Check out my guest post at Reflections of a Book Addict

I got nostalgic and a little bit neurotic over at Reflections of a Book Addict today.  Check it out!

As an aside, I miss that neon-green stegosaurus sweatshirt.  I want to find another one.  Internet: help me!

Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons

Review & Giveaway – Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz

You guys… this book is wonderful.

Cover image, Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Cover image, Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz

I’m not exactly convinced that the movie will be equally amazing, or even slightly amazing, but anyone even contemplating seeing the movie should read the book first.  Actually, read it right now.  I’m not kidding.

The blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

“Admissions. Admission. Aren’t there two sides to the word? And two opposing sides…It’s what we let in, but it’s also what we let out.”

For years, 38-year-old Portia Nathan has avoided the past, hiding behind her busy (and sometimes punishing) career as a Princeton University admissions officer and her dependable domestic life. Her reluctance to confront the truth is suddenly overwhelmed by the resurfacing of a life-altering decision, and Portia is faced with an extraordinary test. Just as thousands of the nation’s brightest students await her decision regarding their academic admission, so too must Portia decide whether to make her own ultimate admission.

Admission is at once a fascinating look at the complex college admissions process and an emotional examination of what happens when the secrets of the past return and shake a woman’s life to its core.

When I was younger and full of the snobbery of college-age promise, I always read with pen in hand, ready to make notations, certain that this or that work of literature would suddenly explain the world to me in stark relief and beautiful language.  Sometimes it did; mostly, that pen was just a sign of my readiness to be transformed.  In the intervening decade, as my life became more full and my reading choices less profound (some would say; others, myself included, could argue this assumption, but that’s another blog post for another day), I stopped my habit of clutching a pen.

By the time I reached page 52 of Admission, I was digging in my purse for my favorite pen (and thanking the PR folk at Grand Central Publishing for sending me a paper copy of the book, enabling me to feel the extreme satisfaction of underlining this sentence: “There is a sound to waiting. It sounds like held breath pounding its fists against the walls of the lung, damp and muffled beats.”)  All told, I employed my pen eleven times to mark passages that seemed to me beautiful or particularly interesting or important.  I might have taken the time to underline more had I not read the last 2/3 of the book in one sitting, desperate to watch the journey unfold.

That careful unfolding is perhaps the best thing about the book.  The prose is beautiful, the story interesting, the backdrop profound, but it was the clarity of the author’s light shining into the murk her character had encouraged her life to become that floored me.  Portia is simultaneously far too aware of herself and utterly blind to the reality of her life.  Her struggle with the weight of the past, the penance of the present, and the impossibility of the future is at once shocking and intimately familiar.

I don’t often read other reviews before publishing my own review on a book, but this time I did.  The critical praise included in the book’s front matter seemed a bit strange to me, with most of the reviews focusing on the glimpses of college admissions culture that one can glean from this book.  That struck me as odd, because it did not seem to me that the book was about college admissions at all.  In fact, it is about Portia and her slow, difficult, and at times traumatic, recovery of her life.  Her sojourn in Dartmouth’s and Princeton’s Admission offices is the blindfold Portia uses to hide from reality.

“Her only tether was to the armchair and the orange folders, traveling slowly from stack to stack across her wooden lap desk, like that T.S. Eliot poem about the life measured out in coffee spoons, except that she was measuring hers with other people’s lives, which they had measured into these life-folders. Short lives, slivers of lives, fictions of lives.” (140)

and

“Her life was a port in the storm, a craft in unpredictable waters. Her life, it occurred to her, was a careful refuge from life.” (166)

One can, undeniably, learn quite a lot about college admissions while reading the book, but all those sections are a carefully crafted distraction from what’s really going on with Portia.  Along its winding road, this novel delves into the potential of young womanhood, along with all of its attendant responsibilities to justify and validate the struggles of all the women who came before; the weight of self-reproach and shame that falls on those who buckle under the pressure; the awareness of failure that marks middle age.  It also hints at the joy accessible to those who live, not through coffee spoons or any other measure of  habit, but through themselves.

Giveaway

I am absolutely thrilled to be able to offer a giveaway of Admission, hosted by Grand Central Publishing.  One lucky commenter, selected at random by random.org, will win a copy of the movie-tie-in trade paperback (U.S. only… sorry!).  Please answer this question in a comment below in order to enter this giveaway (or feel free to make up your own topic, if you prefer, but please say something substantive…it’s just more interesting!):  

  • Assuming you wrote them, do you remember what you said in your college application essays?  Care to share the topic(s)?

