How They Read Now: The ’96 National Book Award Winners

National Book Award

Over the past month, I have been busy reading five books that I normally would not have picked up on my own. This year marks twenty years of the National Book Award and this winter I joined a group of colleagues and book lovers to go back and read those award-winning YA books. There are twenty of us participating–each taking a year of winners. Each year has five novels. Each reader is tasked with choosing the one book from their year to move on to the next bracket, with the idea that we choose ONE book from the past twenty years that we all feel is the BEST of all the National Book Award Winners.  I chose 1996 for a few reasons.

I am at that age where YA novels were sub par when I was the target audience for YA literature. My mom would make a weekly trip to the library in the summer and come home with stacks of books from their tiny section with young people as the protagonist. I read a lot of terribly written books over those summers. The YA scene didn’t vastly improve until after I had gotten my job teaching high school English. Coming of age with shoddy writing about gender stereotypes and predictable plots made me want to revisit what judges deemed exceptional back then.

The books I read:

Parrot in The Oven: Mi Vida by Victor Martinez

I read this one in grad school for an adolescent lit class circa 2004. I remember being blown away that this sort of literature existed for young people since everything we read was extremely different than the tales of summer romances and back-stabbing best friends that I had access to. Since it had been more than a decade, I re-read the book for this project. I was sure this would be my pick for the best.

Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida is told from the point of view of 14-year-old Manny Hernandez who lives with his sisters, his brother, and his parents the barrio in California. The writing was beautiful. Martinez creates lovely vignettes for each chapter painting each scene with similes like when he describes the pepper plants he and his older brother are going to pick from to earn extra money: “…gesturing down at some limp branches leaning away from the road, as if trying to lift their roots and hustle away from the passing traffic” (10). The way he describes what the sky looks like above the pepper field, “clouds boiling like water on the horizon” not only appeal to the reader’s visual sense, but also reminds us that it is so blisteringly hot that even the clouds feel it (13).

While the writing was lovely, the plot was underwhelming. Manny’s family has issues and he is deciding whether or not to join a gang. At the time of publication, the race wars in California had tensions across the entire country running high. Not many authors had so eloquently written about the Latino experience from the eyes of a Latino youth, so it is not surprising that the plot coupled with poetic prose, won an award twenty-years ago. However if I were to hand this book to my middle school students now, I don’t think they would be as blown away after reading the works of authors like Benjamin Alire Saenz and Margarita Engle.

What Jamie Saw by Carolyn Coman

After reading reviews of this one, I was looking forward to something ground-breaking. What Jamie Saw read more like what I remember 90’s YA lit reading like: potential that is just not realized. The plot is that Jamie witnesses his mom’s boyfriend do something mean to his younger sister. Mom and Jamie and the baby leave. They are afraid of the ex-boyfriend. The problem is that the plot falls short. Other than mentioning something–domestic abuse–that probably wasn’t mentioned much then, it really stops there with just mentioning it. Since Jamie is just a little kid, the language is simplistic and we are left to infer what conversations his mother is having when she asks him to play outside or tend to his baby sister.

In the end, the book felt like an after school special, but with even less drama. Definitely did not seem award-winning to me.

Send Me Down a Miracle by Han Nolan

This may have been my least favorite of all five books. At least with What Jamie Saw I was interested in the plot even if it did turn out to be too simple for my taste. Send Me Down a Miracle had better writing, but the plot was pretty terrible, as was the characterization.

Charity is supposedly a 14-year old who lives with her younger sister, her dad, who is the preacher in a super small Southern town. Her mom is gone to a birdcage convention and later we find out she may or may not be coming back. A stranger–an artist from New York–comes to town one day to work on her art. She announces she will be living closed from society for a month. When she comes out she claims to have seen Jesus sitting on a chair in her house.

First of all, Charity seems way younger and naive than any 14-year old I have ever met. In fact, she is somewhat unbelievable as a 14-year old. Her father reminds me of the dad in Footloose, but less of a fully developed character. The most interesting characters to me where Adrienne (the artist) and Charity’s mom, both of whom are flat and undeveloped. In the beginning I thought Adrienne was going to be the star of the book when Charity describes her entrance: “Then in walked Adrienne into our tidy home, looking like some wild jungle woman with fat, frizzed-out hair, rings on her toes, and this long, brightly colored skirt that was practically see-through.” But no.

The entire plot of the town going crazy for a “Jesus Chair” was just poorly executed, in my opinion.

The Long Season of Rain by Helen Kim

This was the last book I had to read and it was hard to find. When it showed up to my house I took one look at the book cover and groaned. I thought for sure I would be bored to tears. I was pleasantly surprised.

The Long Season of Rain takes place in South Korea in the 1960’s. It starts during the rainy season, Changma, while school is out for recess. The story is told from 11-year-old Junehee’s point of view. She is the second of four daughters and lives with her parents and her paternal grandmother. One day her grandmother brings home a boy her age who was orphaned in a mudslide. His presence brings out family secrets and tensions between her mother and father.

