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. ♡
I am reading this statement in each of my classes. Already, a student who is NOT in my class currently wrote me an email saying that she’d heard about my “non-negotiables,” and she wanted to thank me.
In this classroom, Black Lives Matter, no one is illegal, LGBTQIA+ students are welcome. Scholars who live with disabilities as well as those for whom English is a second+ language have the right to receive the support they need to achieve at high levels. We respect and lean on each other’s strengths and capacities, and we do not scorn the deficits or challenges our peers face. We embrace both challenge and failure as the path to learning,
At the end of the statement I added two things.
First: “I know some of these phrases can sound political or might feel a little scary for some people. If that happens for you, please reach out and let’s chat or email. I don’t want anyone to be intimidated in here. It’s totally okay to say, ‘Hey, Mrs. BG, what did you MEAN by that?’ — I promise to explain!”
Second: “I’m serious about keeping the promises that are built into those words. If you ever find my class is not an equitable or welcoming space for you or some part of your identity, call me in. Call me out. Send me an email. I want to know, and I want to fix it.”
This is me hopped up on enthusiasm and sleeplessness. Today is the first day of school–though we don’t start until noon (because scheduling). I am excited to meet my students, nervous about doing that online, hopeful they’ll let me see their wonderful faces (because Zoom), and most of all, so aware that The Long Pause is at an end (for good and for ill).
While getting ready for today has been a lot of work (my family jokes that I’m on “airplane mode” these first few weeks of school), it’s been joyful work. I love planning and preparing for the year. I love the feeling of possibility and hope. I have not been frantic (except one time, just one phone call with one friend), and I’m holding to my aspiration of staying grounded and centered.
The Long Pause helped me discover that very little of what I do is actually essential: Breathe. Feed myself and my family. Connect with loved ones. Take care of my spaces, my little birds, and my plants.
So what’s essential in my teaching? The exact same things. Feed myself and my students (metaphorically). Connect with my learners and my colleagues. Take care of my spaces and my scholars.
Feeding: I used to have a note over my desk at school: “Did my students read today? Did my students write today?” Anytime I could answer “yes” to one or both of those questions, I called the day a success. This year, I’m adding “Did actively work to make learning equitable for everyone?”
Connecting: I’ve had long phone calls with my colleagues over the last few weeks, chatting with H, who has been “Sweating to the Oldies” this summer, reconnecting with C, whose daughter is starting senior year of high school, and touching base a zillion times with M, my teaching partner in AP Capstone, whose daughter is starting freshman year at UIowa.
Caring for Spaces: I’ve reconstructed parts of my studio to be friendly for teaching. I got myself a ring light and am learning to wear contacts. I put away the projects from The Long Pause and pulled out my magic planning notebook. I restocked on post its and flair pens and stickers (they make me happy). That’s taking care of my space (at least until we go back to in-person learning).
All that’s left now is caring for my scholars. That starts today, and I can’t wait.
Community Spotlight – Delivered at Sanctuary Community Church in Iowa City, IA – August 30, 2020
A little later than usual, Back to School time has finally arrived. In an ordinary year, many of us would be part of the big mob in that back section at Target, buying notebooks and binders and mechanical pencils. Yellow busses would practice their winding routes through our neighborhoods. Cross Country runners would fly across First Avenue in their lithe groups, and the sound of football players smacking into one another’s pads would echo across Bates field.
Parents would breathe a sigh of relief while also getting ready for bittersweet photos on front stoops. Kids would be dressed up for the first day, and even the schools would be polished & extra fancy with waxed floors and fresh paint, empty lockers and clean desks.
But this year, there’s no mob at Target. The Cross-Country runners don’t flock. And in Iowa City, we learned yesterday that our district will begin with two weeks of all-online learning. There will be no sigh of relief—and none on the horizon for many parents and students who actually need (or just could really use) that sigh.
For teachers—or at least for me—this moment feels like cancelling Christmas. Sure, I knew it wouldn’t be the same this year. Definitely not as social. Six feet apart, everyone in masks. I wouldn’t actually see many of my students’ faces until spring, if even then. It would be face-to-face without faces.
