The Problem with Being “Unapologetically You”

As a high school teacher, I have the fortune of meeting dozens of young people each year. One of the perks of my career is that these students can often be charming, entertaining, and inspiring. One of the downsides? They can also be incredibly callous.

A while ago, on my lunch break — which may be more aptly dubbed my Kids Break — I had a conversation with a colleague about the changing dynamics of youth culture. Not unlike the generations that preceded ours, we bemoaned shortcomings and exchanged fearful predictions about the generations of the future. Of course, we also acknowledged the futility of this tradition — the criticism of younger generations by those far “wiser” and older; but our conversation really didn’t dwell long on the tried-and-true adages about the work ethic, morals, or potential technological downfall of millenials.

Instead, we talked about a well-intended trend that has taken on a virulent life of its own: the concept of being “unapologetically you.”

At first glance, this two-word quip seems inspirational, fearless, philosophical (if not a little trite). Adolescents are encouraged by musical artists, actors, politicians, athletes in the limelight — Be yourself, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re not smart/good/kind/important/etc. A great soundbite, to be sure.

If that was where the sentiment stopped, if teens were inspired to own their oddities and embrace the characteristics of themselves that make them unique human beings — I would be all over this concept of being unapologetically you. Unfortunately, the message isn’t that simple.

Somehow, an altogether different spin has been placed on being shamelessly individual. I’ve noticed, over time, adolescents and young adults have begun to see this mantra as an excuse for being unapologetic assholes.

Yeah. I said it. They’re using this slogan as an excuse to be assholes.

Don’t believe me? Take a closer look at Instagram. A number of accounts thrive solely on posts that sing the praises of being “bitches” — their words, not mine. These “humor” accounts are chock-full of memes that glorify women who hate everything but wine and pizza, or individuals who take pride in having hearts of stone.

When did this become cute? At what point in time did an entire subgroup of individuals deem it appropriate, funny, charming — to be jerks?

On a daily basis, I overhear students spout the phrase, “Sorry, not sorry!” like it’s some sort of excuse for piss-poor behavior. I watch friends, students, and acquaintances post memes on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram that laud their lack of empathy or feelings for anyone else, dismissing the messages as humor. Students in my classes act reprehensibly, then dismiss their behavior as self-expression.

The concept of being unapologetically you should not be synonymous with being a jerk. When people excuse rude, damaging behavior as an acceptable form of “personality,” they perpetuate a shift toward a culture that is callous and incapable of empathy or manners.

I’m all for any social movement that embraces the individuality of young men and women, rather than stifling their unique personalities . . . but I’m also highly in favor of maintaining a culture of respect for one another.

It’s time for us to change the message on social (and other) media: you can be you without being hateful. In all likelihood, a compassionate and kind you is much more enjoyable.

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Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

Last month, I caved to a long-standing desire to subscribe to the Book of the Month Club. I don’t recall where I’d first caught wind of the subscription service, but once I’d encountered the website, my eyes assumed a maniacal gleam and my mouth watered at the mere thought of becoming a member of a society that not only appreciated books as much as I do, but also would ship books to my house each month. A truly magnificent discovery!

Naturally, self-control was not my reality the day that I made my first BOTM selection; in addition to my subscription-included pick, I also ended up with two additional novels from previous months.

I picked up A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles as my first BOTM read, my curiosity piqued by the promising storyline of an aristocrat sentenced to “house arrest” in an upscale hotel in early 1920s Russia.

Towles introduces readers to Count Alexander Rostov, wealthy four-year resident of The Metropol, situated in downtown Moscow near the Kremlin. Rostov, we quickly discover, is two things: a gentleman, as the title hints, and an enemy of the state. Due to shifting political forces in Russia, Rostov’s wealth and upbringing make him a target for the Bolshevik uprising; and after the penning of a poem with undercurrents of political unrest, the Count is tried by the court and sent back to his hotel — for life.

The Count must quickly learn to adapt to the confines of his new life within the four walls of The Metropol. His relationships with hotel staff are transposed into something more like friendship over the course of a few years, and he even befriends a cheeky young patron of the building who teaches him a few things about adventure, the limitations of physical confines (or lack thereof), and friendship.

