Nov 29 2010

Something Sunday Book Review: “North of Beautiful” by Justina Chen Headley


My fabulous school librarian, Christy, recently referred me to a book on the 2009-2010 Lone Star list. 

“I still can’t get it out of my head,” she said, holding up a copy of North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley. 

Now, I thoroughly respect my librarian friend and her opinions, but I hesitated to pick up the novel right away.  I appreciate good Chick Lit, but in all honesty I’m not typically drawn to that genre.  I worried that Christy’s recommendation would fall firmly into that category. 

And so I was happily surprised when I did—finally—open the book.

North of Beautiful centers around high school senior Terra, who has spent her entire life covering up the dramatic birthmark on her cheek and cowering in the wake of her verbally abusive father.  As she sets out to escape from her father’s control and find a means to negotiate society’s concept of beauty, Terra finds far more than she ever knew she was looking for. 

Headley explores the literal and figurative themes of navigation, lost and found, “True Beauty” and “True North” with grace and authority.  Though the frequent mapping metaphors may be a bit heavy-handed, they did serve to connect the many struggles in Terra’s life.  I found myself frustrated with Terra’s decisions; isn’t that, after all, the mark of a well-developed character?  Headley remains committed to Terra’s motivations and influences, forcing the reader to care about her even as we disagree with her missteps.  By the last page, our protagonist’s emotional journey is tangible, and marked by a moving, refreshing epiphany.

Thanks to Christy for gently nudging me toward North of Beautiful.  What a great navigator she is!

Nov 26 2010

On Humanity

Every year at this time I run a unit with my students on the theme of “humanity.”  We read A Christmas Carol and discuss charity, human compassion, and selflessness.  It’s always a successful unit, largely because we put on a small-scale production of the play in each of my five language arts classes.  Ideally, the play works to each student’s strengths, and increases their overall comprehension of the text.  Most importantly, the kids commit themselves to it with enthusiasm, and the activity leaves a lasting impression in their memories.

This week, right after I’d announced casting and we began our first read-through, one of my students raised her hand. 

“Ms. Conrad,” she said.  “Since we’re talking about humanity and everything, maybe we can put a box in your classroom for a food drive or something.”

This will be my sixth year teaching this unit, and this is the first time that someone has made this type of suggestion.  I suppose I could be disappointed in my past students, or in myself, for that matter, for neglecting to think of it before.  But I’d rather focus on the double-joy of a student connecting our over-arching literary theme to her life, and the character that it shows in her. 

I have roughly 150 students.  Developmentally, twelve-year-olds are inherently selfish.  It’s difficult for them to see outside of themselves and think of others’ needs and feelings.  But it would be a very simple thing to ask my students to contribute canned goods over the next three weeks, in the interest of helping people less fortunate than ourselves.  And I’d like to think that it, too, would be something that they’d remember. 

And so, on this day after Thanksgiving, I’m thankful to know an adolescent who reminds me of the things that we can do for others; a pre-teen who thinks of other people first, and shares that consideration with her peers.  She taught me a lesson about humanity this year, and I imagine she did the same for other kids in the class.  What’s more, I know that she’s not the only one.  I have—and have had—so many students who show a tremendous level of caring and kindness. 

I’m thankful for all of them.

Nov 22 2010

Something Sunday: Giving Thanks

It’s probably a bit overly ambitious, given my erratic schedule and many obligations.  But I’ve decided that I need to set deadlines and goals for myself and my writing life, so my new plan is to writing something specifically for my blog—anything, as long as I can feel good about it—every Sunday.  Unrealistic?  Probably.  Bound to fall through the cracks now and then?  Absolutely.  But it’s a goal, and as goals go, I think it’s a decent one.

So here’s my first installment, which really falls into the category of “Gratitude Journal,” as well (something I’ve let slide, but think about all the time).  As we careen into Thanksgiving, and with it the inevitable holiday season, I always feel a tremendous sense of gratitude and joy.  I know that many find the holidays to be a stressful, even lonely time, and my heart goes out to those individuals.  Do I occasionally find it stressful and time-consuming?  Of course.  But for me, the tasks, the gift-buying, the parties, and the extraordinarily indulgent barrage of food, are all part of a warm and beautiful time.  My husband jokes that he loves the holidays, too, because of my constant good mood and upbeat cheer.  (So unlike the rest of the year, when I’m a giant bitch.  JK!)

I’m well aware that my love of the holiday season can be attributed in large part to the family and friends who’ve always made it special for me.  So here are the people, the things, and the places that I’m thankful for during this Thanksgiving holiday…and throughout the year.

My Parents:  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  I have parents who love me—and each other—and who’ve always made their home a wonderful place to be.  I still feel homesick all the time, because I’ve always known that where they are is home.  Their unconditional love and support gave me the confidence and the skills (or, at least, the confidence to fake the skills) to get through the tough times in life.  Pretty wholesome, I know.  But wonderful all the same.

