Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Taking A Break

Aloha from Oahu!

While I'm studying here on a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, I'll be taking a little blog break. (I'm trying to learn, and write, and organize a presentation, oh, and figure out which bus gets to the beach).


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Not Buying It

When we got to the part of To Kill A Mockingbird where Tom Robinson is found guilty of raping Mayella Ewell, my kids were livid.


"That's not right!"

"It's not fair."

"This book is so dumb."

"Why did she write it like that?"

It had taken a long time to hook my kids into this read--the catalyst for that would be Boo Radley--and when they were finally willing to settle into setting, to know the characters, Harper Lee blew it for them at the climax.

"Well, wait," I told Dominic (13), Daney (12), and Rees (10). "What do you think this book--the Book of the Century--is about?"

They told me it was whether Tom was let go or given the death penalty.

"Is that everything?" I asked. "What does that have to do with killing a mockingbird?"

This was a different read for our family. It was not fantastical Harry Potter or spirit-of-survival Little House on the Prairie. As the kids get older, we read deeper. The last book we read together was The Boy in Striped Pajamas.

But this--this timeless, timely tale--this was the most slow, the most rich, the most complex (I'm gearing them up for Grapes of Wrath).

"Could it be," I asked, "That this book has less to do with what happened to Tom Robinson than what Scout and Jem think about it? That they felt like you do: that it wasn't fair. And why wasn't it? What does that say about how things were? And are things ever that way now?"

If Tom Robinson were let off, how could we review the essence of human nature? How would we know how difficult, if not impossible, it is to set aside reason from prejudice, even if a man's life is at stake?

What kind of folks will Scout and Jem grow to be? How were they different from most of their community? Why did their dad, Atticus, choose to foster that? Why does it matter?

Again, I believe that the difference between commercial and literary fiction comes down to conclusion. Mockingbird didn't end as we'd thought it would. It didn't end happy. We were dissatisfied, unravelled, even.

Days after we finished, the kids are still talking about the book. Yes, they were glad they got to "see" Boo. Because of that one scene, they raised the book to a B-, A-, A. But they're still walking around, grumbling that Tom Robinson got the chair. And that is why Harper Lee is a genius.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Who Is Valedictorian?

Your odds are better at being one of Ashland High School's valedictorians if you're female, from a two-parent family, and have worked hard enough for 12 years to want to take a year off.

AHS, which consistently ranks in the top 3% of US News & World Report's "Best High Schools," has a legendary Speech & Debate Team, an honorable Math Team, a Quidditch Club, a Gay-Straight Alliance, Knit Wits, Model United Nations, Multicultural Club, Pagan Club, and Crew. Every year, the Drama Department partners up with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to produce, direct, costume, and choreograph a professional-level musical. (This year's performance of "Chicago" rivaled the production I'd seen on Broadway of Sacramento.)

According to the Medford Mail Tribune, of AHS' 14 Class of 2011 valedictorians, 12 are female. Eight of 12 are listed with parents of the same last name. Many scholars are in Honor Society, have math honors, played soccer, are musicians.

And several are planning on taking advantage of the new trend; they'll take a "Gap Year" of travel or volunteer service, or dabble in the arts before heading back to the books at Stanford, NYU, Pomona, or George Washington to study neuroscience, physics, engineering, or journalism.

I know some of their parents: professors, doctors, authors, entrepreneurs.

This morning at breakfast, Dave and I sat by an AHS grad from a few years ago. She went to Harvard for a year, and returned to work at an Ashland coffee shop.

A simple, quiet girl from my own high school in California went to Berkeley and is now the headmaster of a private school in Marin County.

You never can tell, I guess, who will succeed, and at what. Part of the fun mystery of life is the element of surprise.

Maybe it will be an AHS 2011 valedictorian who cures AIDS, or maybe it will be the kid who sat in science in the middle row, who graduated 60th in a class of 200, who went to community college first.