The giveaway will run from Wednesday, March 20 until Tuesday, March 30 at 11:59 p.m. pacific time.  The winner must be willing to provide a mailing address in order to claim the prize.

*FTC Disclosure – I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Grand Central Publishing, in exchange for an honest review.*

Jane Austen January

Portrait of Jane Austen in watercolor and pencil by Cassandra Austen (1773-1845), digitally restored and remastered by Amano1 Source: http://www.janeausten.co.uk/regencyworld/pdf/portrait.pdf via Wikimedia Commons

On Christmas Day in 1997, I received a collected volume of Jane Austen’s novels from my mother.  It is one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.  I had read Pride and PrejudiceSense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park several times, but this volume introduced me to the other books.  In January of 1998, I read all of the books, and in every January of the following years, I made it a tradition to read at least a few Jane Austen novels.  This coming January represents the fifteenth annual Jane Austen January, and I’m hoping to make it into a somewhat informal blog event.

This year, I plan to read Pride and PrejudicePersuasion, and Northanger Abbey, but I might add in Sense and Sensibility as well, depending on how much free time I have.  My goal is to write at least one blog post about each of the books and, I hope, to engage in discussions with other readers.  I’m totally open to discussing other Jane Austen works, but I probably won’t read more than these four books, so my comments will be limited to my last reading.  (It’s been a while since I read Mansfield Park and Emma…)

Every time I read these books, I discover something new about them, though whether that is due to my changing over the years, to the books’ being that nuanced, or just to my possessing a truly terrible memory, I’ll never know.

Is anyone game to join me in this fifteenth annual Jane Austen January?  Please let me know in the comments below.  (Lurking is also totally welcome.)  Discussions can take place on Twitter, if that’s convenient, and in the comments feature on this blog.  Check the side bar for my Twitter info.  Please also feel free to do your own thang with posts on your blog, if you have one.  I do this event every year, alone; this is my first attempt to bring other folk into the mix, so we’ll see how it goes.  🙂

A music post: Tori Amos rocks my world

Last December, I saw Tori Amos in concert in Los Angeles, and it was amazing.  It was stunning, actually.  I sat in my seat with wide, unblinking eyes and did my best to take everything in, to experience everything as fully as possible.  I was there with four of my friends, but once Tori came out on stage in her crazy dress and shiny leggings, my focus was set, and my experience was individual rather than collective.  I suspect the other three did the same.  When it was over, we gushed together.

I learned a few things that night.  I did not realize that I was so familiar with most of Tori’s songs that I would notice slight variations (an unexpected stress on a particular word in a song; a chord that used to be played differently; a slight lyric change).  I did not realize how much of my self was tied up with her music.

I’m one of those Tori fans for life.  It really doesn’t matter what she does (or doesn’t do); I will find a way to love everything she creates.  My experience of her music, my connection to it, has changed over the years.  I used to connect very emotionally to her music (possibly because I was a teenager at the time, possibly because the music itself was more emotional in nature), but my connection with her recent albums (except for Night of Hunters) has been more intellectual.  I want to figure out what the story is behind her songs; I want to hear and understand the architecture of the music and figure out how it contributes to the story; but I don’t often deliberately seek out the little personal corners of myself that connect to this or that piece of music or lyric.  My habit of intellectualizing Tori’s music ended on that evening in December when I sat in the Orpheum Theatre and listened to Tori play.

It was “Precious Things” that did me in.  Sitting there, I was reunited with all of my past selves who had listened to that song and found some comfort in it.

I am, of course, unable to listen to that song objectively.  All those past selves crowd in with their various connections to all the pretty girls, to all the pandering to boys whose faces I no longer remember, to all the times I cut myself down in an attempt to be what someone else may (or may not) have wanted.  I do not know whether that song is powerful in and of itself or if its power largely derives from my experience of it over the years.  Maybe it is infinitely more powerful to me because so many women of my acquaintance also connected with it.  Maybe that’s what music is.

Tori’s new album Gold Dust reminds me of that December concert.  I’ve grown up with Tori’s music as the soundtrack of my life, its ups and its downs.  Tori has grown up, too.  When she sings her songs now, “Precious Things” and “Hey Jupiter,” for instance, she can sing them as the girl she was 20 years ago when she wrote them, as a mature woman, as a mother.  Nothing about Tori’s music is static – every time she changes, it does, too – and I think that’s my favorite thing about her as an artist, that her art gives me the room I need to grow and change and still love what I loved before.