I mean, this is my season! We start the magic! We have the first discussions and solve the first problems, act out the first scenes, and set up the comforting routines.
Instead, it’s a time of chaos. In fact, this summer has been so chaotic and uncertain on the teacher side that I didn’t find out WHAT I was teaching, WHERE I was teaching, or even HOW I was teaching it until the day before yesterday. My schedule for first trimester is a wonky, color-coded nightmare, and just this morning I realized even the color coding is wrong.
Meanwhile, our state “leadership” has determined “metrics” that will send us all back to in-person school well before the World Health Organization or the CDC recommends. And the funny thing about that is—as much as I want to be back in my familiar classroom, back with my beloved students, back to any kind of normal—that was never actually possible this fall. My teaching friends who have gone back say its unnerving and terrible to see chairs filled with masked teenagers who aren’t allowed to talk much to each other for fear of spreading illness. Their students prefer online days—just for the chance to see one another’s expressions.
Pretending that any of this is normal creates another kind of chaos: fear.
While I know statistically most of my students will be okay–they’re highly unlikely to become severely ill–losing even one of them fills me with unshakeable dread.
But I’m also afraid for myself and my colleagues. We are the adults, those most at risk, who will be spending our days with large groups of humans in poorly ventilated buildings using common bathrooms and eating spaces, while having little access to handwashing.
So I’m doing back to school — differently. I’m buying scrubs and shirts that can be washed in hot water. Face shields and masks and ear protectors and headbands. I’m still debating about a voice amplifier, since I don’t think students at the back of the room will be able to hear me through all the PPE.
I’ve also done some other, more personal, things to prepare for the eventuality of face-to-face school. I updated the file with all of my passwords and logins, compiled detailed instructions for how to take care of our parakeets, and wrote a final letter to my family.
I know that’s a little gloomy and macabre. But so is sending students and teachers back to in-person school in the middle of a global pandemic.
Still, if I pause…
…if I stop and think about just this moment, just this day—it’s good-ish. Here in Iowa City, we have two weeks of online learning guaranteed, and it’s possible that the worst of this terrible wave in our county and state will be over by the time we are face to face—or mask-to-mask—with our students.
I’ve got exciting plans to make online learning dynamic. I know lots of teachers do. Many of us spent our summers anticipating online learning, studying tech tips, and figuring out how to mobilize our imaginations for a different kind of school.
But what it really comes down to–at least this morning–is this: part of me is utterly delighted that (at least for these two weeks), I’m going to see all my students’ faces, even though it’s just on camera.
This is what I look like today–August 22, 2020. In a little while, I’m headed out the door to be a soccer mom for my own kids at a socially-distant & masked outdoor game.
I’m a teacher in a large Iowa high school, and I’ve been teaching for 17+ years. I love students–especially teenagers. I love my job. I really enjoy planning for students and thinking with them. The conversations we have? They regularly astonish and delight me. True, I’m not a fan of the paper load that comes with my job or the lack of boundaries the work invites.
…and yes, it’s true that I only get paid for 10 months of the year.
But everything else about my job is just wonderful. I’m lucky to do meaningful work in a cutting edge district with a democratically-elected school board. Our leaders really believe in students and teachers doing the work of education and they do everything in their power to make that work possible.
WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW
First, and most importantly, we’ve lost several students this summer: an sweet eighth grader, a recent alum I was close with, and a beloved rising senior superstar. These losses are grievous to our community–especially after losing three other students earlier in this school year (another much-adored recent alum and two bright and beautiful members of the class of 2020 (here and here).
To be frank, facing another year in which we may see as many–or many more–losses among students, faculty, and staff is nearly unbearable.
But as for the school end of things: while we initially hoped to begin the year in a fully online model, our governor made that impossible (see “Background” below, if interested). So, we moved our start date back several weeks to September 8 to buy some time. Then, this week, we found out that 40-60% of our students and families have elected the optional 100% online academy for first trimester. The remaining 60-40% will be using an A/B day model for hybrid learning. Our master schedule was trashed and our administrators are scrambling to create a new one that takes all these numbers into consideration.
