In Praise of the Activist, the Protester and the Provocateur.

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This is my kid’s school, and somewhere, sitting in the hallways, is my daughter, in her own awakening to her particular place and power and impact in the context of a larger, broken and hurting world. I remember the first time I felt moved to take political action. I remember that burning need – that not only can we change the world, but we must do so this minute. I remember how much I loved this green and blue and spinning Earth, and all its people in it. I remember feeling that I was not only riding the arc of history but actually participating in pushing that justice forward.

I remember that feeling.

I know these kids are feeling that too. I pray that it lasts in them. I pray that it never ceases.

Blessings on all of you, my darlings. My beautiful South High compatriots. I cherish your activism and your hope and your giant, beating hearts. Keep up the good work.

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In which I am a mama bear. With claws. And teeth.

grizzly

I have been on the phone quite a bit so far today. I intend to be on the phone quite a bit for the near future. I’ve connected to the principal, the school office, the crime specialist at the police department, the Climate Coordinator for the school district and someone from building security.

I still don’t have good answers.

Last Monday, November 17, there was an incident at South High School – my daughter’s school, my alma mater, the school that educated my siblings and my cousins and my second-cousins and the children of my cousins and second cousins. I have had a family member attending South High every single year since I graduated in 1992. My bonds with that school are deep, and they are meaningful to me. Still, I am not happy with what happened. I am not happy with the school’s behavior in the moments following the incident in question. And I am SUPER NOT HAPPY about the vague and detail-less communication between the parents and the school in the ensuing days.

This is what I know:

1. On Friday there was an incident in which a girl was beaten up.

2. On Monday, there was a retaliation, and a large fight occurred on school property, just as school was being let out.

3. A Code Red was issued, meaning that kids who were still in the building (in after school activities) were told to lock the doors, turn off the lights and huddle in the corner in the dark. The kids who had already left the building, who saw the large fight and were scared, ran back to the building, and were not permitted to come back inside. My daughter’s good friend was one of them. She was screaming and crying and pounding on the door. And the school did nothing. She was not allowed inside.

That image? Of a kid outside shouting please. It guts me.

And if it weren’t for the fact that it was Monday when my daughter was at Math Team (my darling little mathlete!) she would have been out there too. Banging on the doors. Begging to be let in. This girl – Ella’s friend? She is the sweetest girl in the world – her family came here from Somalia to seek safety and opportunity. She deserves to be safe. Every student at South deserves to be safe.

Now, times being what they are, we are awash in “information” but it is difficult to find out what is actually true. Ella’s friend reports hearing gun shots – lots of kids do – but the police do not have that information and neither does the school. So I have to assume that in the heat of the moment, frightened children hear all kinds of frightening things, and fear the worst. But that speaks to a larger concern: where the hell were the grownups? My daughter showed me some of the videos that had been posted on kids’ pages on Facebook, and all I can see is a lot of chaos and confusion. And frightened children.

I understand the need to keep the building safe. I do. I understand that school officials do not want violence to come inside the school walls. But the kids on the grounds deserve to be safe as well. They were just about to walk home. They are good kids who work hard at their studies and who have bright futures, and they should expect to be safe coming and going. The school has a responsibility – given that it is district policy to hand them bus passes instead of transporting them by school bus – to ensure that each child is safe between school and home.

When we have policies that lead us to lock our doors, lock kids out, and simply say, “Sorry, kid. No grownup will help you. Good luck not getting hurt.” we need to take a good, hard look at what we’re doing, and what the results of these policies actually are. Because this situation? Well, it sucks. And we can do so much better.

Yes, they are teenagers; and yes, they sometimes make horrible choices; and yes, sometimes they get involved in groups and behavior patterns that lead them into some scary places; and yes, they are big and zit-faced and sometimes stinky; and yes, sometimes they have big humungous feelings that they cannot control – confusion and hurt and defiance and longing and bravado and need, and rage, rage, rage; and yes, sometimes they can frighten us – even big strong adults like ourselves. But the fact remains that they are children. Children. And we have duty to protect them. Every last of us. Because we are grownups.

And mama bears.

