different.  Bullying is a terrible practice, made no more palatable by the real circumstance that it is motivated by fear or self-loathing or ignorance just as often as (if not more often than) by mean-spiritedness or herd mentality.

When my high school students use these kinds of slurs, I’m reminded of the elementary school children who won’t let one child play with them because they don’t like the exotic food his mother packs him for lunch.  I’m reminded of the seventh grade boys who tease the girl in their class whose breasts have already developed.  I’m reminded of adults who are so socially stunted that they avoid co-workers who practice different religions or who speak different languages at home or who sport the occasional tattoo or piercing.  What are these people thinking?  Probably a lot of things, but I’ll bet at the forefront of all of it is Otherness, and a subconscious inability to comfortably process it.  It would be great if we could all start teaching the children around us right now that it takes all kinds to make a whole world, and that all people are equal.

And maybe if we work on that hard enough, eventually we will all teach ourselves, too, that sometimes those old patterns of behavior we may have been raised with aren’t necessarily the best way forward.  I’m far from perfect, and though the environment in which I was raised was a good one overall, I wasn’t explicitly taught these progressive ideals at home — and certainly not at all in grade school — back in the 70s and 80s, but I’m finding that the more I work on it in my daily life now, the easier it is to erase those old uglinesses away from my children’s interactions with the world.  As they say, lead by example:  repeated actions become habit, and repeated habits become character.  So the message is simple:  say what you mean, and think before you speak.

And yes, I’ve heard the argument that this “evolution” of the word “gay” is just part of a natural progression of language, that the word used to mean “happy” and then it meant “homosexual” and now it means “stupid” or “objectionable.”  I can see the logic in that thought process, but I reject it.  What motivates it is, at best, laziness and at worst, a rationalization of malicious behavior and a lack of respect, and we cannot, on either a societal level or a personal one, tolerate that sort of thing if we want to live in a free and fair world.

And what intelligent or conscientious or foresightful person doesn’t want that?

*  This friend has chosen to remain anonymous, although I am using his words and ideas with his expressed permission.

The Twi-moms’ Lament

I’m going to irritate a lot of my friends here.  Apologies in advance, but hear me out.

Leave the Twi-moms alone.  They are hurting.  And no, I don’t think I’m one of them.

The Twilight series, for those who have not read the books — and notice I did not write “for those who have not seen the movies” or “for those who have been living under a rock,” because the books and the movies and the stuff people say about them are three different artifacts of expression, and we need to acknowledge that — is about a late-adolescent girl, Bella Swan, who moves across the country to live with her father in her junior year of high school.  She has a relatively smooth transition, largely avoiding the usual problems of displacement such a situation might bring, but encounters conflict when she falls hopelessly, fecklessly into consuming, co-dependent love with a vampire.

Oops.

I saw the first movie before I had read the books.  I saw it opening night with a couple of girlfriends who were fans of the books, in a theater filled with giddy, squealing teenage girls.  It was a raucous weird time.  I didn’t entirely know what to make of it all.  The movie, a tortured melodrama fraught with good music, poor acting, and worse direction (1), was weak at best.  My friends and I stood around in the lobby of the movie theater for an hour afterward making fun of it.  We all went home that night and changed our Facebook status lines to read, “What is he doing in that tree?” (2)

But I read the book the next week.

And let me explain why I did that:  I love vampires.  Some other time we can get into a discussion, if you like, about what they represent from a literary or psychological point of view, about why they are so different every time a new author reinvents them, about why they come back into mainstream pop culture every half-generation or so.  We can get into that stuff later, maybe.  But I could tell from the movie that Stephenie Meyer was clearly doing something unique with the mythology, and I wanted to know more about it.  I had heard her recent interview on NPR and was intrigued by this apparent literary phenomenon.  Paranormal romance?  A story based on a dream?  Best-selling books written by an ordinary mom?  Written for a younger audience and will probably take me all of one day to read?  Sure, I’ll bite.  Plus, I love vampires and am willing to give a cute story a chance.

So what happened when I read the book?  I became a little bit of a fan.  It wasn’t great literature — it wasn’t even particularly good writing — but it was really entertaining.  I went back and saw the movie a second time with another friend who had not seen it yet but wanted to, this time in a nearly empty movie theater.  It was a profoundly different experience.  Now I could hear all the dialogue, now there wasn’t any giggling around me, now I had the context of the novel in which to frame the movie.  It was still poorly acted and poorly directed, but now, well, it wasn’t so bad.  I sort of got it.  It was easy to willingly suspend my disbelief, to let myself sink into the goofy fantasy of it for a couple of hours.  And I admit it was a little embarrassing to be able to do so when so many of my friends had such disparaging things to say about it, but oh well.  To be blunt, most of them had not read the books or seen the movies.  Though I love my friends, I could get only so worked up about what they thought.