One drawback of the story is its verbose nature. I was a fervent reader of Dickens and Tolstoy in high school and college, but since becoming a teacher, my time for texts of that verbal complexity is severely impeded by the demands of my job. (Read: I’m basically never able to completely unplug from my career — my mind never stops spinning.) It was a challenge, initially, to learn again how to focus intently on a text and appreciate the complexity of its language. After the story’s plot picked up, though, I was drawn into the Count’s life and quickly grew familiar with Towles’ prose.

The verdict: Towles creates a remarkably endearing character for readers to come to know and love, and without leaving the walls of The Metropol for decades, manages to craft a universe of wonder. A bit verbose at times, this novel is best savored over the course of several days, rather than inhaled in one sitting. The extremely satisfying (and not altogether expected) conclusion is a cherry on top of a most decadent bookish sundae.

Rating4.5/5 stars — highly recommended for those who enjoy historical fiction and heartwarming tales of the persistence of the human spirit and dedication to a life well-lived.

Review: The Light Between Oceans

In usual fashion, I arrived late to the book-movie party: just two days before The Light Between Oceans hit theaters everywhere (except, I would later discover, southwestern Kansas), I grabbed my copy of the novel and settled in for a solid weekend of reading.

The novel, written by M.L. Stedman in 2012, is pegged mostly everywhere as a love story; but I think it would be better considered a family drama. Set in southwestern Australia in the years following WWI, the tale follows the lives of two people destined to meet: Tom Sherbourne, a war veteran; and Isabel, his younger and more fanciful counterpart from Point Partaguese, a tucked-away town on Australia’s west coast.

Decorated as a war hero, Tom returns to Australia to become a lighthouse keeper — temporarily placed at Janus Rock, an island less than a day’s journey from Point Partaguese. His contract is drawn up for six months, during which time he will serve as a replacement keeper for the previous man who lost his wife (and then his mind). Whereas others might be intimidated by the isolation and extreme loneliness of a lightkeeper’s life, Tom welcomes the seclusion. His experiences in the war have left him guilt-ridden; his concepts of fairness and destiny challenged by the horrors of death and brutality. With only a few hours of human contact every few months, Tom flourishes under the day-to-day routines that comprise his life as keeper of the light on Janus Rock.

During a brief time at the mainland, Tom encounters Isabel — young, convivial, and ornery. Despite their oppositional personalities — one brooding and silent, the other energetic and willful — the two form an unlikely bond that isn’t hindered by his dutiful devotion to the lighthouse. In a courtship that seems both uncomfortably quick and altogether plausible (for that day and age), the young couple is married and whisked back to the island, where Isabel falls into the life of a lightkeeper’s wife with an almost irritatingly starry-eyed fervor. Her joy is stifled, though, when her first two births end in miscarriage and her third, a stillborn.

Not surprisingly, the losses take an exaggerated toll on Isabel, so far removed from loved acquaintances and the comforts of mainland Australia. When a living baby is washed up to the shore, then, Isabel clings to the only truth she can: this child is a gift from God. The events that follow create a heartbreaking tale of heartbreak, betrayal, denial, and sacrifice.

***

Stedman’s writing thrilled me. Her exquisite use of language, coupled with an unhappy but deeply moving plot, results in a satisfying and captivating story readers won’t soon forget. Characters are placed in complex predicaments that even the morally-upright would have to mull over. Stedman has composed a book that is a little bit love, a little bit loss, a little bit fate, and a little bit mystery; and she weaves the threads together into a poignant tapestry of fiction.

Rating: 4/5 stars. An engaging read with beautiful prose make this a book you can recommend to friends.

The Write Stuff: A Teacher Reflection

This summer, I attended a writing institute in Emporia, KS — a location for the National Writing Project. The experience was magical, to say the least (literally: I was dubbed “Most Capable of Turning Any Situation Into a Harry Potter Reference”). I learned a great deal about myself as a writer, gathered feedback from writing peers, and acquired a wealth of knowledge on the topic of writing instruction at the elementary and secondary level.