Check out my guest post on Beauty in Budget Blog!

That’s me… If I see a camera pointed my way, I naturally make that face. It really bugs my Grandpa.  As an aside, I think that’s Joan Didion’s The White Album in my hand.

I’m not very good at taking care of my appearance… it all started with school uniforms, and by the time I got to public school, I didn’t recognize the difference between fashion and crazy.  Who was wearing lace-edged leggings three years past the fad?  I was!  Who was wearing pedal pushers five years before they got cool?  I was! (To be honest, they weren’t actually pedal pushers… they were regular jeans that were just way too short on me because I hit my growth spurt in 6th and 7th grades and grew 11 inches over the two school years… my inseams just couldn’t keep up.)  I sort of gave up on being hip or even marginally attractive.

That’s me in the middle, trying to pretend to be 5’4″ (I was actually 6’0″). I was 13, and I had really bad allergies.

Thank God for my friend Teresa, who has never accepted that slovenly homeliness is the best I can do.  And she’s right.  It really does feel good to take a tiny bit of care when selecting my clothing in the morning, and if I still can’t be bothered to brush or style my hair (employing, instead, the ubiquitous floppy pony tail… it ain’t pretty, but whatever), at least I’m moving in the right direction with my sartorial care.  Thank God also that Teresa started her blog about makeup, because I use it as an excellent and entertaining ‘how to be a girl’ reference manual.

And now I can add another plume to my sparsely feathered cap: Teresa has allowed me to write a guest review of e.l.f.’s Lip Balm SPF 15.  Please click on over to Beauty in Budget Blog (right here) to see the review and check out all the amazing advice on drugstore makeup: what’s available, what it costs, and whether it’s worth it.  I love this blog.

Armchair BEA 2012 – Day 4 (catching up) – Beyond the Blog

Yesterday was a bit nuts, but I am determined to catch up today.

Yesterday was day 4 of Book Expo America, in which I am participating virtually via Armchair BEA.  Today’s (yesterday’s) writing topic asks us to look beyond the blog for opportunities or tips to expand one’s writing to other communities online or in print or to expand one’s blog to be a source of income.  “Have you done any freelance writing?  Are you monetizing your blog and how so?  How do you make connections outside the book blog community on the Internet?  If none of these apply, we’d love for you to share a fun aspect about your blog or life that may be completely separate from books!”

I write and edit all day long as part of my job, but I don’t imagine anyone would be all that thrilled to hear about the number of business letters I have occasion to write.  The editing I do is even less sexy than writing business letters.  Don’t get me wrong–I enjoy taking a whole bunch of crazy and transforming it into standard written English, but that’s me.  I’d be happy eating oatmeal every day.  I’m just one of those people.  Given that the non-blog writing that I do is generally uninteresting, that I am not monetizing my blog, and that I have few connections either within or without the book blog community on the Internet, I figured I’d tell a cautionary tale about writing, editing, and managing difficult interpersonal relationships and about how I’ve failed at all three over the years (but in a fun way).

When I was in high school, I was the editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper and the sole contributor to the opinion page.  I wrote some crazy nonsense, and I still can’t believe that the school was willing to publish it every month and distribute it to all the students.  My favorite regular column was the advice column, “Dear Wildcat.”  In the first month, I couldn’t get anyone to submit questions, so, lacking patience, I decided to scrap the idea to answer real questions from students and just made up my own questions to answer.  I was 17 and writing both sides of the conversation… you can probably guess how that went.  All told, it was a great experience, but I learned that I’m best at humor writing, so a career in serious journalism was never in the cards for me.

During my stint as editor-in-chief, I also learned that I am a terrible manager.  I’m pretty much like Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I micromanage and am convinced that I can play all the roles, simultaneously, better than anyone else.  It’s a problem.  When I discovered that the other students had no talent for writing and didn’t understand even basic English grammar, my natural response was to write all of the articles myself and just give writing credit to the other students, because that was easier than trying to manage the process of editing and collecting final drafts (that were often still not quite written in standard American English…).  The students who wrote for the paper were terrible writers, for sure, but I was so much worse as a manager than they ever were as writers, sentences like, “The Akil has improve is by working harder” notwithstanding.

