Once upon a time, though not terribly long ago in my adult life, I dismissed literary fiction as a fluffy waste of time. Why read it anyway? It doesn’t tell you or teach you much of anything. Until the science (and my obsessive reading of the New York Times) told me a different story – reading literature actually increases empathy. And so I returned to the fiction I loved as a child and that I had rejected in my cynical twenties.
After a summer with my preschoolers and a fair bit of getting to be a thirty six year old woman, I spent Labor Day reconnecting with the middle schoolers I teach through the power of literature. I had picked up The Skin I’m In from the library earlier in the week because it’s a book that many students in our school would read later this year, and I happened to have a copy of Blubber that I grabbed on my way out to door to an 120 minute ride to New Hampshire and back. I finished both yesterday – staying up until midnight on the last pages of Blubber.
These retro reads (1998 and 1974 respectively) were certainly not a warm recollection of young womanhood but rather a prominent pinch of nostalgia (read: pain from an old wound). While The Skin I’m In and Blubber differ very much in their settings (urban vs. suburban) and the race of their protagonists (black as opposed to white and Asian), the theme is identical – A bully is someone who controls another person and requires that he or she in doing harm to others).
For a teacher, these books beg the question:
Will I be an out-of-touch denialist Mrs. Minish (Blubber) or a seeking-to-understand Miss Saunders (The Skin I’m In)? The obvious answer is a Miss Saunders, but Mrs. Minish teaches some valuable what-not-to-do lessons to the teacher-reader.
The lessons in empathy offered up in these two young adult novels are essential in tapping into the experiences of young women in middle school, but perhaps the greatest lesson for a teacher comes from Miss Saunders’ more experienced teacher-buddy Tai:
“You are a great teacher, with good ideas. The kids will like you no matter what you look like. But it’s your need to be perfect that will ruin you here.”
That is profound advice for any teacher to avoid burnout. The more you forgive yourself, the longer you will stay in it – caring for and loving our students, developing the expertise they need – rather than worrying about our own imperfections and misgivings.