One core belief demanded attention in the weeks after I’d left: My students need to be writing daily. As an English major — writing, not literature or teaching — I had already established this belief; as a new teacher, though, I struggled to incorporate this principle in my daily labors. I wanted my students to write more, I knew they’d become stronger writers if they wrote more . . . but I couldn’t figure out the time thing. Where would I find all the time they needed to just . . . write?

After three years of teaching, one summer institute, and a few weeks of stubbornly (and metaphorically) ramming my head against the same brick wall time and time again, something finally clicked: I teach in a small, rural school with only one other teacher in the English “department” for grades 7-12, and my school doesn’t have a curriculum or scope and sequence. (That’s a new-teacher nightmare for another day, folks.) The one certainty I do have in this one-man-band I call my content area: time.

My students now write approximately 5-10 minutes daily in their Writers Notebooks. We’re in the midst of the fourth week of school, so it still takes some time to settle down and get in the writing “groove” — especially since they usually write at the beginning of class, and they’re still trying to transition from one subject to the next — but I allow them to plug in their headphones while they write, which minimizes the number of conversations that occur.

A few times each week, I use the projector to show my students an intriguing image (usually a foreign location or fantasy illustration) and ask my students to just create. I want them to have fun with words, to learn that writing doesn’t have to mean five-paragraph essays or the “right kind of creativity.”

And they love it.

I write alongside my students. I’ve noticed they’re more likely to hunker down and scribble away if they see me writing, too — in fact, when they see me whip out my pen and notebook, a hush falls over the room. I gaze around the room some as I write, partially to keep an eye on kids and gauge when to stop the writing; partially to let them know it’s okay to look around sometimes, as long as they return to paper at some point.

When we’ve reached a stopping point, I always ask who would like to share. Since we’re in the early stages of the school year, several of my students are still shy. Sharing writing is extremely intimate, even when the stories are make-believe; but I want my students to learn the joys of putting their work out there, of having their voices heard. I want them to learn that sharing writing is no different than putting their woods projects or art projects on display in the hallways or at the end-of-year student show.

So I share my writing, too.

The first time or two, a few kids joked that there was no way they could live up to the work I’d shared. (I promise I’m not doing this for the ego boost.) Despite their jokes, though, I noticed kids becoming enraptured with the stories I created. They’ve come to expect me to share my work. While it’s nice to have an audience (captive though they be), I didn’t start sharing my writing to impress or intimidate. I had an inkling that if I modeled the act of sharing personal writing aloud, my students might be less terrified of taking the author’s chair, themselves.

Here’s what I’ve noticed in just a few weeks:

Hands have begun to shoot up more quickly when I ask, “Who wants to share their writing?” Students have stopped groaning (as much) when I tell them to pull out their journals. Kids no longer snap their notebooks shut the moment I ask them to find a stopping place — they scribble a bit longer, some several minutes longer, and many wait with their notebooks open on their laps or tabletops: an invitation to be asked to read.

Sure, some still drag their feet and a handful can only manage to eke out a sentence or two in ten minutes; but I feel confident that with time, when writing becomes a habit, the words will come more easily.

Today, I shared this photo with my senior English classes. A handful of the more technical-minded boys wrote about how they would improve the structure, while a few penned stories of runaways seeking a place of solitude amid the waves of this lake (or river, or ocean). I shared last, as

house-on-rock

Borrowed from newslinq.com.

always: a fabricated tale of an unloved sea urchin whose shell grew at a rate proportionate to his loneliness.

After I finished reading, the class sat for a moment before one girl blurted out, “Whoa. Is that what happens when you read all the time? You get good at writing and creating stories?”

I laughed a bit, because their notions of “good” writing are a tad generous among high school students; but I was pleased nonetheless because her comment led to a conversation about the importance of reading. These kids are well aware I’m a book hoarder; there’s a whiteboard posted outside my classroom door with weekly updates about the books I’m currently reading. I also may or may not have taken things to an extreme-geek level when I revealed to them my giddy excitement at the arrival of my first Book of the Month Club box.

If I’m lucky, though, my students will begin making that connection between frequent reading a better writing and taking it more seriously; if for no other reason, to improve the works they bring to the collective table during our daily writing time.