[ETA: Let me be clear on one thing. I love South High. I do. I love everything about it. I love its teachers. I love its diverse and complicated student body. I love the dedicated folks walking the halls every day to keep those kids safe. I love Ray Aponte – the new, big-hearted principal who has been spending the last few months sitting down with the kids and talking to them and caring about them and treating each one of them as a wondrous and precious human being. I love it that, right now, they have the kids arranged in Peace Circles trying to break down the racial and cultural divisions that often foment this kind of anger and bad behavior. And I love how quickly the grownups at South have been to answer my questions and talk to me. I do love that. And I believe them when they tell me that a.) there were no weapons, and b.) there were grownups present trying to break up the action – though not enough to make the panicked kids banging on the door to feel any safer. What I learned is that this practice of locking the school up and locking some kids out is considered a Best Practice – and is used in districts around the country. I learned that the building safety staff hates this practice but they don’t know what else to do. This means that this is likely the standard operating procedure in YOUR home district as well. I am not okay with this practice, and I hope that you are not either. I truly believe that we can do better. I truly believe there must be a better solution. And I intend to find one.]

The Mountain Dew Guy, the Snickers Guy, the Hot Cheetos Guy, the Taquis Guy

junk-food-industry

My daughter’s school, like many others, has banned the sale of junk food on the premises. This astonishes me, given that she goes to the same high school that I went to, and I can’t imagine my high school career without the rush to the pop machine after third hour in hopes that you might be able to drop your quarters in and snag a soda AND eat your lunch in the same twenty minute time-squeeze they called a lunch period.  I can’t imagine a South High experience without those gooey chocolate chip cookies that they were always selling four for a dollar, which tasted exquisite for the first bite or two, followed by a mournful compulsion, followed by nauseous regret.

I mean really, how can one experience the true euphoria of post-track-practice -high without the requisite bag of Funions or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups? Is it even possible? Kids today live lives of deprivation and woe, and I am sorry for it.

The pop machines were the first to go. The candy machines followed shortly after. And high school, for a very little while, became a very sad place.

Today, I was Target with my fourteen year old, shopping for god knows what.

“Mom,” she said. “Mom. Mom. Mom.”

“What, what, what,” I said, as I was trying to catalogue the entire contents of my fridge and pantry in my head, and plan for the meals for the next few days, and curse myself for not thinking ahead and writing out a damn list.

“Mom. Mountain Dew. It’s on sale. LET’S BUY SOME.”

I stopped in my tracks. “What are you talking about?” I asked. “You’ve never had Mountain Dew in your entire life.”

“Shows what you know,” she said. “I have it every day.”

“How?” I asked.

“The Mountain Dew Guy.”

“I hate that kid.”

“HE’S THE BEST.” She nearly shouts this. In the middle of Target. People turn and stare and wonder if my kid is crazy. Yes, I want to assure them. Very much so.

The thing is, I already knew about the Mountain Dew Guy. Ella’s spoken of him frequently. With the elimination of the vending machines in an effort to make our kids more healthy and whatever, an underground economy quickly sprung up in the halls of South High, and I’m guessing other high schools as well. A cottage industry of sorts. Or a backpack industry.

This is how it works: There are kids at school with suspiciously overstuffed backpacks. They sit down in the lunch room – or anywhere really – with the backpack sitting next to them, unzipped, the merchandise visible, but easily hidden from the adult gaze by the quick application of a math book or whatever. The independent vendors have their particular specialties. There’s the kid who sells Mountain Dew (“You want to get that right away in the morning, because it’s not cold anymore by third period,” Ella explained.). There’s the kid who sells Bugles. There’s the kid who sells Snickers. There’s the kid who sells Skittles. There’s the kid who sells protein bars. There’s the kid who sells Coca-cola. There’s the kid who sells Gatorade. Each one has a single item specialty, though there are a few who cycle through different products depending on the day.

Kids sidle up. They already know the price. Everything is one dollar. No one decided this, of course, but it is the easiest denomination to scrounge for the high school consumer. “Anyone can find a dollar,” Ella explained. “And sometimes we pool our coins together and share the Mountain Dew.” Which explains why her entire lunch table all succumbed to Strep Throat in the exact same week.

“Mountain Dew is really bad for you,” I told her. “You really shouldn’t drink it.”

“I don’t do anything else bad for me,” she countered.

“This is true,” I said, “but I’d rather you choose something good. Like French chocolate. How about you get hooked on that?”

“Is it a dollar?”

“No,” I admitted.

“Well then.”

She picked up the twenty-four pack of Mountain Dew and gave me the giganticest smile in the world – all braces and pink cheeks and hope. “Please?” she said.

“Not in a million years.”

“You’re not as nice as the Mountain Dew Guy, Mom,” Ella said, walking dejectedly behind me, appearing to all who noticed as the saddest fourteen year old in all the land. “You are not as nice at all.”