My Brothers:  One brother with the charisma and charm to woo girls right out of their Jimmy Choos, and another with, well, the same charisma and charm from a wheelchair.  Three Thanksgivings ago my husband postponed his dinnertime proposal when Timmy (then 26 years old) put mashed potatoes in Brendan’s ear (who was 23 at the time), and began serenading him with a little ditty we now call “Potatoes in Your Ear.”  My brothers are fabulous, funny, and they bring life to any party…Including family gatherings.  I wish I could be with them this week, but I’ll have to settle for Christmas instead.

My In-Laws:  Crazy, right?  But my in-laws accepted me instantly, without question, and they’ve welcomed me into their family with open arms.  I’ve started to feel nostalgic for their Wisconsin home, which tells me that they have done much what my parents did in Massachusetts; they grew a family based on love and trust and generosity, and that’s the same spirit that they extend to new family members as well.  I think it goes without saying that not all wives are so lucky.

My Colleagues:  When the going gets rough, I go to my teammates.  My academic teammates, that is.  The people I teach with have integrity, intelligence, creativity, and spunk.  I know how lucky I am to work in that kind of environment, and to call them not only peers, but good friends.  I can call them at night, crying about a particularly rough parent phone call, or drink with them in my pajamas on Saturday evenings (as I did with a few just last night).  On the mornings when I don’t want to go to work, the thought of them drags me out of my bed.

My Body:  We all spend so much time looking at ourselves critically, that we sometimes forget to be thankful for the gift of life.  Sure, I sometimes gripe about my ever-growing thighs, and wish I had better skin or hair (or both), and I wish that I could run as fast as I used to or that my bad knee didn’t swell occasionally.  But here’s the thing—my body has done a lot for me.  It’s given me the opportunity to enjoy two separate athletic careers, in both field hockey and ultimate.  It’s relatively healthy and capable, and not horrible to look at.  And on top of all that, I live in a country where women are generally encouraged to exercise and compete in sports…Activities my body makes possible.  So I’m thankful for my body—big thighs, aging joints, flat hair and all.

Austin:  The city that I now call home is a true gem.  The culture is “hippie cowboy,” as I like to say, which means that cowboy boots are as welcome as peasant dresses.  Barbecue is as hip as tofu, and the dress code is universally “come as you are.”  I love going to shows at the Bass Concert Hall on campus, sitting in the Bier Garden at the bar down the street, and wearing flip-flops in November.  Do I miss the change of seasons?  The friends and family I have in Massachusetts?  The culture of the northeast?  Sure.  But when I had the chance to leave five years ago, I decided to stay and savor the things that this city offers…For at least a while longer. 

Amherst:  Of course, I feel compelled to thank my hometown for the gifts that it has given me.  People, like my dear friends Mike and Sarah, who consistently nag me to move back; places, like Judie’s, which is possibly my favorite restaurant of all time; the universities, the well-meaning political correctness, the chill in the air in the fall.  I grew up in a haven, where I could go to plays on the weekends at UMass and not be an outsider.  Where I could play sports and sing in the choir, without being a total contradiction.  When I got back to Amherst, something settles inside me, like my heart knows that it’s come home.   

My Bridesmaids…Plus Two:  My husband and I celebrated our second anniversary this week, and when watching our wedding video (as is our annual celebration), we commented on how eclectic and special my bridesmaids were.  Nazish and Tessa, both Ultimate teammates and loyal friends.  Dallas and Lifon, who I played field hockey with in college, and whose distance way on the east coast (Pennsylvania and New York, respectively) hasn’t changed our closeness at all.  Rounding out the sextet were Sarah and Claire, who I’ve known since preschool and who, perhaps, accept me most for who I am of anyone I know.  Lastly, I had two friends help with my wedding who, for all intents and purposes, should have been in it.  Megan and Allison, two Austin-based friends, couldn’t be more trustworthy, more fun, or more comforting.  I adore them, and Austin wouldn’t be the same without them.

My Husband:  I consider myself one of the lucky ones.  How can I begin to say how supportive Jason is?  More than anything else, he wants me to be happy, and he does everything he can to make that possible.  He’s selfless and hard-working and, above all, has a level of integrity and character that is truly humbling.  I got him a shirt for our anniversary that reads, “I’m the Snuggler,” because he wants to curl up in bed and be close to me all the time.  (I suppose the fact that I’m the “Hug-and-Roller” means that I’m heartless…But what can I say?  I like my space!)  Jason is a Good Man.  And we all know how rare they are. 

New Friends:  This summer I attended a talk by an Austin author at my local library branch.  As luck would have it, I made a connection there with another aspiring writer.  She and I have since critiqued each others’ work, shared ideas, and committed time to writing together.  She’s genuine, approachable, and extremely kind.  Right now, I’m especially grateful for these types of new friends.  The people who approach friendship with an open heart, and remind me how many amazing people there are in the world.

This is by no means a comprehensive list.  How could I possibly name all of the blessings in my life?  There’s no way.  But there are always more Gratitude Journals and Something Sundays, offering the chance to expound…