 

Quick Picks

Now that I’ve completed (read: survived) yet another first month of school, my state of denial has begun to waver. The increasingly weighty burden of eighty-some teens and their futures weighs heavily on my shoulders, which have already taken on their fall-semester slump. School is in session! — and my time for pleasure-reading will be reduced to nothing in just a few quick weeks.

Since reading time is limited, I’ve realized that attempting to read long novels with great complexity and depth is futile; usually, I don’t have the opportunity to read the same book every single day, and often I go days at a time without cracking a book. (I know. It’s a crime.) As such, I try to look for books with simpler structures and characters. Below is a list of novels that teachers (and other busy folks) can safely tackle during the (school) year.

  1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Genre: Thriller. I read this book a few months after it came out, and I’ve been disappointed ever since. Seriously. The novel was gripping, characters were enjoyably despicable, and I didn’t see a single twist coming — right up to the end. This novel is a quick, suspenseful read — you may or may not stay up all night to finish — and the plot is limited to a few integral characters, so readers with limited time don’t have to worry about keeping track of multiple storylines. I’ve been hunting for a similarly gripping thriller ever since . . . and have yet to be satisfied.
  2. The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes. Genre: Fiction/Romance. Don’t be fooled by the genre — this page-turner isn’t a gooey Sparks novel. This novel tells the story of Sophie Lefevre, a 20-something French woman in German-occupied France during World War I. Sophie, her sister, and her sister’s kids must struggle to survive their occupied town; but beyond the normal terrors the villagers face, Sophie’s family must also feed the German officers in their family-owned hotel each night. Intertwined with this early-1900s tale of survival: a modern widow’s struggle to overcome grief and move forward with her life. At the heart of both stories, a common feature exists: an original painting of a beautiful woman. Moyes’ novel satisfied my love of historical fiction stories and featured a strong female lead to boot. The book itself is almost 500 pages, but Moyes’ prose is strong and the story so well-conceived, you’ll fly through the book — and wish there were more.
  3. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Genre: Fiction. This novel is a standout in the realm of Holocaust-fiction works. The story is told from the perspective of Death — lending itself to some rather interesting revelations along the way. It’s been a few years since I picked the novel up, but I remember the story touched me at my core, a unique and shattering piece of Holocaust fiction unlike any other. Perk: the film version is excellent, as well.
  4. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Genre: Fiction. This short read is quite simple in its message, but it packs a powerful punch. The novel is actually almost 30 years old, but I only recently became aware of its existence. A narrator follows the travels of Santiago, a shepherd boy who is determined to find treasure after meeting with a fortune teller who has promised great things at the pyramids of Egypt. The fable-esque tale centers on the idea that we all know our “Personal Legends” (or greatest dreams/destinies) when we’re younger, but lose sight of those Personal Legends as we become adults. Coelho, though, reinforces throughout the novel: “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” This read is excellent for high school/college students and those adults who have forgotten what it means to chase their dreams.

What are your favorite quick reads? Comment below!

On This Day

on this day, the day after —
i probably woke a bit later, sleep
clinging to my lids,
desperate for just
one
more
moment
of sleep —
tired still: the day before a garbled mess
of somber, tear-jerky anchors’ voices
and
panicked, grainy videos of
steely twin splinters vomiting up great clouds of cauliflower smoke
and
ash that covered bridges, manikins, golden retrievers,
even the sun.

i swallowed a pop-tart (cinnamon brown sugar) while
one thousand, three hundred fifty-three miles away
a girl swallowed a lump in her throat, an apricot pit,
as she waited in the armchair with the worn-smooth brown arms
for the person whose arms had done the smooth-wearing, the man who
chewed hot tamales for breakfast and sang made-up songs that embarrassed her.

i stood at the bottom of a hill waiting on a bus while
one thousand, three hundred fifty-three miles away
a man inhaled grit that clung to a throat scratchy with howled promises of rescue
and obedience to a god and anything, really, to argue with his brother just
one
more
time.

i waited in line at the lunch room, probably tuna casserole, while
one thousand, three hundred fifty-three miles away
a woman sat on a sofa covered with the ash and dust of 220 steel floors
and looked at the same tv images
over and over
and over
without ever really seeing anything but her twenty-four children
and their dust-coated backpacks
and the newly vacant seats at their dinner tables
and the whimper in their voices
and the whites of their eyes.

on this day, the day after —
i probably did not yet know that the great clouds of cauliflower smoke
still hesitated in the sky, more fog than vegetable
and ash still hung draped like a blanket over park benches and coffee mugs,
even — still — the sun;
and the ash-fog would hang over the sky
and the rooftops
and the people
many sunrises and sets after.

