The Civil War of Amos Abernathy by Michael Leali

With his friends, Chloe and Ben, Amos uses the opportunity of a new exhibit at the living history museum and the racism of a denied apprenticeship to highlight unheard characters, perspectives, and voices from history.

And here’s the best part: Amos is a magical kid, despite being in a realistic novel. He leaps to life right off the page with a voice that charmed my socks off. He admits “we’re nerds, I love it,” but also confesses his fears, worries, and his crush on Ben in his sweet letters to Albert D.J. Cashier.

Things aren’t perfectly tidy, though. The book feels very real in part because while Amos is safe and out and proud, not all the LGBTQIA characters in (or mentioned in) the book have that privilege. Leali does an excellent job of explaining why–as well as a bit about his writing process–in a thorough author’s note at the end of the novel.

Kids who love history or fighting the powers and kids who are looking for LGBTQIA books will love this book. And grown-ups who remember even a tiny bit of what it felt like to find out something new and want to broadcast it to the world–because justice! because fairness!–will find their child selves in these pages, too. I know I did.

Man O’War by Cory McCarthy

  • Dutton Books for Young Readers (Penguin Group)
  • Released May 31, 2022
  • Buy from Bookshop.org here (support your local bookstore!).

This sprawling narrative follows River through high school, college, and beyond. While there isn’t much of a plot to speak of, that’s really not the point. The point is River’s growth as a human from a “mean asshole” who keeps everyone at a distance into a proud “man o’war” who has surrounded himself with a chosen family for the ages. 

There is a lot to love in this book — more than I can say in a simple review. There are lots of complex relationships and side characters (Mrs. Cheng is my favorite, but Everett and Varian are pretty great too). The relationship between Taylor and River is an especially rich addition because it demonstrates that even in-community connections can be toxic. One standout scene is the microagression drinking game. It felt like a turning point for River embracing community. It made love possible in a way that it hadn’t seemed like it was before then, if only because it was the first time (without Indy) that River truly believed he wasn’t alone.

That said, this book is not easy. River is in a lot of pain and lashes out every where (like a man o’war, actually), in really awful ways. There isn’t one person who escapes unscathed: both the “bad guys” like Taylor, Kerrig, and Houser AND the “good guys” like Catherine and the Chengs catch the sting of River’s flailing. If there is an emotional blind spot in the book, it’s the way that the people who deserve more from River never demand it. They all just accept his horribleness as part of his process. 

But even that is believable, and that’s the real magic of this book. McCarthy has grounded the novel in the real world with such rich attention to setting and detail that it feels like it could be happening in the next town over. Young readers will recognize River’s life, River’s struggles, and hopefully River’s (eventual) joy as eminently true to life. 

And as McCarthy himself says, joy is the real revolution.

On Making Things Right: The Honorable Path

My most recent YA manuscript, FALLING IN, explores how someone who has irreparably f—-d up can make their way back to community, connection, and wholeness.

And there has to be a path back. Period.

It doesn’t have to be easy, but it must allow for that person to be fully restored. I take this unpopular stance after seeing the opposite play out again and again among students and teachers at the school where I teach. Take these three examples:

  • A girl who read her friend’s coming-out text and replied “Are you serious?”
  • A teacher who asked a class to debate a sensitive topic.
  • A boy who hurt several girls he’d dated with manipulative and/or bullying behaviors.

In every case, these people were rebuked/belittled, ostracized, and relegated to being known only for their transgressions. The issue became so extreme this year that our administration delivered a district-wide lesson emphasizing that bullying someone for bullying is never okay.

When I discussed this lesson with my sophomores, they told me in no uncertain terms that they disagree. They think someone who has done something wrong “deserves” to be “isolated and removed from the community,” and that “none of their friends should talk to them anymore.” Meanwhile, their definitions of “something wrong” focus on a spectrum from leaking racist or homophobic attitudes to committing sexual assault (typically, they are not talking about crimes such as physical assault, murder, theft, and vandalism).

I was surprised by their vehemence, then worried, and finally grieved. This is not a way to live. Every person screws up. Sometimes people hurt others. Sometimes people hurt other people severely.