Even when I’m not in any way responsible for the material that gets published, it still drives me absolutely batty to come across published material that could have been written by a monkey.  About a decade ago, a guy who knows my dad purchased a community newspaper and tried his hand at publishing.  He had grand plans to transform the newspaper into a community information hub for the San Gabriel Valley area of LA County, but his newspaper was so terrible!  After the first edition, I wrote a letter to the editor requesting that he hire a copy editor.  He ignored me and proceeded to publish another edition that was full of grammatical crazy.  I wrote another letter to the editor that referenced the number of grammar and spelling (!) errors and begged him to hire a copy editor.  He ignored me and published another edition.  I, full of 22-year-old righteous indignation, took a red pen to his newspaper and mailed it back to him.  He ignored me.  I kept it up for another three months until he called my dad (!!) and asked him to tell me to stop sending him proofread copies of his newspaper.  At that point, after six months, I finally realized that he didn’t care about the quality of what he was publishing, and I was fighting an unwinnable battle.

I’m ten years older now and a lot more mellow.  Even so, it drives me wonky when I read a book, even a free one, and encounter truly stupid errors, but I no longer ride out on my steed of grammatical justice to defend the honor of the English language every time I read a book that was published without the benefit of a competent editor (every other time, maybe).  So, yeah, I’ve mellowed, but I still have a tendency to be very critical of what I read.  I suspect that the hyper-criticism that comes naturally to me could be off-putting to many (particularly authors and publishers).  But I’m not really writing a review blog here, so maybe it’s moot.

I love early 90s hip hop – and I think I might be a feminist…

I’m helping some friends put together a playlist for their wedding, and that means I get to listen to some of my favorite guilty-pleasure music: early 90s rap and hip hop!  On my way into work this morning, I was rocking out to House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” and I realized that my favorite early 90s hip hop songs always feature the ridiculous–the threat of violence combined with the exhortation to dance, for example–and I wonder what that says about me.

Officially, I love every single thing about this song–I love anything that makes me laugh–but my favorite verse refers to Vanilla cruising through the town perusing all the lovely ladies and grabbing–but not using–his 9 while he runs away from chumps who may or may not be full of 8-ball.  Running away in bumper-to-bumper traffic is hard core?  Seriously?  I love it.

Honestly, white people, just stop it.  Bagpipes are not hard core.  Anyway, I love the notion that House of Pain’s lyrics are so brutal and effective at administering whoop-ass that an actual shotgun is necessary to use as defense against them, but everything will be OK if you just get out of your seat and jump around.

Regarding this one, can I just say that it’s ridiculous that curse words and pot references were edited out of the radio/MTV edits of this song, but the lovely lyrics: “Uh oh, I crave skin, rip shit, find a honey to dip it in, slam dunk it stick it flip it and ride that B double O T Y oh my” are A-OK?  What does that say about our society?  But I still love the song… I’ve got a shovel, and I can dig it, fool.

This one is not my favorite early-90s hip hop songs.  If I’m going to listen to a song that blatantly objectifies women, it’s going to be “Baby Got Back.”  Anyway, I included this one because it’s just so blatantly awful.  To be honest, the sad thing about all of these videos is that these dudes probably did get a lot of booty.  In a just world, a honey who saw Vanilla Ice coming towards her with all of his hubris and dorky sweatshirts would have laughed at him and walked the other way.  But that’s not the way the world works.  Wreckx-N-Effect oh-so-elegantly stated the dominant mores of our society: “Now since you got the body of the year, come and get the award.  Here’s a hint – it’s like a long sharp sword.”  Hooray for you sweetheart–in exchange for being so beautiful and shaking your rump so mightily, you have the privilege of having your body used.  How wonderful.

I was in junior high when these songs came out, and I admit that, at the time, I loved them because they sounded cool, not because they were funny in an ironic way.  And it’s only as I grow older (and because I have daughters instead of sons) that I see what’s so awful about the lyrics of some of the songs and what they represent.

Anybody else love early-90s hip hop?

The Hunger Games Trilogy – a wrap up (sort of)

Well, I finally finished The Hunger Games trilogy a few days ago.  On the whole, I enjoyed these books.  They were entertaining, compelling, and thought-provoking, albeit not really in new ways.  My main reaction to the books is that I feel a bit old, now.  Honestly, I can’t imagine a young adult audience being able to comprehend these themes and to read these books without being profoundly disturbed.  Since I read some crazy shit when I was an adolescent, it seems remarkably hypocritical for me now, as an adult and mother of young children, to think that parents should be careful about what books their adolescent children are reading.  But, seriously, that’s what I was thinking the whole time I read these books.

