Category Archives: coming of age

The Age of Miracles & maintaining a sense of self

Months ago I saw the book The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walkder and added it to books I wanted to read, namely because it sounded like a good next step for my 8th graders who had read every futuristic, dystopian novel in the young adult section and were ready for an adult level book.  I ran into it the while browsing in the digital books collection of the Brooklyn Public Library and decided it should be my first library ebook.

The premise of the story is that one seemingly typical morning, people wake up to a news story that states the rotation of the earth has shifted and minutes have been added onto the day.  This continues and throws the entire world into a frenzy as the governments decide to remain on 24 hour clock-time which, as the days grow longer, can mean the waking “day” is completely in the dark and the sun is shining brightly while people are sleeping at “night.”  Of course there are people who decide to rebel and let their circadian rhythms readjust, but soon the days become 48 hours long.  Some people become afflicted with sickness, tides are shifted way off and coasts flood, the magnetic field is damaged and the sun’s rays become so dangerous that people do not walk into the sun anymore.

What I kept thinking about was that even though there were life changing and life threatening conflicts, people needed to maintain a sense of self in the face of it all–and that may be what enables them to face the conflicts with courage. This made me start thinking about when everything in life feels like it is being thrown off–when the earth’s rotation in this story is like a metaphor for our lives–how do we cope?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of taking the time to do the things that are good for my soul–even if that means not finishing everything on my to do list.  Or even if it means deciding to paint or bake instead of sitting in front of another crime show–which feels relaxing for the moment, but doesn’t impact my sense of well being in the long run.

What was devastating in the book was when the government decided to make a time capsule of sorts so that if civilization were destroyed, people of the future would have an understanding of the age.  Inside the capsule, though, was a disc that contained information about how civilization worked: the internet, government systems, medical advances.  Our narrator, who is telling the story from her mid twenties about her 12 year old self said: “Not mentioned on the disc was the smell of cut grass in high summer, the taste of oranges on our lips, the way sand felt beneath our bare feet, or our definitions of love and friendship, our worries and our dreams, our mercies and our kindnesses and our lies,” (267).  These are the things of actual life.  The things that she shares throughout the length of the book itself.  And that, is a beautiful and clever idea from the author: it is the stuff of stories that make life worth living.  (It reminded me a lot of this book, which I also wrote about here.)

And so, I’ve tried to be in pursuit of these things that remind me of the goodness of life; the things that store up strength for later and can provide true comfort.  For me, that has meant art and cooking real meals and going for runs in Prospect Park to soak in the season.  Having these rhythms in place keeps me grounded when life seems to throw everything else off.  And that in and of itself, constitutes a miracle.

Streets with names from the Middle Ages and other thoughts on roots.

Tana French is a phenomenal, literary mystery writer and my mom, brother and I have enjoyed all of her books.  I read her third, Faithful Place, earlier this year and for some reason never wrote about it, but still find myself thinking about these words from the final page:

“All that night…I went looking for the parts of my city that have lasted.  I walked down streets that got their names in the middle ages…I looked for cobblestones worn smooth and iron railings gone thin with rust.  I paid no attention to the shoddy new apartment blocks and the neon signs, the sick illusions ready to fall …In a hundred years they’ll be gone, replaced, forgotten.”

I’m in the middle of our last unit of the year, Reading and Writing Through the Literary Genre of Coming of Age.  We are obviously focusing on the adolescent coming of age, but I have found that life continues to spiral me through many comings-of-age. We read 8 short texts of a variety of genres together and they are all reading a coming of age novel of their choosing.  We are having two class-wide discussions, dividing the books in half.  This means that this week discussion revolved around struggle and we have watched all of our characters wrestle with the fact that growing up is equated with pain and finding ways to cope and survive when the safety and blissful ignorance of childhood is pulled away.

This is what brought me back to these words from the protagonist of Faithful Place, because I think to survive well means to have a life rooted in things that last.  The imagery that French employs is so poignant to me–especially the “sick illusions” that  call me to temporary, shallow wellness, which is what we are seeing in class from our adolescent protagonists on their way to finding something deeper and real.   I cannot wait to talk about hope next week and the kinds of things that bring resolution from life’s messes. It never ceases to amaze me the way that talking about literature with 13 year olds on a regular basis always brings me back to truth.

For those who have been wrecked that they weren’t called to Hogwarts or let into Narnia. Or, for existential nerds.

