because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

The Day Flannery O'Connor Screwed Me

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The Misfit
Image by haagenjerrys via Flickr

Someone really smart once said, “Kids seldom misquote; in fact, they usually repeat word for word what you shouldn’t have said.”

In fact, that person might actually have been sitting in my classroom the day I taught Flannery O’Connor‘s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to a bunch of 11th graders.

I had taught the story dozens of times and found the simple premise and the unfulfilling ending always led to great discussions.

One particular day, I asked my students to take out their copies of the story. A simple directive, right? Only this time, my students started snickering.

Initially, I assumed that perhaps someone had farted or something.

(What? It happens.)

We started to discuss O’Connor’s work, and everything was going along swimmingly. I asked someone what he thought the point or message of the story might be.

Four or maybe five people burst out laughing.

I wondered if I had pit stains or if I was dragging toilet paper around behind me as I walked around the room.

I couldn’t figure it out.

The laughing flared up again. And again.

Finally I couldn’t take it anymore.

“Why is everyone laughing?” I demanded.

Silence.

Of course.

I insisted, “Seriously, I’d like to know what is so funny.”

One brave girl tried to help me. “Mrs. Jacobson,” she said, “The story is called ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find,’ but you keep calling it… something else.”

She pointed at the blackboard behind me.

I turned to look at the board and sure enough, I’d even written it out in chalk: “A Hard Man is Good To Find.”

Oh. My. Holy. Embarrassing.

And did I mention that I was about 6 months pregnant?

Well, I was.

So they were all thinking about how I had gotten it on with a “hard man” and it was “good.”

Or something like that.

Teachers have to be careful to watch what they say whether in the classroom or out in public, and I have found the best approach is to assume that everything I say could be published or broadcast to the world. That way, I have to be sure what I am saying is appropriate, clear and concise. And cannot be misinterpreted.

But sometimes I stick my foot in my mouth.

So I’m guessing I was heavily quoted that night.

Unless, of course, that batch of students forgot all about my faux-pas.

Because teenagers do that.

I mean, a lot of stuff happens between 7:50 AM and dinnertime.

In her short story, O’Connor goes to great lengths to show her readers how meaningless many of the small things we concern ourselves with are in the grand scheme of things: how many of the things that we fret over are really not very important at all.

I mean, obviously, in the larger scheme, there are many worse things than jostling up a few words in front of one’s students.

So maybe that moment was not very important.

I can buy that.

So why do I remember it so vividly?

And can somebody help make that memory go away?

Done anything wildly embarrassing recently? Anyone like to predict some dumb things I’ll probably do this semester?

Now About That Winner

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I am thrilled to announce that the fabulous Julie C. Gardner author of the blog By Any Other Name was the person who posted closest to my one year blogoversary! And because of this she has been deemed thelucky winner. Because I know Julie prefers real books to electronic ones, I offered to buy her any book she wants – (under $20. What? You think I’m made of money?). And while I offered to send her the book of her choice, the fabulous and always considerate Julie Gardner opted to do the shopping herself! All I had to do was send her a check for twenty smackers. (It’s in the mail, baby!) How much to I love Julie? Let me count the ways.

1. I love Julie for allowing me to avoid the devil’s happy place mall. I’d only end up in J.Crew or Anthropolgie and nothing good could come of that.

2. As a result of her no-nonsense approach, I don’t have to stand in the always-long line at my local US Postal Office to ship a book.

3. I love her because she has not only agreed but sounds enthusiastic about sharing her mad skills on my blog.

4. She had me at julienancy.

5. And she sanctified my love with call me embarrassed.

I could go on. But instead, I will interrupt this unadulterated love fest to remind you that – as I have learned from my mother – sometimes when one receives a gift, there definitely are area few strings attached. (This time it’s more like spider webs.) But now that Julie’s agreed, she’s stuck. Here is the way it works.

1) Julie will receive my check and be really pissed when it bounces go to her local bookstore.

2) She will spend the money on cupcakes for her kids buy a fabulous book and read it.

3) Then, because she feels so quilty happy and inspired, she is going to write a mind-blowingly awesome short post for my blog that is in some way connected to the book she selected. In essence, Julie will be using the book as a writing prompt.

All I can say is I’m thrilled and honored that Julie Gardner reads my blog. At all. Ever. But I’m extra excited that she has agreed to play nice and write a little something in honor of my blogoversary. So get psyched to read Julie’s fabulous post here later in June. I know I can’t wait to sleep in.

