Thursday, October 9, 2008

Open Destiny

It's happened again. The otherwise terrific school where my son Sam attends 7th grade has assigned yet another dark, depressing book for required reading.

In fairness to them, I appreciate what the school is trying to do. The "spiral curriculum" takes the kids up through history, and integrates their learning in all areas with the time period they are currently studying - so it stands to reason that this term's reading should include something about the Mayan culture. But why must these books always be so relentlessly dark?

The day Sam began the book, he woefully announced, "Well, I'm on page 7 and already there have been five deaths - woops, make that six. Oh, now the parents have died. We're up to eight." At least he has a sense of humor about it.

But for me, being hell bent on trying to reinforce the connection between reading and pleasure so that my kids will continue to love reading, and seek it out as a preferred activity, this is something akin to sabotage.

In "Raising Bookworms" I talked about going through this same experience with him in fifth grade. One book after another featuring war, death, destruction and children in peril. The year culminated with a book titled "My Brother Sam is Dead" - a worthy book, but the title alone was enough to send my Sam, older brother that he is, straight back to the TV.

I also wrote about being inspired by Barbara Feinberg's book, "Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories and the Mystery of Making Things Up," in which she wrestles with the same issue with her kids. She writes: “I have realized what is missing in those books: Open destiny.
It’s from a line in a Grace Paley story. She describes how she hates stories that move from point a to point b, toward an ending that’s fixed before starting out. You know, contrived. She says she hates that absolute line between two points…not for literary reasons, she says, but because it takes all hope away. ‘Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.’”

God knows I am not advocating censorship. I do believe these assigned books are important reading, and I know many kids who find it reassuring to read about people whose lives are harder than their own. I also know they provide important lessons, not only in history but in awareness, compassion, perspective. But with only so many hours in the day, and most of them allocated to school work - classes from 8 - 3:30, an hour or more of homework, often a music lesson or a vision therapy appointment afterwards - there is precious little time left in a day for elective reading of the kind he loves, the kind that feeds his spirit and makes him want to read more, let alone for time to just noodle and be a kid. And I worry that for a sensitive young man like Sam, this relentless darkness will only serve to push him away from books altogether.

So I will reach out once again. To the school, to the teachers, to Sam especially - to keep the dialogue open, and I will continue to surround Sam with the books he loves: the comedies, the fantasies, the biographies. In this way, perhaps I can keep his destiny open.. as a reader, if nothing else.


Shonna said...

So, do the schools or teachers welcome your expertise? I think there is a fine line between kids reading as a "reality check" and reading to feed the spirit or imagination. Perhaps the bigger question is what is the moral of the assignment? What lesson should be retained - that people fall over dead everywhere you turn - that's poppycock. Even when we read for nourishing our spirit and mind - we should be able to take something valuable away, yes?

PS - I LOVE the blog - please keep it up.

Emma Walton Hamilton said...

Thanks for the affirmation. The schools do welcome my expertise, at least in as much as it serves them - visiting author days, mentoring a student who wants to write etc. Now I'll be endeavoring to get more involved. I've asked for a meeting with the had of the school and the librarian to discuss the reading program in general. We'll see!

marta said...

I completely see what you mean, I am 19 and used to be a passionate reader to the point that, when I was a child I would read water and shampoo labels if there wasn't anything else...then compulsory books from school came and with all the homework and such there was indeed very little time to pursue my own reading or I sort of felt guilty if I was reading a book I picked because I was "wasting" the time in which I should have read the one assigned by the teacher...
don't get me wrong, I do think some books are really worth reading but I'm not sure this is the best way to ensure it...I am slowly regaining the pleasure of reading but I hate I am still unable to dive in a book as I used too...
I really hope you will succeed in changing this school procedure in some way!

(sorry for the mistakes, English is not my mother tongue)

love this blog too!


Ozzie said...

Emma -- Congratulations on the publication of Raising Bookworms!

I'm curious about the meeting you had with the school librarian. How did it go? Did she have any suggestions? What was her response?

Thanks for keeping up this blog.

Emma Walton Hamilton said...

Thanks for the encouragement. I received a lovely email from the school librarian this week inviting me to come in and speak to the faculty about the assigned reading. I'll be going in January. Needless to say I'm delighted - and I look forward to sharing the experience here on this blog!