(Note: This post quotes heavily from the book.  It was the only way I could process through it. And it’s rather long. I have some opinions about the narrative being so inner-thought heavy that the reader doesn’t have to infer, but those are neither here nor there for the purposes of this post.)
Fillory had yet to give Quentin the surcease from unhappiness he was counting on, and he was damned if he was leaving before he got what he wanted.  Relief was out there, he knew it, he just needed to get deeper in…He had to jump the tracks, get out of his Earth-story, which wasn’t going so well, and into the Fillory-story, where the upside was infinitely higher (304).
The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a coming of age story that begins when Quentin Coldwater, brilliant and bored, is a senior in high school in Brooklyn.  He has never left behind his Fillory books–a series Grossman made up, very similar to Narnia, and deeply believes without irony that if only he could find his way into a land like Fillory that life would make sense.  “He’d spent too long being disappointed by the world–he’d spent so many years pining for something like this, some proof that the real world wasn’t the only world, and coping with the evidence that it in fact was, ” (37).  His existence is defined by his longing for Fillory and all that it represents: wholeness, beauty, peace, fulfillment, adventure.  One day, though, Quentin unexpectedly finds himself walking through a garden and onto the campus of Brakebills, a college in the Hudson River Valley for magical training, and not visible to the non magical eye.  
When Quentin arrives at this school that does indeed exist on Earth and not in Fillory, a professor tells him: “Most people are blind to magic.  They move through a blank and empty world.  They’re bored with their lives, and there’s nothing they can do about it.  They’re eaten alive by longing, and they’re dead before they’re alive (88).  For Quentin, this makes sense, because they haven’t been able to step through to the magic.  The twist of expectation here, though, is that Quentin’s experiences with the magical realm are disappointing, and he finds himself struggling with the same kinds of things: “This was the kind of disaster Quentin thought he’d left behind the day he walked into that garden in Brooklyn.  Things like this didn’t happen in Fillory: there was conflict, and even violence, but it was always heroic and ennobling, and anybody really good and important who bought it along way came back to life at the end of the book.  Now there was a rip in the corner of his perfect world, and fear and sadness were pouring in like freezing filthy water through a busted dam,” (148).
As it would turn out, one of his magical friends finds that not only does Fillory actually exist (even among the magicians, they see Fillory as a children’s story), but he’s found a way to get in.  Quentin remained convinced that life would finally become ok: “He was in Fillory. There was no question about it now.  And now that he was here it would finally be all right,” (288). And I suppose that this is how it goes for most adventures: the initial thrill and newness of a move, a new job, a new relationship can make one think that life will be different.  And, of course in the book there is a feeling of true adventure for a while, but ultimately Quentin has to face the same existentialism that has plagued him all along: “Why now, when it was actually happening, did the seductions of Fillory feel so crude and unwanted? He thought he left this feeling behind long ago in Brooklyn, or at least at Brakebills.  How far did he have to run? If Fillory failed him he would have nothing left! A wave of frustration and panic surged through him,” (311).  
The Magicians could be described as a grown up’s Narnia or Harry Potter–it turned the magical into the ordinary and made the concept of fighting evil much more postmodern, and in turn, depressing.  The characters at the end just settle for a different brand of discontent.  There is not one clear foe or one clean answer in which to rest and find peace.  
I don’t want to be so jaded or realistic that there isn’t room for magic–or at least hope.  Reading Quentin’s story, I was surprised how much I related to parts of his mental journey.  At this point in the story, one would think that something would happen to re-instill Quentin’s hope in magic, but it takes a turn for pretty stark realism: He should have stayed in Brooklyn, in the real world.  He should have nursed his depression and his grudge against the world from the relative safety of mundane reality…Sure you can live out your dreams, but it’ll only turn you into a monster.  Better to stay home and do card tricks in your bedroom instead…The trick was just not wanting anything. That was power.  That was courage: the courage not to live anyone or hope for anything. The funny thing was how easy everything got, when nothing mattered (382-383). 
One of the professors at Brakebills seemed to be describe coming of age: “Magical thinking: that’s what Freud called it.  Once we learn otherwise we cease to be children.  The separation of word and thing is the essential fact on which our adult lives are founded,” (216).
And yet, C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series, pressed into the longing: “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing–to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from…Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.” Readers and thinkers have to wonder if there is a space in the world for magic–and could the longing point to something real? Lewis, in his non-fiction writings on his Christian faith, explained that the longing was for Heaven and that life once again became magical for him when he realized that the longing was not in vain, but that it as was made him alive.  Grossman’s book seems to be a critique of the Narnia-like longings.  I can’t decide if Grossman himself would find Quentin a pathetic character in the hopes he had for magical lands. The bleakness of who Quentin becomes at the near-end of the story suggests that intellectual, passionless realism is the best way to cope with the disappointments of the world.  
And yet. There are some universal truths woven into the story: love, sacrifice, human fallenness and the pain of longing.  
So.

To my students. With respect. This started as a mentor text on coming of age, but changed along the way. I’m not really sorry for that.

www.akindoflibrary.blogspot.com

Today I made a new bulletin board in my classroom.  I realize it is the end of May and that a month from yesterday the students I love will have cleaned out their lockers, left 8th grade behind, looking only toward the season of freedom and their new high schools, which, whether you hated or loved it, is generally smiled upon more than middle school.  So.  I want the last month in room 116 to matter.