And most people won’t change when locked in a social prison. In fact, social penalties often either (a) encourage people who have done wrong to diminish their actions as “not that bad” or (b) create a narrative in which these people feel they have been the ones wronged (e.g. “cancelled” or “martyred”).

In addition, the difference between the girl whose text appeared to be unsupportive and the boy who was manipulating his girlfriends is significant. If both behaviors earn the same consequence, we are not making the world more just or verdant. Just more afraid.

A honorable path for restoration includes a way for a wrongdoer to

  • take responsibility for their actions
  • learn about why/how their actions are hurtful, inappropriate, or unhelpful
  • grieve
  • apologize
  • make reparations to those harmed
  • change
  • have accountability and support in living differently

The girl’s text message–on balance with the rest of her life and allyship–might take ten minutes to repair following this path. The boy’s might take the rest of the year or more . Admittedly, the high bar here might suggest that few people will follow through.

But as I said, the honorable path doesn’t have to be easy; it just has to be clear, available, and supported.

A Teenage Blessing

We are not a part of a religious community that marks a bar mitzvah or a confirmation; we have no temples to enter or rituals to undergo. But I feel that such traditions are essential markers on the journey to adulthood. I created the teenage blessing as a way to help my sons experience a ritualized step toward their independence.

We celebrated the event on/near their 13th birthdays, which means we just did our second (and last) one this weekend.

So many friends have asked about it, wondered about it, or wished for something similar that I’ve put together a mini-guide to hosting a teenage blessing.

As for copyright, the tools are here to be used. Please be my guest–and use what’s useful, discard the rest. Tweak, adjust, or overhaul according to what you and your family would prefer. But this permission is for your personal or family use only. Do not reprint or publish the material anywhere else.

Wandering: A Summer Pilgrimage

On June 13, my boys will be fully vaccinated.

This wandering, weaving path of 457 days–from “early quar” to mask mandates and sanitizer shortages, from no soccer and Zoom school to today’s in-person last day–it’s been a lot. I’ve lost seven people I loved (though none from Covid). I told some friends that I feel like I’m only held together with skinny rubber bands and scotch tape.

But it’s also been full of dinners at home and sitting on the porch, playing with our birds, and watching new Marvel worlds on TV, daily walks in the neighborhood and paddle boarding at Lake MacBride, ASL lessons with Amy and VCFA video chats.

There was a chrysalis invitation in there somewhere. I don’t want to ignore it. I don’t want to just get down to business or go “back” to “normal.”

So I’m taking a summer pilgrimage to find my way to a new normal.

Starting June 14, I’m going to wander my way through 457 km. In the spirit of wandering, I’ll walk or skip, run or paddle, bike or dance through it. Also in the spirit of wandering, I will update irregularly, if at all.

If you’re looking for a way to reflect and move purposefully into what comes next, to mark the end of this season and the start of the new, feel free to come along in whatever way makes sense to you.

Rewriting “Imagine” for 2020

Image via “Bush’s Letter to Clinton Cemented a Presidential Tradition, Historians Say,” The New York Times, 1 Dec 2018

Dear John Lennon,

I read the above letter from former president George H.W. Bush today. I teared right up. It’s the kind of sentimentality that gets to me.

You might be displeased to know that in 1992, I campaigned for him. I believed that he would make the world a better, safer place for unborn babies. I really believed what my church laid down about politics, and I prayed for our president regularly. When he lost, my friends and I grieved. We thought it was the end of the world as we knew it. We suspected the U.S. had elected a used-car-salesman of a President who completely lacked character. We believed that all sorts of sinful, “bad,” or even evil things would soon be standard practice in our country.

— You’re waiting for me to get to “Imagine.”

I know, but I share that bit of history because you must understand I have fully occupied both sides in the American political conversation. I am a Democrat today, but I was a Republican yesterday, and I proudly voted against my current party every time our 2nd District Representative, Jim Leach, was on the ticket. Who knows but that I may be a Republican again tomorrow?

