To start off the year, I’ve decided to clear out the “drafts” folder on this blog. There are a lot of things I think about but can’t quite wrap my head around before I’m taken with another thought or just generally distracted … by, like, chocolate or something.
In any case, a bunch of those drafts just got the ‘move to trash’ treatment. A bunch of others still resonate, so I’m dusting them off, retooling where necessary and plumping up my January with them. Hey, gotta do something after that long, dry December?
Last spring, my morning class and I read BAD by Jean Ferris. I’ve used this book with a couple of different groups, and I’m always struck by how strongly and completely students get into it. As we were reading in the spring, I was struck by some of my own connections with the characters, connections I’d managed not to fully notice or acknowledge in prior readings.
Dallas, the main character, says: “It could be easier to know how to respond to abuse or neglect than to simple kindness, no strings attached.” We talked about whether or not people had found that to be true in their own lives, and many people shared examples that seemed to say ‘yes.’ All of us with catalogs of the times we’d brushed off nice comments or kind behavior and then agonized for hours over one unpleasant poke or snipe … to say nothing of the deeper, more lasting damage we had taken as right or deserved or a true picture of ourselves.
My students really liked this book — as has every class. They were deeply invested in Dallas and the other girls in the story. I sense that some were like me: seeing themselves in the story, hearing their own voices in Dallas and Damaris and Shatasia’s voices, marveling at how they had avoided being in the same kinds of situations the girls in the story find themselves in. For whatever reason, the story resonates with everyone, women and men, young and old.
It was hard to teach the book this time around because Dallas’ low self-esteem and inner monologue suddenly began to sound too much like my own, and I worried that it would only be a matter of time before someone noticed that a lot of what Dallas said and thought sounded awfully familiar … And Dallas was really just not the image of myself that I want to give my students. (Turns out I don’t need to worry about this. Bizarrely enough, my students have this sense of me as incredibly confident and comfortable in my skin. How I’ve managed to fool them all is truly beyond me.)
There are so many lines in the book that stop me cold. Because I’ve said them to myself. Because I’ve heard my students say them. Like Valencia saying that if she had another life, she’d come back as a man because women’s lives aren’t worth anything. I don’t say things like this to myself today, but some of my students still do.
In so many ways, that’s my job, isn’t it? Helping my students see that women’s lives are worth something, that the lives of sytemically marginalized people are worth something, that there’s room for all of us to be whole people. And yes, I’m supposed to be helping them get ready for the GED exam. Of course. Of course. No one would sign up for class if I billed it as “Come learn how to be a more complete self-loving person in the world” class. Yeah. I would probably steer clear of that class, too. But isn’t that what every class I’ve ever taught really is?
One of the things I like best about Ferris’ book is that there are no easy answers. The girls in the story have all kinds of story arcs, and not one of them is tied neatly with a bow, not one of them is — at the place where we leave the telling — a ‘story book’ ending. And that is, initially, quite frustrating for my students. They want to know what’s going to happen. They want to see Dallas through to a clear, successful end, want to know that Toozdae is going to be safe, that Shatasia’s going to stay out of trouble. But I’m so glad that Ferris doesn’t serve up any of those pretty endings for us, glad she leaves us in our own heads, with our own conversation, with the wide-open vista of the possible.
I love that BAD challenges my students, doesn’t ‘just’ entertain. I’m about to start working with a new novel, Zetta’s wonderful A Wish After Midnight. There are a lot of things about this book that will make for interesting discussions and writing in class. One of the most obvious things I’m looking forward to, however, is helping my overwhelmingly linear and literal students navigate their suspension of disbelief as they are cast back in time with Genna. That should be interesting.