Then I read the rest of the books.  From a writing standpoint, I was curious about how Meyer could possibly sustain the driving tension of the first novel across three others.  From an analytical standpoint, I was interested in her redefinition of what’s at stake for these vampires:  what exactly was the downside, again?  What was so compelling about this story?  Sure, it was fun —  a big bowl of candy, in fact.  (Generally enjoyable but not a lot of nutritional value.)  And the male leads are, in their fashion, irresistible. (3)  There’s plenty of romantic tension, which is fun, if you have inside of you a person who believes that sex is not something one does with just anyone.  And so what if Meyer was putting forth a philosophy?  She has the right to do that, it’s her book.  If you don’t like it, don’t read it. (4)

But beyond that, I think this series has been incredibly popular with teenage girls and mature adult women for one particular reason that is the same for both very different age groups:  Bella Swan is incredibly flawed.

Bella is a convincing teenage girl who has fallen deeply in love for the first time.  I think many women who fell into true love in high school can recognize themselves in her.  She has the trappings of youth:  clumsiness; an inability to see her own beauty or even, at times, self-worth; poor judgment.  And her love for Edward is fierce and dependent, much like true love really is.  Audiences may scoff at her martyr-like attitude and find her choices to be frustratingly bad.  They might even criticize her for the way she thinks, and in this modern time, they have a good point.  (Linda Holmes has an excellent review of the latest movie installment, which I agree with in pretty much every way.  Here’s the link to it:  http://www.npr.org/2011/11/17/142248824/dawn-breaks-and-much-baroque-nonsense-ensues.)

I criticized Bella, too, until I remembered my own youth, remembered experiencing these emotions in the first place, remembered being seventeen and so desperately in love that I was willing to make really stupid choices.  Perhaps I saw in Bella what I regret about my own life.  This can make any protagonist – and frankly, any person, in a book or not – annoying.

But Bella is worth my attention for her proverbial warts.  Not because they are unusual – they aren’t – but because they do not prevent her from being loved.  And not just loved, but adored – and not just by any old loser who can’t do any better, but by a demi-god.  (Two of them, even.)

This makes these books, well, a little bit inspiring.  You know, on a subconscious level.  Who doesn’t want to feel like she (or he, for that matter) is so lovable, warts and all, that the object of her (or his) affections could possibly reciprocate them with such passion?  It’s wonderful to imagine that we are more than the sum of our flaws, that others can see past the imperfect body, the neurotic habits, the lack of self-confidence, the constant need for reassurance and just love us.  Adore us, even.  Find us so compelling that their need for us is just as intense as ours is for them.

So why do I say the Twi-moms are hurting?  (And sure, some of them aren’t.)  This story just might represent something they feel they have lost.  Even if they haven’t — even if what they think they’re missing is only buried deep down under layers of marriage and children and the demands of a career and household minutiae and far too busy weekends and having to actually schedule date nights with their spouses and a general lack of time for themselves — this story just might remind them of that thing inside of them that is young and vulnerable and desirable.  It’s like a princess story for grown-ups:  a damsel in distress hidden within the trappings of the modern age.

So go easy on these vulnerable matrons.  Absolutely, teach the young kids enjoying these books and movies that Bella is messed up hard-core, that her choices are weak, that her priorities are badly skewed.  Teach them that life does not in any way resemble this fantasy, and teach them why, and teach them how to avoid being victims.

But if enjoyment of this story isn’t interfering with real life, if it’s not hampering the fulfillment of their duties and obligations, if it’s not messing with their sense of reality, let the Twi-moms enjoy themselves.  Don’t be haters just because you don’t understand.

And if you know a Twi-mom and don’t think her obsession with Twilight is healthy, then give her something else to read.  You know, something with literary merit.

Like Jane Austen.

(1)  For more examples of Catherine Hardwicke’s illustrious career, check out IMDB (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0362566/).  She has six directing credits, including Twilight and a project not yet complete.  The only other one of those movies I’ve seen, though I’d heard of them all, is Red Riding Hood, and I’d like to have that hour and a half of my life back.  RRH was one of the worst movies I think I’ve ever witnessed in my adult life.  I thought about blogging about it, in fact, but to do a good job of it I’d probably have to watch it again, and I just can’t suffer that much for my art, unless there’s really a demand for it from my audience.  For more objective context, I think it’s interesting that all the little user-generated lists that pop up on the right-hand menu bar for her IMDB page are lists of “bad directors.”

(2)  The answer to this question is that he is demonstrating his Otherness.  You know, in case you were still wondering.

(3)  Totally talking about the books here.  The choice between Taylor Lautner and Robert Pattinson is laughably the choice between Child on Steroids and Child Unwashed.  Barf.

(4)  I had heard and read the criticism that she was injecting religion into her story, but honestly, I don’t think it goes that far:  the issue of morality is not belabored any more than in any other thoughtful exploration of the Human Condition, and the question of whether Edward has a soul isn’t truly answered.