Tweet this Twit @RASJacobson

A Literary Interview With You

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Cover of "Pat the Bunny (Touch and Feel B...
Cover of Pat the Bunny (Touch and Feel Book)

A couple of weeks ago, Clay at EduClaytion put together an “Interview with You” Post. Then Leanne at Ironic Mom borrowed his idea and applied it to music from the ’80s. I’m flat out borrowing (read: stealing) their idea and applying the interview concept to books.

Here’s how A Literary Memoir works. In the comments section below, please cut and paste these 9 questions, then fill in your answers. Feel free to elaborate as much or as little as you like.

But first, here is my literary memoir:

  1. First book I remember being read: Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt. How I loved those soft and shiny and sandpaper pages.
  2. First book I remember reading all by myself: The Cat & The Hat by Dr. Seuss
  3. Favorite Young Adult Book: Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume. In fact, everything by Judy Blume. I read them one after the other. Ate them up like caramels. They. Were. Delicious.
  4. Favorite book of all time: Lord of the Flies by William Golding. I think I refer to this book on a daily basis. Every student I have ever taught can vouch; I talk about it. A lot.
  5. Book I hated so much I could not finish Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulker. This is the only book that kicked my ass. I simply could not get through it. Don’t get me wrong: I loved As I Lay Dying and plenty of other Faulkner, too. But this one just stunk. Like a skunk. In a trunk.
  6. Book I will always keep: A Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Poor, poor Holden. Plus, I have taught from this particular copy so many times that it is all marked up inside. It has sticky notes and stars all over it; all the important stuff is underlined. Despite the fact that some of the pages keep falling out, this one will go with me wherever I go. It will be loved to death.
  7. Last Book I Read: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Holy crap. This book scared the bejesus out of me. I simply cannot say anything about it. It will ruin everything. I will, however, take a moment to thank my friend Gina for recommending it to me. She recommends the best books. Her last three recommendations have been hits. This one, however, freaked me out.
  8. Book I am reading now: The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, Lucette Lagnado. Book club. Lots of pressure to finish.
  9. Book I plan to read next: Why do you think I’m having you do this? 😉

To play along, cut and past these questions into the comments section and fill in. Here’s a blank set of the questions:

  1. First book I remember being read:
  2. First book I remember reading alone:
  3. Favorite Young Adult book:
  4. Favorite book of all time:
  5. Book I hated and could not finish: 
  6. Book I will always keep:
  7. Last book I read:
  8. Book I am reading now:
  9. Book I plan to read next:

Have fun. Can wait to read your responses! 🙂

How I Tricked My Book Club Into Writing

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Cover of "Bitter is the New Black : Confe...
Cover via Amazon

My neighborhood book club has been going strong for nearly three years. A bunch of women who range in age, profession, religious background, and plenty of other things, we agree that we enjoy the following items (not necessarily in the order they are listed):

1. Periodically getting together at someone’s house (preferably not our own);

2. Eating chocolates;

3. Drinking wine;

4. Chatting it up a bit;

5. Discussing books we might not have otherwise ever picked up.

The last meeting was at my house. This time eleven people showed up for an hour of “eat, booze and schmooze” in the kitchen, and eight stayed to gather on the family room couches to “talk book.” Since the host selects the book, my selection was Jen Lancaster’s Bitter is the New Black : Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smartass (Or, Why You Should Never Carry A Prada Bag to the Unemployment Office).

Quick summary: Before September 11th, Lancaster worked as an associate vice president for a technology company prior to being laid off. In this capacity she made loads of many and acquired many pairs of shoes. After 9/11, the author whines – incessantly – about being unemployed, her boyfriend/fiancé/husband, Fletch, their neighbors, their pets, and how she can no longer afford the shoes she once used to buy so readily. I liked Lancaster’s wit and rampant narcissism.

And while Lancaster was not for everyone, we agreed the book was snarky and fast-paced: a good choice for February, when knee-deep snow and the winter white skies of Western New York provide enough gloom to make everyone question just how severe our vitamin D deficiencies might be. It’s hard to stay connected to neighbors in the winter; it’s just so friggin’ cold. People walk around with their shoulders up and their heads down. We rush from warm house to warming car. There is little time to casually chat at the mailbox when the wind is stinging your ears and making your eyes tear up. Our little club keeps us connected year round so that we remain in touch with our neighbors, something equally rare these days.

It is up to the host to facilitate discussion, and – big surprise – I have long wanted to infuse a writing exercise into a meeting, so I figured – since this book was devoid of any real literary depth – this was my chance.