Our unit is called “Reading and Writing Through Coming of Age” and everyone has to read a coming of age novel.  Instead of doing book clubs, students can read a book of their choice and we are trying to notice patterns across the genre: what parts of coming of age are universal? What are personal? In the midst of sharing, I hope that students find something that resonates with what life feels like to them right now.

Today everyone had to bring in 2 quotes that spoke into their characters’ coming of age experience in the first half of their book and I was blown away by what they found.  I’ve been reading young adult fiction incessantly for the past month (Girl in Translation, Sweet Dates in Basra, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, Weeping Underwater Looks a Lot Like Laughter, A Northern Light) and though they are all engaging books,  I have not been inspired to write off of any of them, or the coming of age experience, which is also the reason behind my severe lack of posts recently.  Until today.

I took about 25 of the quotes from 10-15 books that my students are reading and wrote them with permanent black marker on sheets of white paper.  I hung them all across the bulletin board that stretches across the entire back wall of my room.  All of a sudden it was reverse personification–I saw all of my students somewhere in the paper mess (well, let’s be honest, the quotes are hanging orderly, but still) of complicated emotion–and then it became post modern, because I could almost trace their jumps from one quote to another at different times throughout the year.  For instance:

“This was simply around the time my parents stopped understanding what I wanted and I stopped understanding what they wanted me to want.” (Born Confused)

“Standing there, I loved and hated myself. It made me feel my glory and my shame at the same time.” (The Secret Life of Bees)

“You still have a lot of time to make yourself into what you want.” (The Outsiders)

“I told the waitress I’d been out all night ‘looking for trouble.'” (Teen Angst…Nahh)

“I didn’t answer him. I didn’t feel like it.” (Catcher in the Rye)

And I guess the reason that I wasn’t connecting with any of the young adult books I was reading was because I wasn’t picturing my students in them, because after listening to them read all their quotations and hearing their voices, I was tapped into their lives–albeit the slivers they allow to come out in English class, but it was as though the beauty of becoming and possibility was present.  I’m not sure if they noticed it. But I did. And I’m absolutely sure that they will make fun of me for my waxing poetic about a day in class. But.

This week we talked about the first half–the pain, the confusion, the struggle.  Next week we talk about the second half–the resolution, the growth, the wholeness, the strength.  I. Love. Story. And I love to think about the people that these favorites are going to become and the stories they are going to be able to tell when they make it to the other side of growing up.  But here are a few pictures of who they are right now. They are kind of endearing, right? You can read their writing at www.room116ela.blogspot.com.

My “Sold” bookclub with supplies they bought for Restore NYC’s safehouse. 

Mustache Monday. Obviously. 

We take reading seriously. 

Like I said, seriously. 
My homeroom gets so excited to come back after lunch. Ha. 

Sometimes we play paper football. 

There aren’t words for just how great this one is. Or how amazed I was to capture the single second that they weren’t hysterically laughing after decorating my board so thoughtfully.  

Coming of age. Again.

www.akindoflibrary.blogspot.com

I received the memoir Trail of Crumbs by Kim Sunee for free a few years ago when a friend of mine in publishing took me to the Book Expo of America. After travelling in Spain with a quick stop in Paris and finally finishing The Savage Detectives, my overworked brain and sad-to-be-home heart knew it was time to read a book that I could curl up with for a few days and escape the dreariness of coming back from vacation.

Despite the fact that my younger brother has been sending me Happy 30th Birthday cards since I turned 26, it’s still another year off–but that didn’t stop my friend Jenny and I to discuss on our trip, at length, how different we are now than when we first moved to New York City in our early twenties. We thought that we were incredibly mature and knew everything, a belief that turned out to be utterly false.

The reason I bring this up is because Trail of Crumbs is a coming of age story. I’m certified to teach English to 7-12th graders, so don’t get me wrong, I love the adolescent coming of age tale as well. But I do think that finally figuring out who you are in the adult world can be just as poetic and cathartic (and I’m sure I’ll look back at this revelation and laugh at my immature almost 29 year old self). Kim Sunee was abandoned at Korean market at age three, adopted by a couple in New Orleans and moved to France around age twenty. Her memoir is her story of a long relationship that included a house in Provence, an apartment in Paris, some incredible cooking (each chapter closes with recipes) and her journey of finding what home and self meant to her.

After much discussion, I am concluding that this age is a good place to be, even as it seems crazy to me that I have been at my (first and) current job for five years, even as I live in a city where I’ll never be able to afford to buy a house, much less a studio apartment, even though my life looks completely different from what my 21 year old-junior-in-college self thought it would be.

September is still my new years and October brings 29. I am excited about it. (And I have a mom who just celebrated her own birthday and is still absolutely amazing and fabulous, so I suppose there is only more good to come.)