Now for my rewrite. See, as I read this letter to “Bill” from “George,” I started doing some imagining of my own. Nothing against you, of course.

It started like this: Imagine if every politician came with the perspective of most former presidents. Something about that role engenders a wider, more generous view of “us.”

Imagine Senators and Representatives could say to their colleagues, like George H.W. Bush did, “Your success is now our country’s success,” and really mean it. That alone would mean seeing success not in terms of “winning” a party vote, but in terms of raising the waterline on safety, health, education, economics, and happiness for all Americans.

Imagine how such a view could make room for all the freedoms to that so many of us cherish and all the freedoms from that so many of us long for. Those freedoms could begin to coexist in the natural flux of things. We could make data-based decisions informed by science and reason…but also account for one another’s faiths when needful or appropriate. We could look for ways to compromise and succeed in governance rather than stoking drama with stark rhetoric.

Imagine how, on an issue like abortion, we could say “What seems to work to reduce abortions?” — and then do that, instead of fighting over whether they should be legal or not.

Imagine a world where we could vociferously protect the 2nd amendment right for hobbyists and hunters and those who feel a weapon makes them safer at night…and still embrace common sense gun laws that could help to prevent gun violence.

Imagine that we negotiated on voting laws, congressional districts and the electoral college. We would only make changes or adjustments by consensus from both parties, instead of basing such pivotal elements in our democracy on whoever has the “might” in a given year or election term.

On the Supreme Court, we would likewise make mutual decisions with representation from both parties. (FWIW, This is actually what Bill Clinton did when he nominated RBG. This is also what Obama tried to do by nominating Merrick Garland, a moderate).

Imagine that such a posture would mean tending to our environment and to our international relationships with balance and a sense of our long-term tenancy on our beloved little planet.

This utopia I am imagining wouldn’t fix racism or poverty or any of the entrenched realities of life in the US. But it might make it POSSIBLE for us to work on them together.

I’m not you, John Lennon.

I don’t want to get rid of religion or race or culture or possessions. Those things make us individuals, they give us stories, they make us human. Your “Imagine,” as beautiful as it was, lacked a certain — je ne sais quoi.

Don’t worry. I know game theory says this is all a pipe dream — the ex-president view is wide in part because it is rare. But I’d sure like to live in a society where we all shared George H.W. Bush’s end-of-term openness, his willingness to listen to the voters who did not re-elect him, his eagerness for his opponent’s success, his belief that our country is bigger than any one view or one person.

And even though no president will get us there — many of these moves require a functioning congress, something we haven’t had in a long time —I know we will never even get anywhere close to it with our current president & his party leaders.

So, this version of “imagine” is why I’m voting for Joe Biden & Kamala Harris this fall and why I endorse Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s wish that the next president choose her successor.

It’s not because I want to “win.” It’s because I want to imagine.

Respectfully,

A High School English Teacher in a Midwest “Flyover” State

This post originally published on Medium Sept 26 2020 to absolutely no fanfare whatsoever, so I’m reclaiming it for my own blog. If it’s not going to be read, it might as well belong to me.

I’m Leaning Closer So You Know I’m Trying (while teaching online in a Global Pandemic)

This are about to change here. Monday we go to hybrid learning. I’ll still be online for 3/5 classes, but hybrid for 2/5. I figured I should document at least one day of this before it’s over, so today I pulled up my photo booth. I took a picture any time I thought I might have just made a “paradigmatic” face. Here’s what I got.

We do a lot of thumbs ups to communicate, and when the camera goes off, my sighs come out. At 4:15, my nap starts.

But my classic is #3. This is the expression that means: “I can’t hear you on the zoom meeting, and your audio is a garbled mess, but I’m leaning closer so you know I’m trying.”

A Metaphor for Teaching in a Global Pandemic

This weekend, my dear friend Michael said that teaching online is harder than first year teaching because every day is like a fireworks display. When the day is over, we’ve burned up all the tricks, everything we had…then we have to make a new display for the next day.  Something about that comparison made so much sense to me.

