A Book Review that is Mostly Questions

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Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy
400 pages; literary fiction

Quick Summary: Tess Durbeyfield and her family are poor, so her parents decide to send her to Alec d’Urberville to claim kinship and therefore receive some financial aid. The plan is disastrous; Tess comes home, but finding her home life unbearable, she decides to move and work at a farm. Years pass, and Tess falls in love with another man, Angel Clare. However, she is unable to marry him due to the secret she is keeping.

Discussion (Spoilers ahead):

So I read this book because I am teaching it to my AP classes in October. Otherwise, I probably would have thrown the book across the room halfway through. Alec is terrible person, and ends up raping Tess after drugging her. Because this is England and because it’s the 1800’s, Tess is suddenly not pure and hates herself. When she falls in love with Angel, she doesn’t want to marry him because she is not a virgin and this will reflect bad on her/him for marrying her. Still, they get married and on their first night as husband and wife, he tells her he’s not a virgin, she tells him the exact same thing, and he flips his shit. He goes to Brazil to try farming and basically is a terrible husband who never talks to his wife. The ending is even weirder, but I’ll save that for those who want to read it.

So the first thing I was angry about was that a white man was writing about a woman getting raped. Is he writing to help women gain sympathy? Is it trauma porn? One time in a college class of mine, my professor asked us this: “If you write about an experience, are you automatically aestheticizing it?” Unfortunately, we didn’t get to talk about it in class, but the question lingers.

I think this reminds me the most of slam poetry. I remember Andrea Gibson saying something along the lines of “No girl grows up dreaming about writing poems about sexism,” but she said it had to be done. But the question is still valid: if we write about sexism, if we perform our poetry about it, are we trying to make an ugly thing beautiful? Obviously this applies to other types of art as well, and no clear lines have been drawn. Obvious, too, is the fact that writing can be healing.

I’m going to sidetrack here to a story from a friend.

So a teacher is starting his first year teaching history. He’s super woke, so he plans an entire curriculum talking about racism and sexism and how all these terrible things happened in the past. He thinks it’s going great. Then, one day, a few weeks into the semester, two young black girls approach him after class. “Mr. ______, we appreciate what you’re doing here, but do you always have to be so negative?” Why, they were asking, couldn’t he also focus on the achievements of people of color, and not just the trauma they experienced?

Another side note: the podcast Another Round discusses the idea of coming of age movies. What they found was that the white characters get to have a life-changing event (think Stranger Things where the girl is sacrificed) but come out ultimately okay, whereas the black characters and black girls in particular have stories focused around trauma, stories where they don’t get to be teenagers or adolescents at all, but rather skip from children to adults.

I wonder that about poetry, about stories, about writing. If young women grow up only hearing stories and poems about rape, sexism, and fear, how much will they think is available to them? How does one strike a balance between acknowledging victim-status and also acknowledging autonomy, power, and pride? 

Is it okay for Hardy to write about rape, even though he’s a man? If it’s to inspire empathy? Is it just voyeurism? If we write about an experience, are we automatically aestheticizing it? How do we write stories that are both true to life and uplifting? Or rather, how do we write stories in which all paths are available to all people? Where minorities are not defined by their traumas, but neither are those traumas ignored?

The Last Part of the Dream

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I’m about a week into my no-Facebook experiment. I’ll be disengaging with twitter very soon. There’s a lot of rational behind these decisions, and I’ve been trying to keep the personal out of my articles, but I’ve realized the personal is the most important aspect of it.

In the end, my disengagement was about two things: the power of undistracted downtime, and the ability to be known or unknown. The first is easy to explain: I wanted to cultivate my writing skills, my passion for teaching, and in general, a fulfilling life outside of the addictions of technology. It’s possible; it always has been, and I don’t think many people would argue about that.

The second one is a little harder to dissect, but it comes down to a matter of: does anyone care what I have to say? Do I want to be known? I touched upon this in my previous blog post, but I don’t think I gave this concept enough discussion. Social media, as much as we use it as a tool, or entertainment, really doesn’t come down to that. Will anyone notice if I don’t use Facebook/Twitter/Insta/etc.?

Chances are, they won’t. And that, ultimately, is a good thing.

Now, given, I’ve only been off facebook for a few days, and I did warn people, but no one has questioned my disappearance. Have I kept social? Of course. I text my partner, my friends, and my family. I make plans. I take walks. I go on bike rides without my phone. I marvel at the concept of being kind-of-but-not-truly-lost in my home city, far enough that the backroads confused me but never far enough that I can’t find my way home.

Disengaging

In his new book, Deep Work, Cal Newport recommends listing both professional and personal goals (the goals have to be broad). Here are a couple of mine:

  1. Be an effective teacher
  2. Produce writing that is intellectually and creatively stimulating.
  3. Maintain and develop deep friendships.

After you list your goals, you then list the activities you need to reach those goals. So,

  1. Craft meaningful lessons and read education research that can be reflected in my practice
  2. Write often with clarity of language
  3. Socialize with close friends at meals, walks through the city, bike rides, etc.

Then you ask yourself whether or not your activities necessitate social media. To be fair, my example is pretty obviously leaning towards “no.” Newport gives an example of a college freshman, whose goals might include attending a myriad of events to socialize with large numbers of different groups. That, sure, would necessitate social media. Mine don’t. Either one is okay.

The point here is not to join the Luddites and ban social media from your life, it’s to engage actively and meaningfully with it. Tech companies have made social media addicting; at some point we should ask ourselves if the benefits outweigh the costs.