“I know, buddy,” I said.

And so afterwards I took her out for lattes. Which are somehow better for her, though I haven’t yet figured out how. Reasons, I expect. They are better because of reasons.

Why do I love YA? Because Teenagers Are Friggin’ Awesome.

I just picked up my girl after not seeing her since Wednesday morning. She had gone with the other ninth graders in the Open program at South High to some outdoor education program thingie. She wasn’t looking forward to it, but ended up having a pretty good time, despite pretty much freezing her tail off.

As I’m walking her to the car, we walked past another freshman, shivering on the sidewalk, waiting for his mom.

“OSCAR GO INSIDE,” Ella barked at him. “YOU’RE TOO COLD.”

“I CAN’T,” he said. “ALL MY STUFF IS HERE. AND MY MOM ISN’T HERE YET.”

Freshmen, I have learned, only yell at each other. It’s cultural, as I understand it.

“FINE,” she said.

“FINE,” he said.

And we got into the car.

“Ella,” I said. “Do we need to give that boy a ride?”

“Psh,” she said. “No. That’s just Oscar. He never notices the cold. He’s an Anarchist.”

“Anarchists don’t feel cold?”

“No. It’s like a thing. The cold, or feeling cold is, apparently, a cynical construct of the Corporate State.”

“Ah,” I said. “Um. He looks cold.” The kid was wearing knock-off Chuck’s and holey jeans and had no gloves and no hat.

“He might be doing it on purpose. He does a lot of things on purpose. He’s also a self-proclaimed Communist. And my mortal enemy.”

“People still have those?”

“I do, it seems.”

“Oh,” I said. “Why is he your mortal enemy?”

“Because I hate Bronies and he hates Les Miz. The lines were drawn long ago. We do not chose our sides; we are our sides.”

“Ah,” I said.

“I’m just kidding. My friends write fake insulting and vaguely threatening notes to him signed by him and his friends send fake anti-broadway manifestos to me signed by him. It’s become a thing.”

“There are still things?”

“There will always be things.”

And truth be told, I found it vaguely comforting to know that these were being done by hand. Like, old-school note-writing. These kids today! So crazy. So odd-ball. So curious and confused and interested and bored and brave. So hopeful. So cynical. So fully and completely and wonderfully themselves.

This is why I love YA novels. Because I love teenagers. Because they are awesome.

Lately, there have been a bunch of articles and conversations floating around the various places in the media about YA novels – the novels that, when done well, explore the rocky terrain of the teenaged experience – without nostalgia. Without moralizing. Without the limitations of the Adult Gaze. The best of the genre are the books that tell the stories of teenagers experiencing their own particular stories on their own terms, in their own voices, and powered by their own steam. These books are wonderful – not as an aside, or as a lower class of literature, or as a “my goodness can you believe there is a book for teenagers that isn’t terrible – not that I read it you understand, oh god no, but I certainly heard…” sort of way.

These conversations make me cranky. Anyone who ever says, “Here are some YA books that actually aren’t too bad” needs to get dope-smacked.

Books about teenagers have a responsibility to be wonderful. They have a responsibility to be honest and incisive and brutal and brave. They have a responsibility to be just as honest and incisive and brave as the teenagers who read them. And I believe this is true, not for the sake of their readership, and not for the sake of critics, and certainly not for the pointless pontificators on the radio (yammering endlessly about books that they have never read and have no intention of reading either). Those books have a responsibility to be wonderful for the sake of their characters, of their stories. Because those stories matter.

The process of transition between youth and adulthood is confusing and scary and soul-crushing, and sometimes it’s a miracle that any of us come out of it with our bodies and souls and selves intact. There is a reason why so many of us choose to remember our teen years through the foggy lens of nostalgia – some things are too painful to relive. Sometimes it’s easier to see through our adult eyes. And the adult eye is a dim thing. And prone to self-deception.

Teenagers are amazing. Even when they’re awful, they’re amazing. And if you don’t believe me, I encourage you to spend some time with teenagers. I encourage you to get to know one or seven or a hundred.

To the teens in my life, I salute you. To the teen protagonists and side-characters in the books that have moved me, I salute you as well. I salute your struggles. I salute your journeys. I salute your love and your loss and your questioning. I salute you as you become more fully yourselves. I salute you as you seek to clarify the rules by which you will live your life. It isn’t easy.

Be well, be safe, and godspeed.

 

(Next up: Why I love Middle Grade books. Stay tuned.)