I will admit that historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, and I hadn’t read any historical YA lit about Korea before, so even though I thought the book would bore me, I was wrong. The writing was lovely and wove Korean words easily with English in a way that was not confusing to the reader, but brought a richer sense of tradition and culture. Kim also does a good job of weaving the traditions of a conservative Korean family into the plot. They do not stand out, but rather enhance the story and push the motives of the characters.

I would classify this as a fairly typical bildungsroman because Junehee “comes of age” as she loses her innocence of her parents’ relationship and family workings. This was my runner-up pick.

A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer

As you may have already guessed, A Girl Named Disaster is my pick for the best of the 1996 National Book Award Winners. Like The Long Season of Rain, it falls under the historical YA fiction heading. At first, I wasn’t so sure about it since I have recently read two other YA books set in Africa, but this one blows both of those away too.

Nhamo is 11-years old living in a traditional village in Mozambique where she doesn’t fit in. Her mother was killed by a leopard when she was a baby, and her father took off before she was born. Culture places daughters with their father’s family, but Nhamo is brought up by her maternal side. After sickness plagues her village, it is decided that she should be married off to a terrible man to bring health and luck back to the village. Nhamo decides it’s time to find her father’s family who are supposedly in Zimbabwe.

Her year-long adventure is like a cross between the hero’s journey and a bildungsroman. She definitely “comes of age” during her travels, but it almost exactly follows the typical “hero’s journey” elements as well. Of all the books this is the one that not only stuck with me after I was done reading, but I found myself thinking about it when I wasn’t reading it. It was a book I stayed up late to finish because I needed to know what would happen. That alone makes it the clear front-runner.

The writing was beautifully descriptive as well. One of the qualities of a truly good book–especially world literature–is when the author can make the cultures and traditions come alive and make sense and weave them into the plot of the book. Farmer does that impeccably in A Girl Named Disaster.

I look forward to reading the winners from the 2012, 2008, 2004, and 2000 groups so we can decide on one to push through to the final brackets! I’ll keep you posted!

My Summer Binge List

2016-06-26 17.40.00

I’ve seen everybody talkin’ all about what they can’t wait to binge watch this summer on Netflix. New seasons of favorite shows have started coming out and the list of what is coming and going in July was just released. I’ll be honest, it gets sort of stressful to me.

In fact, I have had to avoid certain Facebook threads because people are discussing the new season of Orange is the New Black. Season four just came out like last week and people are already talking all about the thing. I am not even done with season 2 yet because that is how far I got last year on maternity leave before the boys were home for the summer and I never watched it again.

I also haven’t finished Breaking Bad yet.

So let’s put both of those on the list for this summer. I get two days each week without kids and I have some projects to work on that I can do in front of the TV, so maybe I will get to watch my favorite not-kid-appropriate shows while accomplishing things. That would be fun.

Ok, but the real thing that I am looking forward to having a binge-fest on is coming in July. Cortney rolled his eyes so hard when I told him about this that I thought his eyeballs were going to get stuck in the back of his head.

I’ll give you a hint…I’m sort of a super fan…

2016-06-27 14.36.05

YES! BACK TO THE FUTURE! ALL THREE MOVIES IN THE GREATEST TRILOGY OF ALL TIME!!!!

Ok so yes, I have all three movies on both VHS and DVD (including all the special features, commentary, etc), but now it’s on NETFLIX!  That means it’s even EASIER to access on all of my screens all of the time.

ALL OF THE TIME!

No more will I have to go downstairs to find the DVD, put it in the DVD player and all that jazz. Nope. It’s right there. RIGHT THERE ALL THE TIME!

B to the F! Marty! Doc! George! Lorraine! Biff! The whole gang!

Gotta get back in time!!!!

Ahem.

Sorry.

To recap: Orange is the New Black finish season 2 and watch seasons 3 and 4. Maybe finish Breaking Bad. Watch the Back to the Future Trilogy ad nauseam until my family makes me stop.

StreamTeamBadge

Disclaimer: I write posts for Netflix once a month. They give me free streaming and a device to watch it on. All opinions are clearly my own because no body else in the world–except maybe my brothers–love Back to the Future this much.

Oh, I would also like to pour one out for all the PBS shows that are leaving Netflix this summer. We miss you, Curious George. And Daniel and the Kratt Brothers will be very VERY missed.

Magnificently Seven

Dear Eddie,

Lately I have been looking at you in amazement. At some point in this school year you grew so tall, your feet so big, and your intellect so expansive.

2016-06-22 11.20.50

I’m having a hard time with your letter this year. It’s not that I don’t know what I want to say, it’s just…I’m a little overwhelmed. Since school has been out, I have been noticing that you are on the verge of not being such a naive little kiddo anymore.

Have I mentioned that you have gotten SO tall? You are 4’3′ and you wear a size 2.5 shoe. That seems like such a big kid. Your baby face has thinned out, although you still have those totally kissable cheeks. Judging from the Koops lineage where they come from, I don’t have to worry about your cheeks going away any time soon, and that makes me glad. You have a smattering of freckles on your nose which you claim to hate, but I love.