“Okay,” I said brightly ,”Remember when Lancaster lists her ‘Jen Commandments’? The little quirks she possesses that people who know her and love her just have to accept?”

A few people nodded. (I had my suspicions that most people didn’t get that far.)

I referred to the text. I didn’t have to; almost no one brings the book to book club.  I could have said anything, but I quoted Lancaster:

I hate holding anything heavier than my purse. If I have something in my hands, I will attempt to trick you into carrying it for me?

A few people snickered then looked semi-spooked as I handed everyone one salmon-colored index card and plopped a pen onto each lap. As I stuck a small, non-threatening bowl in the middle of my tufted ottoman, I said, “I thought it would be kind of fun if each of us wrote one of our own ‘Commandments’ and put it into the bowl. Anonymously, of course. It could be fun to see if we can figure out who goes with what.”

Initially, some people looked panicky and began to protest, but thank goodness the majority was with me. A few women asked for extra index cards. At first, I thought it was because they goofed up, but for some people once the creative juices started flowing, the flood gates could not hold all our estrogen and soon the orange-bowl, index card confessional runneth over. I read the first one aloud:

I always sleep with 3 pillows. This is a need not a want. And, I will always travel with a pillow, even if it necessitates bringing another suitcase.

We laughed, especially because we were so dead wrong with regard to whom was attached to this statement. Surely our quiet, unassuming neighbor could never be so demanding. But there she was, shamelessly nodding her head.

I passed the bowl to my right so someone else could read another book clubber’s words:

If you say you’re going to do something, then just do it. If you talk about something but never get to it, then I start wondering about you.

Hilarious. And so true.

One woman wrote on the front of her card:

I’m in charge of almost everything… (and then on the back) … and I like it that way!

Another neighbor penned:

I obsess about making decisions and my good friends have to listen to me!

Everyone easily guessed mine.

I absolutely hate repetitive noises. If you tap something more than five times, I might have to kill you.

One that stood out was short and direct.

Do not screw up my coffee order.

This, of course, led to a hilarious story about how this neighbor had recently visited a local Starbucks where the barista dared to give her three squirts of vanilla in her mocha latte instead of one. There was hell to pay that morning. 😉 There were other “isms” that were equally excellent. And it was a hoot to hear each woman’s words read aloud. Everyone was honest and enjoyed poking fun at herself, sharing her quirks, her personal truths. As usual, book club was less about the book than it was about people gathering together to get to know each other a little better.

What my book club mates don’t realize is that they are totally screwed. Now that I have seen that they can write (even under pressure), the next time it is my turn to select a book and host, we are sooooooo writing.

The Giver: Thirteen Years Later

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The Giver
Image via Wikipedia

It’s happening.

My son is reading a piece of literature that I used to teach.

He is reading Lois Lowry’s The Giver, the story of a young boy named Jonas living in a highly controlled community some time in the future. The novel fits into a larger genre of cautionary tales called “dystopian literature.” If a utopia is a society in which everything is perfect, a dystopia is the opposite: everything has gone wrong. The novel explores Jonas’s encounter with memories of “the past,” a time when people still had the freedom of choice.

When I first taught The Giver, the book had just come out, and it was controversial. In fact, it was banned in many schools for its disturbing content and ambiguous ending, but I taught The Giver to 9th graders in an independent school, so I had a lot of freedom. The Giver explores an age-old debate: Should government let people have freedom or seek to “protect them”? Should we value individuality or the greater good? Are emotional highs and lows better than the steady middle ground?

Fast forward. My son is now in 6th grade. Oh, he can handle the language and the concepts just fine. He is a voracious reader, and he seems to understand the book thus far. I have struggled over the last weeks because, really, I want him to discover the book himself. I want him to be stunned when he learns that the main character’s father has lied to him, that it is his father’s job to kill babies. To nurture them, yes, but also to decide which one’s live and which one’s die. Jonas watches his father administer a lethal injection to an otherwise healthy infant twin because the community has decided there can be no twins. And he learns that his father will have to “release” a baby that has been living with the family because he simply cannot sleep through the night without crying.

So I will be waiting for his response.

Because right now, he thinks The Community is a pretty good place to live.

No one has to worry about money, he insists. The climate is controlled. The birth-rate is controlled. Jobs are determined by Committee Members based on careful scrutiny of children and their personality traits. Kids who like to build become engineers and kids who like to play with children become Nurturers. There are Laborers and Birth Mothers. All kinds of jobs. My Monkey likes this kind of order. It seems logical, and it appeals to him.