Cover image, Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay starts out at a fairly slow pace.  Blah blah blah, District 13 sucks a lot, blah blah blah, Katniss is all kinds of messed up, blah blah blah… on and on for about a hundred pages.  When it picks up, though, it keeps its accelerated pace through to the end.  I was not confident that Collins would be able to craft a believable and satisfying ending to the book, but she did, for the most part.

OK, now back to my ridiculous issues with young people reading disturbing books.  I pretty much never stop reading, and I’ve been that way ever since I can remember.  I cannot comprehend a person who finishes a book and does not start another the next day (or the next minute).  It’s just weird to me that people can get through life without having  a book in hand, purse, or knapsack.  I’m an adult now with a steady source of income, so I am able to buy a book (or download a free ebook, if I’m feeling penurious) whenever I need new reading material.  I read about 150 books per year (no joke).

When I was a kid, I read just as much, but I didn’t have the ability to buy books on my own.  As a result, I was a book borrower and, occasionally, a book thief.  When I had read all the interesting books in my elementary and middle schools’ libraries (which included R.L. Stine’s creepy books for kids), I started rummaging through the books in my mom’s bookcases.  So it was eighth grade, and I was thirteen years old, and I read romance novels, horror novels (Stephen King and the like), suspense novels (John Grisham and Dean Koontz, among others), an odd smattering of nonfiction, etc.  I read all the sci-fi and fantasy novels that my friend Luke would lend me.  In ninth grade, I read the first four books of Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series, and I got hooked on the terrifically violent The First North Americans Series by Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear.  So, yeah, I read stuff that was disturbing and difficult to understand, and I didn’t talk to my parents about any of it, because I wasn’t supposed to be reading that stuff.  And Mom, before you start to feel bad about buying me all those First North Americans booksthe first few weren’t violent at all.  I was already hooked on the series before it started to get disturbing (in the fifth or sixth book), and I really loved the combination of history and fiction.

Anyway, back to The Hunger Games.  I’m a total pansy about this sort of thing, but I had a couple of nightmares that were obviously triggered by The Hunger Games books while I was reading them, and I’m over thirty!  (I had nightmares about Harry Potter, too, so maybe I’d have nightmares about anything.)

So let’s say my kids decide to read these books (or something like them that comes out in ten years).  What kind of parent will I be?  Will I continue to be a bit of a helicopter mom, constantly trying to start up a conversation with the girls about the books, talking with them about the disturbing sections, asking if they have any questions, and generally being a bit overbearing about the whole deal?  Will I sit back and assume that they probably won’t pick up on the most disturbing elements the way I didn’t quite get what’s so creepy about Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird until I was much older?  Will I even know what they are reading?

I get that it’s completely ridiculous that I’m worried about how I’ll respond to what my daughters are reading in 10 years (what the hell can I do about it now?  Why even bother thinking about it except to torture myself with the fear that I’ll be completely inadequate when the time comes?)…  Has anyone else reading this blog read the Hunger Games books?  Am I totally off my rocker in thinking they’re a bit much for a young adult audience?

Elizabeth and Hazel – a follow up with thoughts on education and race

I’m a wee bit behind on my reflections and analysis.  I took a vacation to New York City (lovely) and have been on a mental vacation ever since, perhaps recovering from my vacation, perhaps recovering from the strain of living every day.  At any rate, I haven’t been in any position to write coherently about anything.

The final meeting of my workplace book club was on March 7, and, since we had already finished discussing the book, we met to watch an HBO special, “Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later”.  The documentary was a good companion piece for the book because, rather than focusing on the picture and on the microstory of Elizabeth and Hazel, the documentary focused on Little Rock Central High, how it had changed in fifty years, and what still needs to change.  Frankly, by the end of the book, I was done with both Elizabeth and Hazel, so I welcomed the related but different subject matter.

I was able to watch only the first fifty minutes of the documentary, so I can’t comment on the entire thing, but the portion that I watched focused on the disparity between the success of desegregation and the failure of educational equality.  Central High’s racial demographic was, in 2007, approximately 60% black, 40% white.  If one looks only at that percentage, one could smugly assume that desegregation was successful, that black students won, so to speak.  There are, after all, more black students than white at Central High.  The thing is, percentages don’t really mean anything because they provide quantitative information rather than qualitative.