Daddy pointed out that your size 6 jammy shirts look like belly shirts on you, so I ordered size 7/8 the other day. Youth size “medium”.

This year brought a ton of “not a little kid anymore” things.

You finished the first grade! The school year started out a bit rough; you had a hard time adjusting to two recesses instead of three, no rest time during the day, and no free choice play. We exchanged quite a few emails and phone calls with your teacher about how to best help you learn about self-control. Aunt MacKenzie–who teaches first grade in another school–assured us over and over that your behavior was completely normal for a young first grade boy. She also promised we would see a change after Christmas break and she was right! It was like a switch flipped and you figured out how to “do” school.

We never worried about your academics, though. In Kindergarten you were one of the top readers, and Mrs. D placed you in the “advanced readers” group for WIN (What I Need) time. You fell in love with researching and reading nonfiction–especially about weather and animals. You also excel at math. Your swiftness with flying through your math problems and adding and subtracting in your head make me so proud…and glad. Math was so very hard for me–it still is–so to see it come easy to you is a relief to me.

One of the things I am most proud of is that you are sch a good, helpful friend at school. It’s true that often you have to “clip down” on the behavior chart for acting silly and being off-task, but it’s because you are trying to make people smile. You let other kids answer so they will “clip up” even when you know the answer. You play with everyone whether they are “popular” or not, and you told me once that you and your friend, L, were in a “squad” to help a girl in your class stay safe from some mean upper-el kids.

You did a lot of stuff out of school this year too.

You played soccer in the fall, but declared that was it. You weren’t into it and didn’t want to continue, but you did ask to be in cub scouts so we signed you up as a Tiger scout.

2016-02-16 18.45.32

You learned so much this year as a scout! Your favorite things were marching in parades and making your pinewood derby car with grandpa. You took first place in the Tiger scout division! So awesome! Last week you crossed over to a Wolf scout and are looking forward to another fun year with your den and your pack.

You participated in coach-pitch baseball and basketball camp this spring as well as another session of swimming lessons. You grew SO much as a baseball player this year! Your coach was fantastic. You were awesome. It was a really fun season to watch.

2016-06-08 19.09.04

Over and over this year I have just found myself so darn proud of you. I mean, it’s not been without some struggle. Like I said we had MANY talks about self-control and behavior at the beginning of the school year, but you really did try.

I love our conversations. You ask just about anything, and you think very deeply about things. You have never been a “why why why” kid, but more of a “What is Heaven? How do tornadoes start? Where does wind come from?” kid. I love your inquisitive nature and how you really think about things before and after you ask about them.

You are such a good big brother. Charlie has entered a phase where he wants to be just like you and do everything you do and it’s super annoying to you, but when you guys get playing something, you play so well together. You fight and wrestle and yell and play hard. Your personalities are vastly different, yet you have one thing in common: you laugh uncontrollably at anything that has to do with butts, farts, or poop. Even though you guys are a ball of trouble together, you are both always thinking of the other when you are not together. Recently I brought Charlie to get a treat after he had shots and he wanted to also choose something for you. When you got to pick a Gatorade at the grocery store with me, you also wanted to choose one for Charlie. It is my most sincere prayer that you boys always keep each other in mind. You are each other’s best friend and ally in this world. Never forget that. Brothers are for life.

2016-06-09 19.20.19

Where you have frustration for Charlie, you have unending patience for Alice. I don’t know if it’s the age difference or the fact that you have always always ALWAYS wanted a little sister, but you would do absolutely anything for her. You taught her to hug! You comfort her when she is sad. You bring her all her lovies and you play so nicely with her, letting her choose what to play. Please always be there for her. She will need a shoulder to cry on and a strong brother to lean on throughout her life. You are so quick to put your arm around her; I hope that is always the case.

2016-06-13 18.33.17-1

You still love your stuffed animals and you still sleep with Lamby and your tiny monkey pillow, yet you enjoy Star Wars and American Ninja Warrior. You are the perfect mix of sweet and growing up. You are so empathetic and loving, yet capable of thinking about big things.

This morning you said you were a little sad because six was such a great year. You were sad on the last day of school because you said first grade was so awesome and you would miss Mrs. D. That’s the kind of guy you are, bud. I hope seven (and 2nd grade) surpass your best imagination of what it could be.

Happy birthday, my buddy. I love you more than everything.

Mom

June: The Friday of Summer

June has always felt to me like the Friday of the summer months. You know what I’m talking about. That feeling when work gets out on a Friday and–even if you do have plans–it feels like the possibilities are spread out for you to choose from and that you have SO MUCH TIME.

june

That is what June is like. The kids and I make lists of things we would love to do this summer. We make our weekly schedule which includes the library on Mondays, the farmer’s market on Wednesdays, and the park on Fridays. We talk of splash pads, the beach, and visits with friends. I make my weekly chore list: what laundry and household task I will tackle each day so that our weekends can be wide open for family time.

I make piles of books to read.

The kids list all the water-related fun they will have.

