Sunday, October 24, 2010

Messed Up

I just read another awesome book. Totally teacher-written, so much from a teacher POV, although ostensibly it's first person from R.D.'s POV. Somehow, I think, it manages to be convincingly both, and I think it would ring true to an R.D. reading it. But I'm a teacher, not an R.D., so what do I know. Anyway, he rang really true to me. I've known too many kids like him.

Messed Up by Janet Nichols Lynch is a novel about R.D., smart and interesting, but his mom had him at 14 and is now in jail, his dad was never around, and he was living with his grandmother and Earl, her beau, until she found a new man, Hairy, and left town with him, leaving R.D. with Earl. Which is okay, until Earl dies. R.D. doesn't tell anyone at first; he can already sort of drive (having already failed eighth grade, being almost sixteen, and helping Earl with the mechanic's business he runs out of the garage), he can already forge Earl's signature, and he learns to cook (one of the most moving and special parts of this novel, I think).

The teacher-ness doesn't really show up till the end, when R.D. and his friend Jeanette go into the shop room and wonder why these classes aren't being offered anymore. I was not the only one outraged and frustrated when the shop teacher at the middle school I worked at retired and was not replaced--R.D. speaks the truth for a lot of kids at a lot of schools when he tells Jeanette, "Most of the kids I know who took shop are in double math now. It's sort of funny because about the only time I ever used math was in shop. You gotta figure real careful or everything turns out messed up. It's the only class I ever got an A in." Thank god for the cooking and childcare programs at the high school I teach at--the classes are always full, and a lot of kids who might not end up going to college (which is FINE!) are loving them, feeling proud of their achievements, and learning real-life skills that will help them find jobs!

This book is so spot-on at a lot of moments. It was fun to read like that. For example, R.D. is at a school dance when "The music stops and I hear a girl scream, 'Let go of me.' It's that thing where you're yelling to be heard over the loud music and suddenly the music stops and it's you just yelling." Who hasn't been in that situation?

And R.D.'s class reads "The Gift of the Magi" right before Christmas, and when he "feel[s] the tears coming, I pretend to cough and sneeze so I can walk up to the front of the classroom and get a Kleenex." He raises his hand to tell the teacher "they really need to get their money back on those hair thingies to get the watch back cuz sometimes people buy things from pawn shops and they'll never get the watch back if they don't jump on it, and anyways, the dumb lady's dumb hair will grow back for free so what's she whining about?" His teacher says he's missing the point; He observes, correctly, "I'm not though, or I wouldn't need a Kleenex."

It works out okay for R.D. in the end, although his earnest first-year teacher who got the class with all the "bad" kids who've been held back quits half-way through her first year since she knows she's not going to get rehired next year--R.D. comes in over Christmas break when she's packing her stuff and she tells him, "'I uh... well, I haven't been reelected for next year.'" He asks what that means, and she says, "'It means fired. They don't want to call it that, but that's what it is.'" Yeah. No Child Left Behind. Except for the kids we don't give a shit about.

But R.D. gets emancipated, goes to an alternative high school, and gets a job prepping in a fancy restaurant. R.D. is one of the bad-ass smart kids dealt a bad hand who gets just enough breaks that he makes it out. Yay for happy endings.

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