 

Review: Where They Found Her

Autumn. Its arrival always stirs feelings of longing and heartache within me, somehow a mirror-like manifestation of the shorter, darker days and increasingly-blustery winds that rip through southwestern Kansas.

One half of me embraces the warm pull of seasonal excitement: plush sweaters, spiced lattes, pumpkin-scented everything; the other half of me bleakly recalls my skin’s hatred of scratchy fibrous knits, the area’s (abysmal) lack of coffee shops, and my personal revulsion to all things pumpkin-flavored. But all of me knows and responds to the call of dark, mysterious fiction to accompany the encroaching dim evenings. Cue my first September read: Where They Found Her, by Kimberley McCreight (author of Reconstructing Amelia, which I kinda liked, kinda didn’t).

The cover of this book pulled me in — the dark, foggy forest looming in sharp contrast to the bright yellow rain jacket of the faceless and nameless girl instantly piqued my curiosity. Adding to my appeal: a blurb by Gillian Flynn in the bottom left-hand corner of the cover. Yep. Sold.

Where They Found Her is set in the small, affluent community of Ridgedale, New Jersey, which is home to a prestigious college (I pictured a private, liberal arts institution). The town is the epitome of small-town communities: people seem to know almost everyone (& their business), the crime rate is low (almost nonexistent), opinions about everything are both “expert” and forthcoming.

Imagine civilians’ shock, then, when the unthinkable happens: a body is found on the banks of a wooded creek. An infant body. Thus begins a fast-paced quest to discover both the mother of the child and the killer — synonymous, in many Ridgedale citizens’ minds.

McCreight’s strengths clearly lie in her ability to meticulously craft lead characters. The story alternates in its telling from the perspectives of Molly Sanderson, a reporter for the Ridgedale Reader (and newbie in town); Barbara Carlson, resident helicopter mom and wife of the Chief of Police; and Sandy Mendelson, high school dropout and the only responsible member of her highly dysfunctional family. Between the narrative chapters that follow these three women closely, McCreight has threaded in newspaper articles, comments from online forums, transcripts from therapy sessions, and diary entries. Her use of these alternative sources adds juicier layers to the story and deepens the readers’ understanding of the prejudices and stereotypes held by the people of Ridgedale. (Which, by the way, are a close parallel to many of the conversations you could expect to find on Facebook or a local news outlet’s web page. Lesson for the reader, much?)

Where They Found Her is more than just a thriller — it’s a cautionary tale about what can happen when people refuse to acknowledge the realities other people face on a daily basis. It’s a bit of a lesson in compassion, asking readers the question (but never outright): What do you really know about your neighbors and their struggles?

What was lacking? Clarity, in the beginning. I read the first half of this novel during the school week in the evenings. By the time Friday night rolled around and I had all the free time in the weekend world, I was ready to knock out the rest of the book . . . but things were so twisted in the novel, and there were so many ridiculous ties to minor characters, I almost bailed at the halfway point. For a good two hours, I halfheartedly read a bit, flipped back to review a minor detail I’d overlooked, set the book down with a sigh, and took it back up again.

What was noteworthy? McCreight’s characters were distinctly developed. Sometimes authors who switch back and forth between multiple characters struggle to create unique, separate identities. This was not the case in Where They Found Her. Barbara, pain in the ass that she is, may be the most well-written character in the entire novel. Additionally, despite the rough start, the second half of the novel had me gripped in its icy clutches. I had some pretty strong hunches about a few outcomes (and ended up being right), but McCreight still managed to keep me hooked — and surprised by some major events — up to the very end.

Rating: 3/5 stars. This one won’t stick with you forever, and probably isn’t worth purchasing . . . but it’s worth borrowing when you’ve got a wide-open weekend and a hankering for dark mysteries.