June is the best because it’s so optimistic. But there is usually a crash of expectations that first week the kids are home from school. We don’t have our groove yet. People get cranky with each other since they are not used to being together all day. Last year was incredibly rough for some reason. Maybe it was the newborn? Maybe it was because I had been off since March when school let out in June? Maybe it was because I had at least one kid with me every single day? I don’t know.

This year I allowed myself some grace. This first week with the kids would be hard. And Monday was difficult. The news left a giant hole in my soul, we had a funeral visitation, and the kids were just cranky and out of sorts. But then things turned around.

For one, I have two days where ALL three kids go to daycare. ALL THREE.

That means I was able to get groceries all by myself on Tuesday. I could linger over labels and carefully peruse the produce. It means I could have lunch with a friend on Thursday, and stop at the library and look for books for ME (and even sit and read awhile).

The days home with the kids haven’t been perfect, but like I said…we are adjusting. There have been too many screens because we have been frustrated and finding our way. We are figuring out how to be around each other for so much time when we are all used to being away from each other all day.

Sitting here in June, on the first day of summer, it looks like we have endless time to play and melt into each other’s personalities and routines.

Future Days

If I ever were to lose you
I’d surely lose myself 

Thursday afternoon Eddie and I were driving home from basketball camp. The song “We Are Going to be Friends” by the White Stripes came on the radio. I looked in my rear-view mirror as I sang quietly along in time to see Eddie bobbing his head with the tune.

“Ya know, Eddie…this song always makes me think of you.”

“Why, mom? Because it’s about school?”

“Yeah. A little. I don’t really know why. School I guess. And being friends. You’re a good friend and I hope you always are. Plus you were my first little dude and I hope we always have these talks.”

“I like that, mom.”

Everything I have found dear 
I’ve not found by myself

We wordlessly listened to the rest of the song. The next song was a Pearl Jam song. One of my favorites. I sang along, and Eddie thoughtfully listened.

Try and sometimes you’ll succeed
To make this man of me 

When it was over Eddie said, “That was nice. I liked that one too.”

“That song makes me think of Daddy, you know. Every time I hear it.”

“Is it because it sounds like Daddy singing?”

“What? Oh! Ha! Is that what Daddy sounds like when he sings?”

“A little. Yes. Actually a lot. Yup.”

“I never thought of that. Actually the words make me think of Daddy.  Well, me and Daddy.”

“Because you love each other?”

“Yup. It’s about being with someone forever.”

“I like that.”

“Me too, bud.”
All my stolen missing parts 
I’ve no need for anymore

Today is eleven years since we said, “I do,” but I realized that this past May officially marked twenty years of friendship.
I believe 
And I believe cause I can see 
Our future days
Days of you and me 

I’ve written about our story…about how are paths were so twisty and overgrown with other stuff that we couldn’t see that they were leading to each other. That both of us prayed and wished and hoped for someone to not just marry, but someone to love and laugh and cry with forever and ever.
Back when I was feeling broken 
I focused on a prayer 

In fact, we even did this wishing and hoping and praying many times together. Until all that was left was the two of us: looking at each other and just knowing.
You came deep as any ocean
Did something out there hear?

Every time I question God or prayer or faith or grace, I think back on how we are even here together. How we never saw it coming, and how now we can’t imagine it any other way.
All the complexities and games 
No one wins but somehow they’re still played

We are not perfect. We still get annoyed with each other. We quarrel. We snip at each other. We get on each other’s nerves with our “quirks” and bad habits.
All the missing crooked hearts
They may die but in us they live on 

But we also laugh. We laugh so much. We laugh through and into and around our tears. We suck in our breath and pray through our fears. We listen to each other talk, but more importantly, we listen to each other’s silence.
I believe
And I believe cause I can see
Our future days 
Days of you and me 

Sickness, death, pregnancy loss, job loss, sanity loss…we have been through all of it, and yet…
When hurricanes and cyclones raged
When winds turned dirt to dust
When floods they came or tides they raised
Ever closer became us

It’s not easy. People have said we make it look easy. I think that is because we were…ARE…such great friends. I wasn’t a cliche when I said I married my best friend. I really did. And it still surprises and delights me.
All the promises at sundown 
I’ve meant them like the rest 

Even though my depression and anxiety lie and say I don’t deserve any of this that we have built together as a team, I know we are both in it until that death do us part thing. And even then…
All the demons used to come round 
I’m grateful now they’ve left 

One of my favorite quotes about love going on forever is from the YA novel, Wonder: “You don’t need your eyes to love, right? You just feel it inside you. That’s how it is in heaven. It’s just love, and no one forgets who they love” (227).
So persistent in my ways 
Hey Angel I am here to stay 
No resistance, no alarms
Please, this is just too good to be gone

So we’ve been married for eleven years, but I believe that our future days…and the ones after we are no longer on this earth…are days of you and me.
I believe 
And I believe cause I can see 
Our future days 
Days of you an me 
You and me
Days,…
You and me

Happy anniversary, my love. I’m sorry I forgot to buy a card.

future days

*Lyrics from the song “Future Days” by Pearl Jam

Testimony

In 2009, without much pomp or circumstance, I made profession of faith. I’m not sure anybody even noticed because I did it in conjunction with Eddie being baptized. It was a requirement for baptism that both Cortney and I were members of our church. Because I had not yet made profession of faith in any church, I needed to do so to be an official member. So we just added that in to all the other “will you…” stuff that is asked before the water is officially sprinkled on the baby. I was thirty-one years old.