At this point, I’m mostly at home still, just occasionally dropping off loads of supplies to my classroom. I’ve done some things I would have done in a regular summer: I developed easily accessible “apps” for classes I’m likely to teach. I updated my Canvas pages, and began planning opening units. I made my teacher calendar and grade book for the year. I’ve purchased sanitizer, Kleenex, sticky notes and index cards and flare pens and scotch tape in bulk. #CostCo, am I right?
An “App” for AP Seminar
My Teacher notebook: first to-do list done
Gradebook Pages Updated
An “App” for 10H
But I’m also doing things I have never done before:
Buying PPE – silicone mask spacers, masks, ear-savers, face shields, glasses de-fogger, etc. Thank goodness for Etsy!
Shopping for Scrubs & other clothes that can be rewashed in hot water every day.
Researching online & hybrid teaching methods. My district even purchased access for us to a course on the topic (yes, I KNOW I’m lucky).
Thinking a LOT about how to build social/emotional connections in an unpredictable learning space.
Looking for voice amplifiers and air purifiers (too expensive, but on my wishlist).
Trying to figure out how to rearrange 38 seats so that students have six feet of distance between them–and what to do with the other 18 desks in the meantime.
Looking into mini-fridges for our basement in case I have to move downstairs to live separately from my family during quarantine or illness.
Writing final letters to my family, sorting through old photographs, and updating my will/trust & password logs. I wrote out specific instructions for how to take care of our budgies in case I’m not around to do it for long. I also helped my brother, a respiratory therapist, write his will this summer (Rocket Lawyer’s $5 offer is unbeatable).
None of these things have ever been part of preparing for a school year before, and it seems like maybe… they shouldn’t be?
BACKGROUND (OR, HOW OUR GOVERNOR MADE BACK-TO-SCHOOL IMPOSSIBLY DANGEROUS), For Interested Readers:
In July, our board voted unanimously to begin the school year online until the pandemic got under control, but three days later, our Governor proclaimed that all school districts were required to offer at least 50% of their instruction in-person (face to face), but that parents should be able to choose a 100% online option.
[FWIW: This is the same state government that has refused to issue a mask mandate because “individual Iowans can make their own choices based on where they live,” but has also said my city is not allowed to institute a higher minimum wage in our own city than anywhere else in the state.]
When we suggested the governor was claiming state control over an issue that should be decided locally, she told us she would not give us credit for instructional days that used an online-only model — unless her office had approved it. This is particularly nuts when you consider that if PARENTS choose an online model, the days count. But if the school chooses it, they don’t.
Then her office released these crazy metrics:
For comparison, The WHO recommends schools be closed for face-to-face learning when the 14-day average positivity is at a 5% or more, most scientists put it at 3-7%, and even the politically revised CDC guidelines formerly considered 10% problematic (they no longer assign numerical value to “substantial community spread” on any of their easily accessible documents).
As a result, together with several other large districts and ISEA lawyers, our district crafted a statement of legal defense for going online, and our school board read that statement at an early August meeting.
Then our Governor said “Defy me, and you’re defying the law. I will take away the licensure of your District administrators.” When questioned about the impact on students, faculty, staff, and maintenance crews–including sickness, long-term illness, and death–she said that those things are just “scare tactics.”
At that point, things started to actually become dangerous to our community! We are talking about people’s lives, after all. Plus, the licensure threat was quite personal and retaliatory. Our district, together with several others (and the ISEA) is now pursuing legal action against the governor’s interpretation of law in order to return local control to local school districts and our elected, local, representative school board officials.
She says she’s “disappointed” that we are pursuing “legal action” instead of working “cooperatively” with her on “return to learn” plans that “prioritize students.”
Well, we’re disappointed in HER. We’d like our students to live. We think THAT is what it means to prioritize them. She’s the one asking us to kill them, their parents, their grandparents, and our community with rampant spread of a virus other places have controlled reasonably well is the solution.
