Book Thieves

I maintain a pretty big library in my classroom.  About half of the books are mine, and the other half belong to the school. One reason they’re there is pragmatic – the physical act of looking at my bookshelves often helps me come up with different lesson plans when I need to bring something new to a difficult class or cranky student.

Cynthia Ozick says better luck next time.

Having these books at hand is essential to teaching for me.  As ideas and arguments are created and thrown around during discussion, I can often walk over to the book shelf, open a book to a certain chapter, and point out that Cynthia Ozick (if present) would take issue with one student, while Longinus would have the back of another.  More often than not, these articles and chapters do not actually get read, but the act of inviting students to take part in an ongoing scholarly conversation feels invaluable to me.  Also, the act of making connections in the classroom during class keeps me from being bored stupid by the stuff I’m teaching.  I like to think that it models flexibility and creativity, but mostly it just kicks boredom.

Another reason my library is here is simply because there’s good stuff to read there.  My students ask for books more than you might think.  Certain ones (usually ones who are already readers on their own) come in again and again, and I hand-pick books for them based on what they want to read and what I know of their skill levels.  I sometimes strike out, but a lot of the time, they come to trust that I’ll not purposefully steer them into Dickens territory when who they need is Danielle Evans.  Or the other way around.  Part of the reason this works is that I personally favor literature that dwells in the macabre, and these are often the kinds of stories that teens are seeking.  They want shock and horror, and some desire a depth of experience beyond Silent Hill.

I wanted that, I remember, but I didn’t know where to find it.  It wasn’t until a teacher handed me Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” my sophomore year that I realized I could go deeper and wider than VC Andrews and Stephen King.  It was a small town.  The book store sold more movies and CDs than books.

Sometimes my classroom books get stolen.  It used to bug me less, when e-books didn’t seem to have such a  the lock on the immediate future.  I’m officially old, and the presence of books is of great comfort to me.  Most of these books are ones I have purchased or somehow acquired myself, and sometimes it does irk me when they’re suddenly gone to an unknown home forever.  However, there’s one book that is stolen more than any other book.  As I write this, I’m looking at the shelf where it should rest, and it’s not there.

I replace Lynda Barry’s Cruddy at the beginning of every year.  I don’t assign it or teach it to the class.  Two years ago, when it was stolen twice, a student donated his own copy once he was finished with it.  Now that one is gone, too.

I don’t even talk about it unless someone asks (and someone always does), and then I honestly report that I was never the same after I read that book.  Even though it’s among my top 10 reading experiences ever, I’ve only read it once, and could not possibly (at this stage of life) bring myself to read it again. That’s all I say, really.  I don’t say that this book was given to me by my partner shortly after we began dating, and that one reason we are still together is that she knew, even after only a few dates, that it would change things for me.   I don’t say that it took three months to finish the book, or that I often just open the book to look at the pictures.

Afterward, the book goes home with somebody, and the students start a sort of informal waiting list among themselves.  That’s roughly what’s happened every year I’ve been teaching high school.

I do my best not to let the book go home with someone who is emotionally fragile, because while the story resonates on some super-sonic Lacanian mirror-stage frequency, it also frankly examines the limits of resiliency in chidren; though the ending is not wholly despairing, it’s not a happy one, either.  However, once the book has been stolen, I don’t know who has it, or where it will end up.

In my classroom, Cruddy seems to create a need in students that they didn’t know to be present.  Even the most hardened non-readers in class will put themselves on the list to read it, if only to say that they attempted it and found it lacking.  I’d think it was all about bandwagon if the book wasn’t getting stolen so often.  I put Donna Tartt’s The Secret History into the hands of many students, as well. Percival Everett’s Erasure gets checked out a lot, as does Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Kirsten Bakis’s The Lives of the Monster Dogs.  All of them always come back, though.

I don’t know.  I’ll keep replacing the book.  The more Lynda Barry out there in the world, the better.

Violence, Part 3

“Look lady, I just put a trashcan over a fucking rabid raccoon; I don’t know what I’m going to do next. So don’t push me. Because there are other trash cans in this park and one of them might have your name on it.”     –from Susan Schorn’s Bitchslap: A Column About Women and Fighting.

According to the late Dell Kaulfus, this family of baby raccoons is probably not rabid.

I wanted to write about this column in particular simply because of the  rabid cedar-feverish raccoon at its heart.  One of the many life lessons I picked from the long dinner table at my Grandparents’ house had to with learning to avoid rabid skunks and raccoons (who make their disastrous, killer intentions known only in the daytime).  It was kind of a joke, but not really a joke.  It was something caught between alarming reality and family myth.  There were others: Figs off the tree can kill you!  Snakes and homeless men can often live in attics for years before discovery!  If you see a raccoon in the daytime, it’s RABID.  Don’t go near it!

Susan Schorn’s Bitchslap: A Column About Women and Fighting is always surprising, funny, and poignant, and it sometimes mirrors my own silent, righteous anger so much that I gotta walk it out. Among my favorites is Fuck the Dude Up, a particularly rage-inducing piece that reflects upon the not-so protective laws centered on violence committed against women and the effectiveness of pacifistic attitudes pressed upon those who take self defense classes in order to avoid victimhood.  It’s definitely difficult not to want to quote entire paragraphs of the column here, but I trust you’ll follow the link if this is your thing.  You won’t be sorry.

There are a lot of people out there writing about violence against women, but Schorn has not expressly dedicated her column to this pervasive problem.  It instead examines a whole host of difficulties that surround women who wish to honestly confront the emotional, psychological, and physical challenges of a daily barrage of images, expectations, and questionable power struggles that have the ability to incapacitate even the strongest of wills.

The fighting in this column is not just physical, though much of her writing does focus on martial arts.  It’s not just linguistic, either, though the writing is circular, sharp, and satisfying.  The fighting is this undercurrent of control and certainty that leads the way to real, transformative power.  Not any hokey-dookey power of the spirit, either.  A frighteningly tense, death-grip kind of power that warrants respect. Her book is on the way, from what I can tell.

All My Friends Were Once Strangers

For those of you folks who have clicked over here from BW, I just want to say thanks and great! and welcome.  I’ve been a big fan of BW for a while now, and I was fortunate enough to be accepted as a guest spot blogger over there.  Maybe you’ll never come back, but if you do, feel free to drop me a line about what you’re reading these days.

I’m a writer and a reader and a teacher, and I’m interested in stories and how they shape our lives as queers.  I’d love to hear your comments and feedback – I’m always up for a conversation about stuff others are writing or experiencing or actively avoiding.

Jack