005

If I am honest, I only did it because I wanted my baby to be baptized and because I was cool with being an official member of our church. I really didn’t have any of my questions answered that had been swirling around since I was in middle school. In fact, I am not sure why it was even important to me to have Eddie baptized other than it was tradition and I knew I didn’t want to deal with what our parents would say if we didn’t do it. Great reasons, I know.

I was brought up in the church. In fact, my childhood church is across the street from the church my family now attends. My town is small and there are somewhere around a million churches in it. The joke is that there is a church on every corner, and it’s based in a bit of reality. Growing up, if we made a new friend, the first question our parents asked was, “who are their parents?” followed by “what church do they go to?”

Church was not a bad experience for me though. I met my best friend through Sunday School when we were very small. She likes to joke that I scared her back then, but she scares me now. The truth is, some of my best memories are from church-related things; I had lots of fun experiences, but I wouldn’t say any of them were life-changing in the spiritual department.

My family was in church ever Sunday morning for the 8:30am service. We sat in the pew in the same order: me all the way to the middle, mom, Mike (my youngest brother), dad, and Chris (my younger brother) on the aisle. There were some years where my dad was a deacon and we sat in the “reserved” bench. We were always there.

We were also always in Sunday School. All of us. Our church offered classes for every single age, so we all went. Most weeks we even went back to church for the evening service.

Wednesday night was also for church. In elementary school, I did choir and catechism class. In middle and high school I had youth group. I participated in skits and other dramas when I was in high school, I went on retreats and mission trips. I did fun nights and scavenger hunts and ice cream socials.

The one thing I didn’t do was follow the rest of my peers and make profession of faith. Church was fun, but the actual religious part of it…the part where I was expected to feel moved by God…didn’t happen for me.

I credit those years for laying a foundation of good morals and the desire to put kindness into the world. I believe my religious upbringing definitely aided in my perception of my self-worth and self-respect.

However I don’t think I ever felt a strong, unflinching belief that I thought I should be feeling. I never felt the same blind faith that my parents seemed to feel. I had way WAY too many questions.

In college I took a history of Christianity class for a gen ed requirement. I came home with fascinating questions and wonderings and the minute I brought them up I thought my dad’s head was going to explode. He absolutely wouldn’t let me talk about it because to him, you didn’t question God or what we are taught in the Bible. You accept it. You believe it. And that is it.

That was a turning point for me. I just couldn’t accept it as the absolute, literal truth, so I assumed I didn’t believe. I thought it was all or nothing, so since I couldn’t give all, I supposed my faith was nothing.

mjvh_25951

I spent the rest of college battling with whether or not I believed there was a God. As much as I tried to deny one, I just felt in my bones that there was something bigger than us. That we weren’t here just randomly.

One night circa 2002, I found myself having a discussion with a drunk, but lucid not-even-on-my-radar-as-a-possible-life-partner best friend named Cortney. One thing we talked at length about was our religious beliefs–something I hadn’t even really discussed with my then boyfriend of four years. It turned out that we had similar beliefs after being brought up in very similar ways. We both believed there is a God, but to what extent everything in the Bible is a literal truth threw up lots of doubts and questions. This was a big deal because I had never talked to anyone with my almost exact feelings about Christianity and organized religion before.

Three years after that conversation, Cortney and I said “I do” in his church just six months after his dad was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.  While the cancer slowly overtook his body, my father-in-law kept a firm grasp on his faith. I felt like he knew something I didn’t. Something I just couldn’t hold onto. And even though I tried hard to see how in the world his faith in God could grow, mine seemed to shrink. Cortney’s seemed to disappear altogether.

Before we were even married two years, I suffered my first miscarriage. I suffered another the following year. When Eddie was three months old, Cortney lost his job. I suffered from postpartum depression and anxiety.

People told us that everything–EVERYTHING–happened for a reason. Cancer, death, lost babies, depression, job loss, all of it…happened for a reason and we just needed to trust that good was coming.

One family member who was a minister told us that everything bad that happened was a result of our faith being too weak.  It was because of something we did or didn’t do.

I had just one question: Where in the world was God?

He’s there was all people could say.

I called bullshit on it.

People said God gives you hard stuff to make you stronger.

I called more bullshit. I still do. I simply cannot believe God purposefully sends death and depression and loss. I just don’t believe that Cortney’s dad was destined by God to get cancer and die at age 49.

I don’t believe that since my toddler years God knew that I would grow up to lose pregnancies and battle depression. That he was knew it and and was all like, “oh yes…”hard stuff”. All according to my plan.”

NO.

20150329_110840

I have so so so many questions. Still.