We have to wonder if keeping up a social image is improving our quality of life. In the end, I know most people won’t care about what I have to write. That’s totally fine. I think the problem with starting this blog was not that I wanted people to care; I wanted a large number of strangers to care. We have this idea that if we get hundreds of followers, we’ll somehow be happier and better off and more fulfilled. I think social media reduces our actions to light-weight socialization, while discounting the meaningful conversations that are necessary to make us happy and fulfilled. Sure, I have meaningful conversations over text, but they’re generally with people I already know deeply from in-person interaction.

What I cherish most in my life is the late-night conversations, in bed or on a deck looking up at the stars, where the conversation meanders, fills in its own gaps, exposes new ideas as we speak, the conversations that draw us closer to one another. I look back and feel the love I have for those people viscerally, my soul expanding and releasing itself and finding its way back. Unfortunately, those conversations can’t happen over text, or if you are afraid your friend is going to look at their phone and ignore you. They need eye contact, they need physicality, they need grounding.

Why Keep Writing?

“We don’t just write for ourselves” may be a true saying, but we do, ultimately, write because we have a yearning to. Writing comes before being known and published. It feeds our life with the creativity we desire. It is, I think, oftentimes an end in itself.

I’ve asked myself what my American Dream is for awhile now, if it exists, if I can be socialist in a capitalist society. Do I have to make money off my writing? Do I have to be published? Will being published make me happy? And I think of that fateful episode of Bojack Horseman, the one where Diane finally admits: “I can’t keep asking myself whether or not I’m happy.”

In the end, the big questions are not as important as the smaller ones. What do I want my days to look like? What do I want to feel at the end of the day? Who do I want to give my time and love to? What do I want to produce, artistically? What do I want my hours to be filled with?

I want to live a life that feels meaningful to me. I want to write openly and with clarity; I want to have late night conversations that Margaret Fuller found so intellectually stimulating she would spend 6 hours in a carriage just to have them. I want to look people in the eyes and be open to them. In the end, I want my love to feel limitless.

The power of disengaging from social media is in the ability to be known, not by the strangers who like our statuses, but by our closest friends, the ones who notice our absence from the interwebs. They are the ones who will truly know us, and the love we have for them and for the life around us.

Open Letter to Parents of Honors Students

I teach in the greater Boston area. It’s no surprise to me, or anyone who knows a 16-yr-old, how stressed our kids are in schools. There’s Advanced Placement and Honors classes, SATs, ACTs, MCAS, and ever more test prep. There’s pressure to go to Ivy League schools. There’s sleepless nights. There’s the ever-prevalent question, “Who uses calculus after high school?”

The answer? Not many people. And yet we value it, as communities, as parents, as colleges. And what’s worse, is students are taking these classes over woodshop, or auto mechanics, and over other vocational technology classes. Most kids I teach don’t know how to change a tire, or check their oil. Even in large biking communities, many students don’t know how to install new cables on their bikes, or check the brakes for wear.

So here’s the catch: I was one of those students. In high school, I pursued AP classes, perhaps not as much as my friends, but I wanted to get into a good school. I enjoyed shop class in middle school, but it wasn’t presented as an option in high school. That was the track: you’re going to college, you don’t need to know how to use a lathe.

For most of my high school career, this didn’t bother me. In college, I was embarrassed that I didn’t have those “handy” skills, like my father, but I was still in the majority. I was a woman, and I was going to be a teacher, and I didn’t need to know this stuff.

After my junior year of college, before my final semester, I was left with a weekend job and a lot of free time. I needed a project. So I decided to teach myself how to fix bikes.

IMG_3239It was an easy choice: I lived in Cambridge, and biking was faster than literally any other form of transportation (sorry, MBTA). It felt good to ride in the city in the summer, freeing, even. So I bought a $20 bike to fool around with. It was small enough for me to be able to test ride it, and good enough to sell afterwards. The first task was probably the weirdest: the previous owner had glued a rack to the bike using insta-foam, and I had to melt it with a hair dryer to remove the ugly thing. But after that, a routine took shape. I would dismantle something, sit on the floor with the parts, and try to figure it out. I might start the day frustrated and covered in grease, but I would keep at it, tinkering with derailleurs and changing cables. I once almost broke a new $30 chain and nearly cried out of frustration, but at the end of the day, it was installed and running. I learned how to wrap handlebars; I figured out how to change brake cables just by taking the bike apart and rewiring it.

All of this, all the sitting on the floor and marveling at how simple bikes seem at first, taught me more about my life than any advanced mathematics class had in high school. It taught me patience, and wonder, and the very real and profound joy at seeing something you created with your hands work, like actually work. I don’t think this payoff can be re-created in the traditional classroom.

Don’t get me wrong: I teach English, and I believe the joys and payoffs of good writing are visceral as well. But they need to be paired with these ‘vocational’ classes. I want my students to know what it feels like to look at something you built with your very own hands. I want them to feel that satisfaction. And I want us to value that feeling, and that skill.

I don’t want to work in a system that doesn’t value this kind of learning. It’s a different yet equally valid–and valuable–set of skills and intelligence. It’s also, oddly, beautiful. I never expected to love bike repair; it was just something that I felt I needed to learn. But I loved it, and I loved the process perhaps more than the product. Sure, I sold the bike after I was done repairing it for 5 times what I paid for it. But it was more important to me that I had learned how to be patient, how cables work, how wonderful the sound of a silent chain is. It made me love learning again. And I think that’s something that we forget, amidst the season of test prep and college essays. We want our students to be smart and to get good grades, but as teachers we also desire that they love the journey. Vocational classes, for all their stigma, and for all the possible frustration they may bring, are important and can be instrumental in reminding our students about that love we hold for learning.

So my advice to parents: encourage your child to take a vo-tech class. Encourage them to learn something about how the world works–physically, mechanically works. Encourage them to be okay with being frustrated, and encourage them to get out of their comfort zone. Even if they don’t love it, I’ll guarantee they’ll learn something about themselves—and maybe how to change a tire, too.