During the first few months of the pandemic, I could basically handle my job and limitless games of solitaire on my phone, and that was about it.
But then my friend Tanya recommended a book called Beach Read. It’s a enemies-to-lovers story about two writers living next door to each other, each of whom thinks the other person’s genre is “easy” until they decide to genre swap. Their banter, their romance, and even their writing projects were smart, sassy, and fun to read. Implicit in their genres, though, is the question of gender and popular fiction and what it means to write “literary” or “for profit”–and how that’s different for men and women in the industry.
But for whatever reason, the writing blocks that they dealt with helped me get over my reading blocks and jump back into the world of books. First stop, First Comes Scandal, a new romance by a favorite author, Julia Quinn. This friends-to-lovers story charmed my socks off with a very forward-thinking & emotionally intelligent hero and a heroine who is competent, well-read, and knows it. She spends a good part of their courtship (and the epilogue assures us, their marriage) asking insightful questions and thinking about complex medical issues discussed in anatomy textbooks. There is no stunning drama here—no climactic reveals or moments of massive tension—just the gradual sort of falling-in-love that doesn’t often find a place in romance novels.
Quinn tackles the trope that “men are supposed to have sexual experience but women aren’t” by challenging it directly, giving the characters permission to voice the vexing questions. But she also challenges the trope implicitly by simply […spoiler redacted].
Later in the summer, I picked up another romance from my BOTM selections, Head Over Heels.The trend of emotionally astute romantic stories continues with this novel about gymnastics coaches turned lovers. He invites her to coach floor for his star athlete, but has harbored a crush since their own competition days. She takes the job and begins to build a real adult life for the first time.
The context for their story is gymnastics, and all the terrible hits are there (Nadia’s story retold, the sex abuse scandal re-played, etc.)—but so are the new stories of health and happiness and reaching for the stars. Fans of the Olympics, or even folks who enjoyed Michael Phelps’s recent tell-all will enjoy this. But there is also a more significant #metoo context here that raises interesting questions about how someone redeems themselves and what makes a good apology.
Nonfiction That Kept Me Going
There was plenty enough going on in the BLM Movement for me to pick up two titles that have been on my TBR for a little while, Stamped, and How to Be and Antiracist. Both exceeded my expectations and challenged me in all the right ways, both as a thinker/academic and as a teacher activist.
I love the way Reynolds’ narration is conversational and focused on the through line of history–first this, then that, because those. It’s the same thing that helped me as a student. I did not learn history with this particular through line, though, and more than ever before I can see how important that is—which stories we tell, and how we tell them changes the narrative. As for Kendi’s book, there is nothing to say but READ IT. His clarity reveals his readers to themselves. He is SUPER meticulous about definitions, about intersectionality, and about activism. The result is that I walked away with a renewed commitment to antiracist work, and immediately joined a cohort of teachers in my district who are working on changing implicit racist policies to explicit antiracist policies. Thank you, Ibram Kendi.
Then I picked up Glennon Doyle’s latest book, Untamed (another BOTM pick). I didn’t go into it with high hopes. Her brand of inspiration has not really been inspiring to me personally. I haven’t trusted her brand, I guess? But this book hit me at the right time, in the right frame of mind, and whoa. In some ways, I’d say it’s a layperson’s Dance of the Dissident Daughter, challenging the sort of patriarchal, authority-based religious practice and life governance that is common in evangelicalism for a more feminine and intuitive spiritual practice that’s holistically integrated into women’s lives. I really enjoyed the blog-size chapters and her excellent use of metaphor. And I felt absolutely alive while I was reading it.
…& Finally! Back to Kid Lit
That finally brought me back to kidlit with a refreshed perspective. I read the new picture book, We Are the Water Protectors, which was a poetic and insightful tribute to water protectors, though it did raise questions for me about #OwnVoices. The author of the book is an indigenous person, but not–as far as I can tell–actually from a tribe that has participated in the movement. As a white reader from outside the communities, it made me m curious about what the author’s identity means or doesn’t mean.