Three years ago we decided to go back to church because we wanted to raise our kids in the church–to give them the good memories and solid foundation we were brought up with. We also felt like something was missing from our lives., and we found that going to church made us feel better–part of a family.

At the time our church was going through changes in the pastoral staff. In the past few years, all three of the pastors in our church have become our good friends. In fact, I think of them first as my friends, then as the pastors of our church.

On the one hand, the past few years has taught me that my heart for social justice and my idea of putting love and kindness into the world are absolutely what Christianity is supposed to be about. On the other, I have more questions than ever. Our friends-our pastors-are academically intelligent people. Like I said, I think of them all as friends first. I would absolutely hang out with them even if their jobs were not to spread the word of God. We discuss social justice and ideas and books and beer and music and politics. I have a great respect and love for them.

But my heart has so many questions.

 

I think I have more questions than I have faith, if that makes sense.

Cortney was ordained and installed as a deacon in our church last week. We stood and recited the Apostles’ Creed, and I couldn’t help but wonder, “do I believe this?  Does Cort? Are we lying?”

I love baptisms because they are full of faith and love and promise. They are the promise of God’s love for all of us, and I know that if nothing else, I believe in that love.

The rest of the stuff I have no idea, but the love? That I know I believe in.

Twenty

Apparently this month marks twenty years since I graduated from high school. This fact didn’t affect me at all until someone created a Facebook group for the class of ’96.

Let me back up and say that my class hasn’t been too great at getting reunions together. The ones they did manage to throw together, I did not attend. It’s not because I don’t like my class or because I was too busy to go. I just didn’t want to. Five years seemed to close to graduation. I was just out of college and not at all ready to go back to high school. Ten years found me only a year into a marriage with no kids yet and nothing of note–other than my teaching gig–to report back with. I don’t think a fifteen year reunion even happened.

So here we are at twenty. As far as I know, there is no reunion being planned, but maybe. There is a Facebook group. And there are pictures that have been added (some by me). I am suddenly reminded that since our senior year there have been marriages and babies and divorces. There have been those who have moved away not to be heard from. There are many who are still living in our small town.

It’s hard not to think of my classmates the way I saw them when I was in high school. This makes me wonder how people saw me in high school. I never really thought about it while actually in high school, though. In fact, I saw myself as someone who could find a buddy anywhere. I was never concerned about whether or not I had friends in a class with me because I knew that whoever was in the class would be cool.

I had three close girlfriends in my grade, two of whom are still my best friends. Freshman year I started dating a junior, so I hung out mostly with older kids. Junior year he went off to an out-of-state college and I started hanging out more with a group of guys the year behind me since my best friend’s brother was in that group and we all pretty much hung out at their house. I was in marching band, but I dated varsity athletes. One of my best friends was a partier; I didn’t drink but I was usually hanging out willing to give her a ride. I was friendly with pretty much everyone, but I didn’t really belong in any one clique. Unless my friends were a clique and I just didn’t know it.

My grades were good–I was always on the honor roll–but I wasn’t top of my class or anything. Math and science tended to elude me and I had to study pretty hard for those B’s (sometimes C+’s). I liked to goof off in class and make people laugh, but I didn’t push the line of disrespect with teachers. I was chronically late to first hour once I had my own car, but I managed to avoid detention. Most teachers seemed to like me, but not because I was a brown-nose. I don’t think. I didn’t play any sports, but my friends did and I was always at their games.

The first time I was ever aware that my name came up in groups when I wasn’t around was when I was a sophomore. A group of girls was gossiping about who had gone how far with their boyfriends. Everyone looked at me. My boyfriend was a senior and in that moment I found out that “everyone” assumed he and I were…well…doing something we mostly certainly were not. I remember laughing my head off at these girls who were so sure they knew my personal life. They laughed too once I told them the truth, although I never was sure if they believed me. It struck me as incredibly odd that anyone would talk about me while I wasn’t there. That people had opinions of me separate from being around me or talking to me.

So I look back on that and think about my assumptions about other people that may or may not have been true.

I think about the cliques people were in; I notice that a lot of them still hang out with those people (thanks, Facebook).

I think about those who I didn’t really get to know very well back then other than possibly sitting by them in math or doing a government project with them. Are they essentially still the same? Have they changed?

And what about me? Am I the same?

In some ways, I know I am not. I know I am about twice the size I was back then–something that is very sensitive for me. Something I want to immediately bring up and explain. “Hi! So yeah, I am like TWO of the Katie’s you used to know, right? I had five pregnancies, two miscarriages, and a pile of mental illness, so you know, my body hasn’t been my first priority. No, I don’t want your shakes or work out plans. Not right now. I’m just letting you know I am aware that I look different.”

My worldview is also much different. I went to a pretty insular high school and depended on my parents to let me know what my views were. They didn’t actually say much, but I knew they leaned to the right, so I copied that. Since those days I have straightened up and pretty much fell over to the left. I have become an loud voice for social justice and human rights, rather than just being loud.

