Monday, May 27, 2013

LGBT YA Novels & Facing our Humanity

If a teacher stays in the game long enough, he or she is bound to encounter what feels like "everything." As a matter of fact, a cliche exists between experienced teachers and those new to the vocation--we already did that years ago. 

When new ideas or initiatives are rolled out to a staff, it is inevitable that a teacher within the group will note that the pendulum is just swinging back to something already tried a decade ago. Maybe, to a certain degree, this was true. Maybe, for decades, education was stuck pin-balling from one polar idea to another.

As politics and society go, so goes the climate in education.

Yet, something new is happening--the emergence of Gay, Lesbian, Bi, and Transgendered YA literature. If you would have asked me in the mid-90s if I thought I would someday be previewing and reading LBTG YA novels because students are opening clamoring for them, reading them, and sharing them, I would have said no.

The mid-90s to the mid-00s pulled the cover off a few things for me. Directing the middle school plays, I had young people in the play who were wrestling with their identities in lots of its adolescent forms. One way was sexuality. It wasn't so much that I didn't know that some (many?) adolescents struggle with figuring out who they are, and gasping for the air of actually "being ok who they are," it is that being involved in a meaningful activity together in a small group toppled some of the walls that the traditional school setting helps erect.

No matter the decade, this much is true, young people form bonds with other like-minded and empathetic teens. They need those bonds. Hell, adults need those bonds.

The adolescents I got to know in those middle school plays had fun and acted like kids for a lot of the time, but sometimes conversation went down the paths of their choosing. With and without me, they discussed heavy real-life issues thrust upon them: parents separations or divorces, a parent suicide, a parent's long, slow death from cancer, abusive relationships, the loss of a classmate to a accident, bullying and threats, anorexia and bulimia, substance use, and sexuality.

This was just one lesson for me--adolescents deal with a lot, and will seek their own answers whether they have the support and guidance of a trusted friend or adult. (FYI yes the guidance office was involved every step of the way--often ahead of those conversations surfacing among the group. As a matter of fact, I can recall many of those kids being encouraged to talk about it--that it was healthy to talk.) The point is, young people need support systems...and want support systems.

I don't know that I ever knew an adolescent who wanted to face anything alone.

At the same time, in the same decade, students in my classes were researching poets. To cut to the chase, a male student chose Allen Ginsberg --can you see where this is heading? It only took one weekend of his browsing in a Borders bookstore with his mother and I found myself in the office with the principal and the guidance counselor on a Monday. The parents were irate because Ginsberg was gay and as their son researched him he was exposed to something horrific--and why, why, didn't I stop him? --and how much did I encourage him? --and can't he research someone like a local or historically relevant poet to the Civil War, like Walt Whitman? (I am not making that up.)

Not to belittle their wishes at all--I respect a parent's right to monitor what their son or daughter reads...which is actually the main thrust of my writing today.

Some kids in my study hall recently passed around a copy of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Sniggering over the mention of masturbation, a few muttered how inappropriate the book was now that they see that passage. This isn't all that far from the similar kinds of tittering and gasps I've heard for years over some of Anne Frank's entries about her own sexual curiosity and budding body.

You know, 13 and 14 is an age where kids are right on that cusp. Some boys are still giving birthday punches and some are reading Douglas Adams, Rudyard Kipling, or Sir Walter Scott on their own. And some kids are reading YA books that contain suicide, cancer, sex, and substance use.

In a painting a portait of what I knew ten and twenty years ago, I wonder how aware are today's parents of the many changes in YA literature? Ya literature is willing to go well beyond the books I read as an adolscent: The Hardy Boys mysteries or any number of sports books. Ten or twenty years ago, the YA books available today were not written--as politics and society go. so goes education...and books?

Last year's most-read self-selected book in my classes was Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why. Hardly Rebecca of Sunnybrooke Farm.

Just a few months ago I saw my first essays about gay marriage--self-selected as a topic. One student called it her generation's civil rights that she completely supported. "After all, love is love," she wrote.

Well, this climate is all new to me. The climate feels like a mixed bag of humid air and cool purple shadows from fat storm clouds rolling over ahead. Gay marriage is certainly a charged topic in the real world, and I suppose I should expect little else than the topic of LGBT YA literature to be equally as charged in some homes.

In one direction I have the students and what I hear and see from them. In another direction I have the parents and their wishes. In yet another direction I have the world of literature and all of the good it can do for humanity. And in the final direction I have a mirror reflecting everything back at me--what I do, and I how I handle these books, matters.

It matters.

photograph by Camille Seaman
Having just finished Emily M. Danforth's The Miseducation of Cameron Post (brilliant, by the way) I can't help but think of all of the kids I taught over twenty years who would love this book, and some who might have needed this book. Just as small groups of adolescents can support a friend, or a trusted coach or mentor can guide someone, books can often be the safe place for a young person to be allowed to think or feel or debate.

 A few months ago I read YA The Difference Between You and Me by Madeleine George--that one didn't stick with me so much--it felt really young, really close to middle grade LGBT. On my book list are David Levithan's Two Boys Kissing, Kristin Elizabeth Clark's Freak Boy, and Hannah Moskowitz' Marco Impossible.

I know this much--it is important that I read them in the same way that it was important for me to read Ellen Hopkins' Crank (which appears to be the most self-selected independent book to read among my classes). I still go back to the student who saw me reading it and couldn't contain herself to ask me what I thought..about the drug addiction, the abusive father, the unhealthy relationships...

And then there is the student who saw me reading The Miseducation of Cameron Post. On a day that I was out of the classroom, she picked it up and read the book jacket. And then the first chapter. And then she signed it out through my substitute teacher to read it (she did not know I wasn't finished it yet).  However, I took it back later that day so that I could finish it. It has taken me longer than she would have liked...I just finished it this morning.

Since initially signing it out, she has asked me three times for the book.

How we handle facing our humanity matters.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. I have taught Part-time Indian for the last 2 years in my 8th grade class. I teach it at the end of the year when we have firmly established what it looks like to be a reader in my class. I warn of racy language/topics in the beginning and desensitize the word by saying it myself in a clear voice. I am pondering teaching "Speak" next year in its place. When I mentioned this to my current classes, a few said but how will the kids get to read Part-time Indian. They felt it was important. Back to the lesson plan drawing board to get both into a school year.