I moved up to YA right away–picking up a new fantasy novel by Rin Chupeco called Wicked as You Wish. I wrote a much longer review here. In a nutshell, though, the pace was a bit slow for me–very typical of a “book 1” in a series–and it reads more like Riordan-age readers than YA. But! Folks who love Arthurian stories, fairy tales, and hero’s quests will enjoy the story of a hidden prince returning to frozen Avalon to save his kingdom…with a side dish of high school crushes and bonfire parties.
I went back to MG to pick up Ways to Make Sunshine by Renée Watson, which the New York Times pitched as the new Ramona Quimby. They were so right. The protagonist, Ryan Hart (yes, she’s a girl named Ryan. Don’t step in it), is winsome and kind. Her parents are lovely, realistic humans. Even her grumpy older brother is a pretty decent guy when it comes down to it. Watson does not exaggerate anyone’s negative qualities for humor the way Beverly Cleary did (or for that matter the way Barbara Park did in June B. Jones). Instead she sticks to a kind of wholesome clear-heartedness that really honors the love Ryan and her family share.
What’s more, the prose is as clean and clear as any ever written, but graced with a poet’s touch. Watson sure knows her way around a touching metaphor and a well-placed image. I can’t imagine a family I wouldn’t happily give this book to in a heartbeat.
Most recently, I picked up another newish YA, My Eyes Are Up Here. Again, a much longer review here. Suffice to say, that this “light hearted” YA read is so well done that it’s in a class by itself. Greer is 32H young woman who hides her body (and her suffering) in huge t-shirts until a new friend, a volleyball team, two kick ass teachers, an old friend, a kleptomaniac-little sister, and one really sweet boy turn hiding into something she doesn’t want to do anymore. The entire cast is lifelike and believable, the character’s interior monologue is hyper-realistic, and (spoiler) romance is NOT the thing that “saves” Greer from herself. All around a winning title that will be easy to suggest to many teens.
[tl;dr — What started as musing about what on earth we’ve done with all this pandemic-time ended up leading me to a startling conclusion about universal basic income–something I’ve sort of poo-poohed before, not because I didn’t think it was great, but because I didn’t think it was possible.]
Photo credit David Borger Germann
After watching THE BIG YEAR, my family & I started birding. This is a “small sort of accomplishment,” but then, this strange, suspended time has been full of exactly those kinds of things.
Photo Credit David Borger Germann
We are no experts. The migrations are happening and we are missing most of the “exciting” birds because we know next to nothing. But we don’t mind because we saw some orioles and a bluebird.
Photo credit David Borger Germann
We know where our goldfinches’ favorite trees are, we have a set of house finches and some dozen house sparrows & white-crowned sparrows and robins, a downy woodpecker, two blue-winged teals, and a zillion blackbirds of all varieties living in our neighborhood.
We have even discovered an enormous turtle who lives in the pond at the bottom of our creek, and we can spot his shadow when the wind is still.
The bird feeder outside my studio draws and nourishes our winged friends every day, and while they are a terrible “distraction,” they are also teaching me to question if it isn’t my life indoors that is the distraction.
We have planted vegetables and flowers, nurtured the soil around our home with good things, and noticed the baby Aspens growing from the one a buck killed last fall.
We watched our trees—ones we planted years ago—go from bare to bud to blossom to leaf, and we’ve planted twelve more into a tree circle that will hold magic some day.
We have listened to frogs in the creek at night, and learned the two-tone call of the black-capped chickadee. We’ve sat and laughed at barn swallow antics: they alight on the pond and tumble back up into the sky like acrobats.
We have baked so many good things to nourish ourselves—vegetable pot pie and cakes, soda bread and quiche, cinnamon rolls and lasagna.
We have read aloud with our “struggling reader” every day for nearly an hour—A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, a short story by Sarah Prineas, New Kid by Jerry Craft, The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, and a long article about DeAndre Hopkins from Sports Illustrated. We’re now reading The Giver by Lois Lowry. Meanwhile, our avid reader has devoured the Warcross series by Marie Lu.