I used to tell myself I didn’t go to reunions because I hadn’t done enough yet. I wanted to come back accomplished. But I am not sure what I mean by that anymore. Since graduating, I have earned two degrees, been published in print books, academic journals, and large online publications like the Washington Post. I have spoken at conferences. I have fought mental illness and become an advocate. I have raised thousands of dollars in books for my classroom library to promote literacy in my at-risk school. I’ve created this blog and shared my story. I have a wonderful marriage to one of my best friends and we have three pretty awesome kids. We own our own home. Cortney is a part-owner of a business. I’m planning on getting my PhD.

How much more accomplished can I get?

So maybe I don’t go because I am scared. I am scared that I don’t matter. I’m scared that people still see me as someone nice, but not in any group. I’m afraid of being excluded.

And really, I feel that as an adult, I shouldn’t have to feel nervous and inadequate and self-conscious anymore, so I hide and tell myself lies.

 

Can I Say?

I pick Eddie up from school every single day. A couple days a week he stays late and goes to the after school program so I can can stay late in my classroom. The other three days I brave the dumb school parking lot and get him right after school. Every day I ask him how his day was. Every day we end up chatting during the short, three-mile drive home. His booster seat is in the middle in the back seat with Charlie’s carseat directly behind the driver and Alice’s carseat behind the passenger side. During our chats, I can glance up and see his little face full on in my rear view mirror.

Our conversations range from the mundane to the exceptional. We have talked about both math and God on these drives. But it’s one of our most recent conversation about language that I wanted to share today.

Eddie: Mom today I learned about swear words.
Me: Come again? What?
Eddie: I learned that “shitty” is a swear word. It is, right?
Me: Um. Yeah. It is. May I ask how you learned this?
Eddie: Well. We were in our groups and we were doing word cards and I said the word “city” with and “sh” on the front.
Me: Why?
Eddie: Because I got mixed up and thought “ci” sounds like “sh”. But later Mrs. D told me that “city” with an “sh” on the front is actually a swear word and I should probably not say it. So is it? Is “shitty” a swear word?
Me: Uh. Yes. Yes it is.
Eddie: but “shit” is not, right?
Me: Well, yeah. That is a swear word too.
Eddie: Oh. Ok.

We ride along in silence for a couple seconds and then…

Eddie: Mom?
Me: Yeah?
Eddie: Who says swear words anyway? I mean, I know we’re not supposed to say them because they are bad, but they are words, so someone must say them, right?
Me:  Usually adults. When they are angry.
Eddie: Do you say swear words?
Me: I have. Yes.
Eddie: But they are for adults to say? Because they are bad?
Me: Yeah. They are just not nice. They are pretty ugly and you only say them when your feelings are ugly.
Eddie: Like when your classes don’t listen and you have a bad day?
Me: No….even uglier and angrier and sadder.
Eddie: Like when someone dies? Yeah, I would think death would be shitty.
Me: Yes. Yes it is.
Eddie: Ok mom. I promise not to say it. Not until I am an adult.

The very next day, on the way home.

Eddie: Mom?
Me: Yes, Bud?
Eddie: Did you know I am the only kid in first grade who can’t say “fart?”
Me: I doubt that.
Eddie: Well, all of my friends say it. And they laugh when I call it a “toot”.
Me: Why are you guys even talking about that anyway? Bathroom talk is not for school.
Eddie. Mom.
Me: What?
Eddie: We talk about it at recess. Not in class. (and I actually looked up in time here to see the massive eye roll you are probably imagining.)
Me: Well what should we do?
Eddie: I should be allowed to say “fart”
Me: But daddy and I don’t think that little kids sound very nice when they use that language.
Eddie: Well I am not a little kid. I’m almost seven AND almost a 2nd grader.
Me: But you have a little brother and sister who are little kids. If you start talking like that, they will do what you do.
Eddie: Do you and dad say the word “fart”?
Me: Yes. But not in front of you guys.
Eddie: Ok. How about I am allowed to use the word “fart” with my friends, but not at home because it’s a “friends word only”.
Me: Huh. Ok. I guess that would be Ok.

When we get home from school, Eddie is allowed to watch Netflix for an hour. Just this week he asked me if he could watch a “not cartoon show”. It’s called Mighty Med.

B1ggmYSy_Lo.showposter_hq

The show is about these two comic book fans who find this secret entrance into a hospital for superheros. They end up getting jobs there and hilarity ensues. The thing is, the kids are all high school-aged which means they use words like “fart” and “butt” and other things that are not bad (I mean, it’s Disney, after all), but it’s not something I want to hear my four-year-old saying. So since Eddie and I had discussed “fart” as being a “friends only” word, we also talked about how this show is for after school when his younger siblings are not around.

Eddie then asked if this is why he and Charlie and Alice had different profiles on Netflix–to keep their shows separate. And I said, yes. That is exactly why.

I know he feels pretty special being the oldest and having the privilege of using “friends only” words and watching shows that The Littles are not allowed to watch. I feel pretty awesome knowing he feels comfortable enough to talk these things over with me.

Hopefully our lines of communication will always be this open, although I am going to guess he will use the word “shitty” before he’s an adult.