Here are some other figures.  In 2007, the racial demographic of remedial classes was 95% black, and the racial demographic of AP classes was 95% white.  This figure, of course, doesn’t really mean anything on its own.  One could conclude all sorts of awful things: are the black students at Central High simply unprepared, are they deficient in some way, or does it have more to do with wealth than with race?  What influence does culture have on the educational outcomes of black and white students at Central?  And (here’s a big question) do the black students at Central actually receive a better education than they would have gotten from a segregated school?

The documentary features interviews with students (white and black) and teachers (white and black, AP and remedial) and parents.  It follows students from their neighborhoods, the wealthy ones predominantly white and the poor ones predominantly black, to school.  It discusses some of the social problems that plague black students (poverty, teenage parenthood, nowhere to go, etc.) and discusses the difference between the goals and aspirations of the poor students (nearly all black) and the wealthy students.  The wealthy families presuppose success for their children, which, as with most self-fulfilling prophesies, tends to result in success for wealthy students.  Poor families tend to assume that their children will continue in a like condition, which tends to result in exactly that outcome.

Anyway, why do I care about Little Rock Central High?  I’ve never even been to Arkansas.  The thing is, when I was watching the video, I was strongly reminded of my own high school experience.  My family is not particularly wealthy, but I was privately educated through 4th grade, and my parents certainly had expectations of success for me and my sister.  When I entered the public education system in Monrovia for my 5th grade year, it was immediately evident to the educators that I was one of the smart ones, so I was whisked into the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program then in use in the district (no idea if it’s still in use).  From 5th until 8th grade, I benefited from the best teachers and the most challenging curricula.  It was natural that I would enter the honors track when I arrived at high school, and it was inevitable that I would take AP classes and go on to college.  So there you go: my entire educational trajectory was decided in Kindergarten when my parents scrimped and saved and sometimes starved in order to send us to the private school.

The other interesting little factoid relating to my educational experience: in my GATE classes in junior high, I think there were 3-4 black students, 2-3 Hispanic students, and the rest of the 30 or so students were white.  The neighborhoods from which my junior high pulled students were either predominantly white (north of Foothill Blvd) or an even mix of black and Hispanic (south of Foothill).  The Asian population was negligible in that area.  By the time I got to the high school, even though the populations of nonwhite students dramatically increased (being from the entire city rather than just the northeastern portion), I recall fewer than 5 black students overall in the honors program (9th and 10th grade) and only 1 black student in my AP classes (11th and 12th grade).  So Little Rock Central High might be really far away, but the educational outcomes from that school mirror those of Monrovia High in sunny southern California.

I don’t know what it means, really.  It’s impossible to look at recollections and form firm conclusions.  Recollections are just too nebulous.  Maybe it means that household wealth is a strong determinant in educational success.  After all, that 1 black student from my AP classes was from an extremely wealthy family.  She went on to do undergrad at Johns Hopkins and is now a lawyer.  Maybe it means that there is a combination of racial preference at an early age and household wealth.  After all, my parents were not wealthy, but I received the full benefit of the best education possible in the Monrovia school system.  Maybe, if I’d been black or Hispanic, the administrators at the public elementary school to which I transferred in 5th grade would not have noticed or recognized that I was GATE material.  Who the hell knows?

I feel extremely grateful that I received such a good education, considering what little I’ve done with it.  When I think back on all that occurred, I feel a sense of sadness and helplessness.  I would wish everyone, regardless of race or gender (or anything else), to receive a good education, to experience the freedom of knowledge and critical thought.  It saddens me that so many people are taught only to follow directions, not to think for themselves.  It is depressing that there are adults who make it through the school system without mastering literacy.  That feeling of helplessness results from the reflection that my own excellent education largely derived from my separation from all the normal folk.  By taking classes only with other smart kids, I was able to learn how to think, how to speak intelligently, how to question accepted norms.  Would I have been able to learn those things if education were more egalitarian?  Does that make me a terrible hypocrite for wanting other people to have had a similar opportunity but not at the cost of my precious educational elitism?  It may be that there is no answer to that question.