We have made music and danced, doodled and written letters, drunk tea and prayed.
There has been a lot of laughing. They’re small, but we’ve accomplished so many pleasures of living life at a very slow pace, in a very small place.
Admittedly, we have jobs that transferred to home. Our kids are safe & fed. Our “accomplishments” are the result of those privileges. But they don’t have to be. This thing has me thinking: With universal basic income, we could ALL have the time to know our neighbor birds & feel soil in our fingers.
UBI would mean we could all have the basic standard of living that permits us to be more productive at home—growing food and flowers, making meals, baking bread, sewing, or even just mixing our own martinis.
We could all have the time to know our neighborhood birds and to feel soil in our fingers and to listen to the life around us. To have “such singing inside us:
From Mary Oliver’s Owls and Other Fantasies, (c) 2003
I’m an Iowan. Every 4 years, we talk about how the caucus disenfranchises people—for hundreds of reasons. And it does. The caucus is designed for an era —one that likely never existed—in which every shop on main street shut at 5, and there were no factories running overtime in Iowa’s small towns. Kids could play in the gym with a few local teens babysitting while the adult community managed the necessaries of citizenship.
If that ever did exist, it doesn’t anymore. We need a better solution. A primary. A caucus run on a rotating time schedule. Preference cards for people who can’t or don’t want to stay for conversation and alignment. Whatever.
That does not mean this caucus is irrelevant or meaningless or that it doesn’t offer useful insight for the political parties who run it.
A candidate who does well in Iowa has a shot at doing well in NH and beyond. A candidate who can survive the months and months of conversations, canvassing, and meet-and-greets here has a finger on the pulse of a part of American life that is both rural and urban, educated and not, farmers and business people, teachers and stay-at-home moms, domestic workers and salespeople. And surprise! We come from a myriad of races and cultures. Are we as diverse as a LA or Chicago? No. But we are smaller than they are by a long shot.
Bottom line, this is a place where candidates must meet and answer serious minded people who take caucus politics seriously.
Case in point: 12-15 junior and senior students, calling themselves “Caucus Club,” have met in my classroom once a week for the last five months. They’ve been grilling campaign staffers, registering their classmates, canvassing for their chosen candidates, and planning a mock caucus to train other students on what to do. I have personally heard them ask tough questions about Kamala’s history with trans folks, Bernie and Biden’s sexism, Yang’s viability, Steyer’s stance on student debt, and more.
Students and precinct captains, members and leaders of the respective parties, staffers, and even the candidates themselves toil endlessly, engaging everyone in a conversation that matters deeply.
We serve our country by being a first testing ground for candidates.
So when caucus time comes around, I show up. I am privileged enough to go, so I go. While there, I try to be a good citizen. I help the visibly disabled folks around me (those who’ve made it) to manage the difficult parts of the caucus (including keeping your left hand raised for sometimes as long as 10 minutes). I giggle with the kids in the crowd who are bored and drawing or reading on blankets on the gym floor. I cheer on my high school students who are there for their first time, thanking them for being involved in a strange and demanding version of the political process. (Honestly, I also play solitaire on my phone because some of it IS boring.)
Every time I caucus, I feel glad that even if no one pays much attention to this small part of the world most of the time, we do get an opportunity to participate in it—in a big way—every few years.
That said, I’d give up even this privilege for a more equitable system, and I think most Iowans would.
So, instead pooping all over us in newspapers or Facebook feeds and treating us like a joke, I think “thank you” would be more appropriate.
Lake Ellyn on a sunny day, the small, brown boathouse across the water (photo via Wikipedia)
My kids are going indoor ice skating today with their day camp. I told them about skating on Lake Ellyn as a girl. We’d wait for the safety light on the boathouse to turn from red to green, and then we’d lace up to skate all night, freezing and happy.
For just a second, telling them that story reminded me of lines from George Draper’s famous Sestina:
…Before these days of fury,
When indoor rinks were just a gleam in Hockey
Fanatics’ eyes there was no greater pleasure
Than winter mornings…
…but my kids were suddenly interested in “Who is Glen Ellyn, anyhow? Was it a person?”