StreamTeamBadge

Get Yer Groupon!

Disclosure: This is a sponsored post, but all opinions are mine.

groupon

Let me tell you a little story about a girl who enjoys shopping. In this story, the girl is me. I enjoy shopping. I mostly enjoy shopping when I feel cranky or sad or disappointed or in need of a pick-me-up.

But here is the rub: we don’t have a bunch of disposable income for me to go out shopping myself happy. (I know, I know, money doesn’t buy happiness. But you know what? It buys “cheer up”).  This means I either have to forego the shopping or I have to do it smartly.

I never saw myself as a “coupon-er.” In fact, I may be guilty of mocking those who obsessively clip coupons–those people who have a coupon for everything and plan their lives around said coupons. However, I do appreciate a good deal, and if it’s not something I have to “clip”, I am even happier.

Enter Groupon Coupons.

So admittedly, you are not exactly saving as much money shopping with a coupon as you would just not shopping. But listen: they regularly have Target and Starbucks coupons, so we all know I was going to spend that money anyway. They also have Barnes and Noble coupons which I totally JUST used five minutes ago to get a couple more books for my classroom library. It was in the name of research for this post, ok?

See my library back there? Always adding to it!

See my library back there? Always adding to it!

You want more proof? Fine. They also currently have coupons to Carter’s (where 90% of my children’s clothing comes from), Kohl’s (where I get all of Eddie’s jeans), and Shutterfly (where I make all my kids’ photo books each year).  These are places I shop anyway. That is why it’s so awesome. I get emails with the latest coupon offers and I can use or not use. If Eddie has blown out the knees in every pair of his jeans and he needs new ones anyway (which is a true story at this house), I may as well not pay full price!

So tell me…do you Groupon?

The Teacher in Me

“Mrs. Sluiter, I have NEVER had an English teacher–or any teacher really–who has been as excited as you get when you teach us grammar or when you talk about books. You’re crazy.”

I am winding down my second year as a middle school teacher (thirteenth year overall in my district) and it happens to also be Teacher Appreciation Week. Of course this means I have been thinking a lot about how I got to this place. A student asked me on Monday why I became a teacher in the first place. I think she was expecting me to say something about wanting to change the world. I always laugh at this question because at the time I made the choice, I thought it came out of nowhere, but it didn’t. Not really.

The story as I tell it is that I decided one day in my senior English class. While reading 1984 and discussing it, I blurted out that that was what I wanted to do with my life: read and talk about books. My teacher put both hands on my desk and said, “that is my job” and the rest is history.

Looking back, though, I see that I was meant to be a teacher from a very young age.

When I was in first grade, I sat my four-year-old brother down and forced him to learn to read. Oh, I set it up to look like we were playing school, but I demanded he learn and I threatened bodily harm if he didn’t do what I said. He learned to read, but I can’t say he was unscathed.

It makes me laugh now that I couldn’t see that I was meant to have a career that centered around words.

My parents like to say I haven’t stopped talking since my first words. I have always been loud and assertive. I have a very real love of books and words and how words fit together. I am lucky that I have mostly had teachers who encouraged my personality rather than try to squash it.

My elementary teachers all encouraged my voracious love of reading. I remember specifically Mrs. Larsen, our school librarian (because they weren’t media specialists back then), always helping me find just what would keep me reading from picture books in Kindergarten to Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and Marilyn Sachs. I’m definitely the reader I am today because of them.

Middle school is awful for everyone, I think. And now that I am a middle school teacher, I notice it hasn’t really changed much. I remember my 7th grade math teacher, Mrs. Wheeler, who had a biting sense of humor and could make a room full of awkward adolescents feel like super stars in their own right. I never did fall in love with math, but she taught me that even if you’re not good at something, you should still do your best. And then laugh your way through it all.

I had excellent experiences with my high school teachers. I can really only look back and see just a few who I would say weren’t great teachers, the rest loved their subject and love their students and seemed, at least, to love their job. The two that influenced me the most to become a teacher were my British lit teacher senior year, Mr. Torgerson, and my band director, Mr. Walker. Torg helped me realized that I wanted to do his job. Walker helped guide me to the right college to get there. Both recognized my talents and embraced my ridiculous personality and found ways for me to use my loud voice for good rather than trouble.

As an undergrad at Western Michigan University, Dr. Allen Webb was the one who showed me that literature can actually change the world–that teaching isn’t just reading and discussing books, but taking the knowledge and empathy we glean from the characters and doing something about it in our own societies. He helped me see that reading creates empathy.

Since then, there have been many other colleagues and instructors that have shaped the teacher in me. My students have done that too. Even having my own children have changed and shaped who I am as an educator.

Being a teacher is stressful. It’s heartbreaking. But it makes me so very happy. I can’t imagine having any other job.

2016-03-31 13.19.18

**********

I currently have a Donor’s Choice Project up that I am collecting donations for: A Spring Book Drive. These books, if funded, will go onto the shelves of my library for next year’s 8th graders. My current 8th graders helped choose the titles they think next year’s students will want to read. Any dollar amount is welcome!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...