Photos on my wall, a preface to Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock

I have been reading Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock quite a lot this week, so I thought I should write a post about it.  I quickly realized that I need to share some context: my original position, my baseline.  Not only is this book very different from anything else that I would ordinarily pick up and read, my experience of reading the book is new and different because I’m reading it for a workplace book club.  A lot of my reaction to the book is directly linked to some of my thoughts and experiences in late high school.  So, as a preface to my thoughts on this book, allow me to present some photos and narratives for context.

When I was in my last two years of high school, I took to tearing pages out of magazines and plastering the walls of my room with their images.  When I went away to college, I took the photos with me and pinned them up in my dorm room.  I’m not sure what images other girls my age had on their walls, but my walls were plastered with these images of injustice, some of them rather disturbing (just warning you).

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

To me, this image (above) represented both despair and love.  These folks don’t have much, but they have each other.

Photo by David Douglas Duncan

I read Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo in my sophomore year of high school, and I ended up something of a pacifist.  This photo (above) represented to me the human cost of war.  Like the character in Johnny Got His Gun, this guy (Ike Fenton, a US Marine) might have signed up for military service thinking that he was going into Korea to fight for democracy or freedom or liberty, and he probably discovered that war isn’t really about any of those things.  It’s about being cold and hungry and shooting at the other side because you are told to do so.  There isn’t any room for big ideals on the front lines.

It was around this time in my life that the U.S. sent troops into Kosovo, and I recall being so angry at the media representation of what our forces were doing there.  Now that I am quite a bit older, I am better able to understand the importance of selling a good story at home, but it still makes me angry that when these folks in the military get home they have to deal with the great disconnect between what everybody believes they were doing over there and what was actually happening.  Military folk honestly have enough to deal with–why do we have to stack one more thing on top?

middle finger

Photo by Perry Riddle

My mom wouldn’t let me take this one with me to college, because she thought people would judge me based on the art I chose to display.  As it turns out, she’s right.  Very few people at APU were able to understand exactly what I meant by plastering this imagery all over my dorm room.  The photo is of anti-war protesters outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  As an interesting little historical tidbit, the shirtless guy flipping off the camera was later sent to  Vietnam and died in combat.  I think that outcome provides a compelling context for the anger he displayed in this moment.

Photo by James Nachtwey

Yeah, I know it’s disturbing.  I find it even more disturbing now that I have children.  This photo was taken during the famine in Somalia in 1992.  I was eleven years old at the time, and I don’t feel guilty that I didn’t do anything about it (what could I have done?).  What disturbs me is that I didn’t really find out what was happening over there until 1997 when I happened to see this photograph.  My family watched CNN all the time, and I was one of those kids who was generally aware of the outside world, but I didn’t know about this.  As a sixteen-year-old, I suspected that the lack of media coverage was because the story was so bleak.  Really, what American stuffing her face full of cheesy poofs wants to hear about a man-made famine thousands of miles away that causes this degree of suffering and degradation?

As an adult, I really don’t know what it means.  Are we so caught up in wanting to believe in the good in the world that we purposefully turn away from stories that challenge that belief?  And, a related question: isn’t it ultimately a more positive story to believe in the good in the world existing despite all the bad (rather than focusing one’s attention solely on the good to the exclusion of all the bad)?

Once again, the folks at APU had a hard time understanding why I would want to look on the picture of a starving child every day.  To them, it was probably the sign of a lack of faith.  It probably seemed as though I was one of those people who says, “there is too much evil in the world.  God cannot possibly be good.”  As with everything, my perspective was a lot more complicated than that.  I looked on this picture every day because I felt it was my duty to do so, because I was lucky enough to be born in a country and in a socio-economic position where this degree of suffering would never happen to me or to anyone I know.

September 4, 1957

Photo from Bettman/Corbis Archive

Finally, I had this picture on my wall.  I’m pretty sure I had it arranged next to the photo of the guy in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention–the one flipping off the camera–but the arrangement didn’t really signify anything in particular (or maybe it did… crowds of angry white people?).  I was always more focused on the woman behind and to the right of Elizabeth Eckford–the one leering at her in silent disapproval–than on the shouting girl behind Elizabeth.  Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always found silent, simmering hatred to be more damaging and disturbing than loud, expressive hatred.  Perhaps it’s because people always seem to focus on those who loudly proclaim their racism while those folks who quietly emanate hostility slip under the radar of public notice.  Case in point: Hazel Bryan Massery, the shouting girl in this photo, achieved national recognition as being the “face of hate.”  Meanwhile, no one has any idea who that leering woman is.