I explained that a “glen” is a type of place, and “Ellyn” was the wife of someone important in Glen Ellyn’s history. Then I told them about all seven of Glen Ellyn’s historical names–I could remember only parts of five of them.
That led to me explaining how every third grader in Glen Ellyn was required to learn Glen Ellyn history. We had to pass a test to pass third grade.
My sixth and seventh grade children are agog. “You had to pass a test to finish THIRD GRADE?”
“Yup.” I laughed.
“That’s harsh,” my 10yo said.
But the realization of what that test meant crashed down on me, right there at the breakfast table. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs. I’m a Midwesterner. Shouldn’t that have insulated me from the worst excesses of whiteness?
Nope. Sorry. And here is proof: I had to pass a test about the “history” of my town in the third grade.
White people posing in front of the historical hotel (photo via the Glen Ellyn Historical Society home page)
That history began in 1833.
That history included lots of white folks “settling,” and “staking claim” and building things. It also included those same white folks fighting for the Union in the Civil War.
That history was an “idyllic” one with vacationers in suits and bustled dresses punting on the lake.
That history included a hotel fire and a train station and Stacey’s Tavern.
But here’s what that history didn’t include. It contained no references to any people of color whatsoever.
No queer folks, either.
And what did the indigenous people call that place before the white folks showed up? No one taught us those names.*
My own children did not exist in the “history” of the place I grew up. And neither did I (likely part of why it took me so dang long to imagine that, as a bi woman, I exist at all). More importantly for the time, what did the (very) few children of color in my school learn from that unit? How did this vision of history impact them?
So here’s my reminder for today (as if I could forget) that George Draper was wrong. There is no “before” the “days of fury.” We just put ourselves in places where we didn’t have to look real fury in the face and then we taught our children that fury never existed at all.
Then we tested them on it.
We had to make sure they kept our stories straight, our alibis tight.
*I have made a number of phone calls and am searching through archives to try and learn those names as soon as possible.
My 5th and 6th grade boys voluntarily gave up screen time in order to keep reading this book. If that doesn’t sell it, I don’t know what will.
Hernandez has created a snappy plot that clips right along with a clever protagonist who’s emotionally intelligent and genuinely loves the people in his life in a way that doesn’t usually show up in middle grade. He buys the believability of that protagonist (Sal) with two key pieces of backstory:
1. Sal’s Mami died several years prior to the opening of the novel, and that loss functions as a sort of moral and emotional compass for him.
2. Sal has Type 1 Diabetes, which means he’s seen his share of emergency rooms–and what they do to his family–experiences that have given him a profoundly compassionate streak.
The magic in the book, science-y though it is, doesn’t get introduced right away, something that might throw some readers. From a craft perspective, I suspect that move was a nod to magical realism, a tradition that the Cuban-American author is both invoking and subverting.
And, for what it’s worth, this cast is as authentically Cuban-American as I have ever seen on the page. Hernandez introduces some elements of culture for non-Cuban readers, but also just lets some of it exist and expects his audience to get on board–a move that works because he’s earned our trust and admiration so profoundly.
…and I haven’t even mentioned Gabi, who is every inch HERSELF in this remarkable story, a Hermione-ish character who gets full credit both from the author and from everyone else in the story, including Sal.
…or the remarkably fine handling of details around blended families, Yasmany’s family, schools/teachers, and the arts. It is SUCH a world. A wonderful world. I cannot wait to go back to it.
If this is the kind of book that the new Rick Riordan imprint is going to produce, then I say it’s about time we get more of them. Bravo.
Post Script: Those boys who gave up screen time to read this book? They hadn’t been reading for a few months. One of them had told me he figured he had “already read all the good books that were out there.” But when they finished reading Sal and Gabi, they immediately dug out the Harry Potter series and started re-reading it. This book reminded them of what a good book can be. Thank you, Carlos Hernandez.