At first I couldn’t figure it out. Why am I so used up every day? Why am I collapsing into sleep on the couch at 4:15 every day? Why do I feel time and responsibilities slipping through my fingers no matter how many lists–and lists of lists–I make? I am not unhappy. This is good, meaningful work. I like it. It’s just a LOT.

It reminded me the happy dead-tired busy-ness of being in a theatre production. Like during tech week.

At first. 

But then I realized: In a show, when opening night is over and all the actors go home, there is a LOT left for the next performance. The company still has their script, their sets, their props, and their costumes. The light and sound cues are still set. There is a veritable army of beloved techies who can things over and make any minor repairs.

Teaching is usually more like that. After a few years, you earn a general sense of the scripts, sets, props, costumes, and light/sound cues you’ll likely need for any given day. You have to pull the right thing out of the storage closet, dust it off, and update it. You have a team of teacher besties who are in your corner. They ALSO have a storage closet. You share. You update and design things together. You try stuff out together and you help each other solve problems.

Yes, dedicated practitioners clean out their teaching closet on the regular. That means sewing some new outfits or building a new set. But we work those projects into the flow of a school year. A new set might need to be built over the summer, but a couple of new props we can grab and integrate on the fly.

I have no storage closet for online teaching.

After running that day’s show, I’m faced with a few blurry-eyed hours to write a new script, find new props, sew new costumes, and build new sets. I have to set up new light and sound cues for the next day, and there are no techies working alongside me (unless you count Google or Canvas).

Somewhere in there, I should exercise, play with the kids, check social media, spend time with my husband, see some friends, eat dinner, and take out my contacts.

Usually, I manage to take out my contacts.

I Don’t Hate Teaching Online (While we’re in a Global Pandemic)

The “Mrs. BG” Teaching Online GIF

I do not hate teaching online. I’ll be the first to say that Zoom audio doesn’t always work. Tech connections are harder to forge than in-person ones. Discussions are missing some human-ness. Many kids have never shown me their face even once. I miss the embodied-ness of school.

But there are lots of good moments–good days. Days that, as my friends say, “feel like teaching.” There was the boy who changed his voice to sound like Mickey Mouse and then pretended he didn’t know–so we all cracked up. There was the time we played the alphabet game and Hannah used “hairy toad” as her description–so literally no one could get through the alphabet afterward without smiling. There are the virtual rooms students have built and invited me to visit. There is my own virtual room, which was a delight to make.

My sample virtual room

Plus, I get teach from what used to be my home studio. For now, it’s a classroom, and I’m cool with that. I’m not managing bodies or behaviors in the same way I would be in-person. I love going upstairs for lunch with my family and getting to see our birds in the middle of the day. I like that I mostly get to teach barefoot, drink tea whenever I like, and put ice in my water when I want it.

These are small pleasures that I don’t have in my brick-and-mortar classroom, so I’m savoring them for now.

I mean, it cant be wrong that I LOVE being able to go to the bathroom whenever I need to go.

Teaching in the U.S. in a Global Pandemic on 9/11

Today I’m sending LOVE to my students, but looking REALLY tired after each class. Checking in with kids on the “scale of cat” and finding most of us are a 3 or a 7 (completely exhausted or utterly wired from sitting still too long), meanwhile my loving teacher-coach checked in with me using a BIG feelings wheel–and there are lots of big feelings, especially today, on 9/11. On my agendas today, I wrote this reflection for my students:

A REFLECTION ON WHAT 9/11 MEANS IN 2020

I was working as a spiritual life director at Coe College. One of my students called me (a student who later served honorably in the military as a result of that day), and said “Are you watching this?” I asked “What?” He said, “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.” I turned on NPR and listened. By the time I got to campus, the second tower had been hit. We grieved as a nation that day–every one of us–and for months afterward as we learned exactly how many people had lost their lives.

That same number of people is dying every three days from a pandemic virus that most other nations have actively contained through masking, social distancing, handwashing, and avoiding crowded indoor spaces. The U.S. hasn’t been doing those things very well. Let today renew our commitment to doing what we know can help curb this mess. For lots of reasons, but at least for us, so that we can all be together again in our schools. ♡

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