The Twelve Year Olds

February 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

Finished a while ago: The Graveyard Book.

Now reading: The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers.

Reading next: GraceLand, by Chris Abani.

One of the worst years of my life so far was when I was twelve.  I was just a mess of self-imposed fears, ridiculous longings, critical examinations of my own clueless dorkiness.  Seventh grade: irrationally terrified of two eighth graders who I thought were out to humiliate me (and kind of were, but no more than other kids), pining away for an older girl with whom I had zero chance, dreaming of impressing and being befriended/adopted by my teacher and basketball coach, throwing myself into religion as a bulwark against all this confusion (yeah, between that and reading all that Tolkien, the kids’ll totally realize you’re not a dork).  It all seems more or less standard issue, now; at the time there were many days like a feverish nightmare.

As it happens, The Graveyard Book and The Member of the Wedding have both gotten me thinking about that crappy year that I mostly prefer to forget.  “Nobody Owens’ School Days” in Gaiman’s book tells of the ill-conceived attempt to sneak eleven-year-old Nobody into school, to assimilate him into society in a gentle, subtle way.  In a brilliant metaphor for the experience of many kids at this time, Nobody uses his ability to “Fade” to avoid drawing attention or even being remembered by his classmates and teachers.  But Nobody can’t stand to see the school bullies shaking smaller kids down for lunch money; he ends up confronting the two bullies, first in a straightforward way, then using his ability to “Dreamwalk” into their dreams to warn them to stop if they don’t want him to keep giving them nightmares and terrifying them in other ways, as well.

It’s an interesting chapter.  Gaiman walks a fine line here, in that the chapter is a bit of a revenge fantasy, but he does not wrap things up with a PSA about the bullies learning to change their ways and Nobody learning to get by at school, or with a straightforward well-deserved humiliation of the bullies in front of their classmates.  Instead, Nobody really goes too far, overcompensating for the bullying (which is really pretty minor stuff) by giving the bullies truly terrifying nightmares and scaring the bejesus out of them when they’re alone and vulnerable.  He underestimates what terrified people will do, and gets himself in trouble with the law, leading to Silas having to get run over by a police car to bail him out.  Then he scares one of the bullies even worse, a rather cruel act that will surely haunt her for a long, long time.  (This is what surprised me: it’s really quite out of line for Nobody to suggest to a twelve-year-old girl that he’s going to haunt her forever, when her bullying will probably pass in a couple of years.  And it’s somewhat daring, even dangerous, for Gaiman to suggest that bullies deserve this sort of payback, in a book geared towards kids of precisely this age.  But then, it’s absolutely true to what an eleven year old with that sort of power might do.)  And then he simply leaves.  He quits school.  All of this is much more true to the experience of life at this time than typical representations of pre-teens, literary or otherwise.  You have no sense of scale — everything in your life seems huge — and you have weird new attributes and you want to punish, love, and be elsewhere all at once.

It’s still not as true to my twelve-year-old experience as the first part of The Member of the Wedding, though.  This is the best rendering of a (or at least, my) twelve-year-old’s consciousness I’ve come across.  It has a perfect first paragraph — an unusually long first paragraph, which establishes both the themes and McCullers’ unique rhythm and language beautifully.  Here are the famous first four sentences:

It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old.  This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member.  She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world.  Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.

Frankie’s in the throes of early adolescence, and she has that twelve-year-old longing to have it over with already: not “to be left somehow unfinished,” as she sees everything around her, but completed, in the wholeness of childhood or full maturity, not to be the “Freak” she feels herself.  But more than anything else that I’ve read, what McCullers captures perfectly is the twelve year old’s desire for a new family, the tendency for outsized attachment to those just on the other side of the transformation you’re just beginning.  With Frankie, it’s her brother and fiancee, about to be married.  She conceives a plan to leave with them after the wedding, and live with them in the exotic-sounding Winter Hill, a town that sounds as far away as possible from the Southern August she’s living through.  These crackpot schemes, these crazy devotions to people you’ve just met or haven’t seen for years: it’s twelve-year-old syndrome all over, and it’s not likely to end well.

Teaching the Seventh Grade

August 2, 2009 § 2 Comments

Just finished: Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.

Reading next: White-Jacket, by Herman Melville.

If I were to become a teacher, I’d want to teach the middle-school grades.  Kids then are old enough to learn about and understand some pretty complex material, but are also still kids, often interested in and involved with childish things: imaginative worlds, toys, made-up games, sleepovers.  They’re also on the verge of going to terrifying high school, and becoming adolescent: raging hormones, insecurities, mood swings, and cliques.  It’s the perfect time to be opened up to the right book, the right band, the right friend.  And maybe it’s just me, but I was most invested in my teacher in the seventh and eighth grades.  I wanted guidance, I thought he was cool, I craved his approval.

Ms. Hempel Chronicles is the best book I’ve ever read about teaching, about being a teacher; but then, I’ve never been a teacher, so that doesn’t really say much.  However, it’s also a great book about working in your twenties and trying to figure out what you’re meant to do and who you’re meant to be and how to do your job all at once.  This I have experience with.

Ms. Hempel teaches middle-school English, and the book is suffused with the perfect tone of sweet melancholy to help you connect the dots: the overlooked sadness of childhood passing away, for both the seventh- and eighth-grade students and for Ms. Hempel, their young teacher.  Passages in which Ms. Hempel, exhausted, grades papers and watches television, wishing she had the energy to do something creative instead, are spot-on: work taking over, youthful ambitions shunted aside.

And yet it’s not a sad book — or not only sad, anyway.  The first story, “Talent,” is downright joyous (and probably my favorite); and so, in its way, is the last, “Bump.”  It’s a slim little book, but it feels utterly full.  Beatrice Hempel occupies its space perfectly, a fully realized unreal person.

As Beatrice realizes a few years into the job, one of its horrors is that she is constantly repeating the seventh grade.  The students move on, while she’s left learning once again the level of history, the level of literature, that a seventh-grader can comprehend.  And it is amazing to think of career teachers doing this over and over for decades.

(Spoilers ahead.)  “Bump” is so fascinating in this respect, both because I didn’t see it coming and because it flips the whole book on its head.  While the story itself is quite happy and upbeat — since we’re occupying Ms. Hempel’s headspace, and she herself appears to be happy and upbeat — there’s a real sadness, too.  When Beatrice, now (I speculate) in her mid- to late-thirties, meets a former student, and hears how much she meant (still means) to this student and others with whom the student is still in touch, she is utterly overjoyed.  And yet it’s so heartbreaking: she’s not doing it anymore.  She’s left.  And it really does seem to be the best for her.  But I doubt, somehow, that it’s best for the kids she could’ve been teaching, could’ve been turning on to the right book, the right band, the right way to be in those difficult years of awkwardness.  The tragedy of teaching, I suppose, at least in the U.S.

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