“Sameness eliminated fighting and wars,” Monkey said matter-of-factly. “There is no more racism.”

“True, but people can’t see or appreciate colors. Everything is kind of beige, so they can’t appreciate hot pink flowers or the blue of an ocean,” I said. “And they don’t know snow or sunshine because of climate control,” I suggest.

He shrugged his shoulders at this. He isn’t far into the book yet to know what is coming.

While he was out today, I re-read The Giver from beginning to end. And I am struck by how Orwellian Lowry’s vision is. And I am amazed by all the ways the government has slowly intruded into our lives since 1993. Post September 11, 2001, video cameras are everywhere. Everywhere we go, we are being filmed. If we purchase something, our credit card transactions are tracked in a way they weren’t before. When we go to the airport, we are made to practically strip down – and we agree to do so, in the name of the greater good; we take off our belts and shoes and put our liquid products into baggies to be searched. We have caller identification so we no longer have to answer the phone. And every prank phone call can be traced back to the place of origin. The government is more involved in public education than ever, practically dictating to teachers the curriculum that needs to be taught. Textbooks, which have been approved and distributed throughout our country to our children, are filled with hundreds of factual and grammatical errors and people do not seem to be outraged. The latest version of Huckleberry Finn has had the “n” word removed. (Sure, you can still get the alternate version, but tens of thousands of students will never even know that another version exists because it is easier to edit the language of difference.) Journalism has become entertainment, and few people read primary sources. Most people just pop onto Blackberries and iPhones and read commentary (read: secondary sources or the ideas from “specialists” telling us what to think) about everything from the food we eat to the latest shooting. I see people forgetting how to think critically. I know people who do not know much about our Constitution. They could Google United States Constitution and read about it, but most folks would rather read Status Updates on Facebook or download the latest App designed to make us forget that our country is engaged in a war.

“There is no war in Jonas’s world,” Monkey said, his chin angled up defensively.

“True,” I said, thinking to myself but there is no love either.

And I wonder how many civil liberties my child might be willing to give up if the Government told him it was for the greater good.

If My Kid Writes One More Book Report…

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Sleeping Student
Sleeping Student

Monkey has been writing a helluva a lot of book reports this year.

In an English class, a student can — of course — write a formal essay in response to a piece of literature. And they must know how to do this competently. But let’s face it: Writing five paragraph (or two paragraph or three paragraph) essays after every book, can be a real drag. And there is no reason for this when there are a skillion (yes, a skillion) other ways to evaluate a student’s comprehension that are about 100 times more engaging than any book report.

Students could create a piece of art in any medium that represents a character, situation or theme from the story; they might compose a poem or a monologue which explores a situation or character or which develops a theme from the literature; they could write a script for a scene in the story and perform it before the class, or imagine a scene that could have been in the story/play but wasn’t; they could offer an alternate ending or imagine the characters in the future. A musical student could write a song that explores a situation or a theme from the literature and sing/play it for the class. A dancer might choreograph a piece that represents a situation, character, or theme from the literature. Someone could create a diary for a character, not just chronicling the facts of plot, but the character’s emotions regarding his/her experiences. A budding historian might want to research a historical reference he or she noticed in the literature and was intrigued by. Hell, a student could bake something symbolic which links to the literature. I’ve had students bake highly symbolic (and very delicious) cookies!

With any performance based assessment, there always has to be a written explication that accompanies the more creative project in which the student explains his or her intention and explores how the project helps his or her peers understand something important about the literature. Ideally, the assessment process informs the teacher and the learner about student progress and, simultaneously, contributes to the student’s learning process.

I could go on about some student projects that I have received over the years. One of my favorites involves a student who upon completing Lord of the Flies, made a trip to the local farmer’s market and bought a whole pig’s head and recreated the scene where the terrified boys, beat and unintentionally kill their classmate, Simon, and then put a pig’s head on the stick.

I still have the video (which I’ve had switched over to DVD) and I still watch it. And that kid makes movies now.

I know that No Child Left Behind supports “standards-based education”and is based on the belief that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in education. The Act requires states to develop assessments in basic skills to be given to all students in certain grades, if those states are to receive federal funding for schools.

So I get it. My school district clearly wants our kids to pass the standardized test.

They want a slice of the pie.

But our kids are dying of boredom.

So please, for this mother.

No. More. Book. Reports.