poem for a new school year

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Thoughts on NIGHT

I’m teaching Night, by Elie Wiesel, in my freshman class. So one of the things I taught the kids this week was the definition of dehumanization–essential for understanding the book. Kids were absolutely *silent* as they learned about how Nazis used dehumanization in concentration camps to make victims feel powerless and to allow perpetrators to avoid guilt. Then we read one page of the book, and when I asked kids to identify two examples of dehumanization, 60% of hands went up (shocking in this class). Every kid listened as one of my students explained how referring to Jews as “filthy dogs” was calling them less than human. Another student said “yeah it’s like they matter less if they’re animals.”

This wasn’t a responsive lesson to anything in the news; it was planned as part of teaching this essential text. I don’t mention Trump in class unless students bring up questions. Kids need to learn about the history of the Holocaust because it’s part of our human record. I just didn’t realize that they would need to apply their new vocabulary to understanding the news that same day. It’s heartbreaking, but I can hope that my 9th graders start reading their world and making their own connections.

It’s my third time reading the book, and what stuck with me this time was the ending lines. Elie’s first act after liberation is to look at himself in a mirror…. “From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me. The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me.” Elie’s gaze at himself, possibly seeing his dead father in himself, and certainly seeing his own journey through “the kingdom of night,” seems to freeze him at that age. This experience will never leave his mind, and no matter how much time passed, somewhere in his heart he was suspended in that state of desperate survival. And I think that visceral feeling of envisioning and facing death in his own body is what enabled his humanitarian impulses and his transcendent passion for peace. In his Nobel Speech, he references his younger self, too. He says that he wrote for the young Jewish boy in the concentration camp, to show him what he has done with the life belonging to that boy. So Elie the character and Wiesel the writer are in service to each other, showing even yet again that life and personhood matters greatly and we must respect it in ourselves and in the world. We are human, and if we see the traumatic human-ness of ourselves, we can see it in others too.

Friday Reading Rainbow: Immigrant Lit

It’s been a while since I’ve done a “Friday Reading Rainbow.” Of course, I’ve been reading, but not as much or as deeply as I would have liked. Now that we’re settling into the cozy time of year, I expect to have a little more lamplit armchair time to myself.

In the meantime, two books to mention:

Girl in Translation
Jean Kwok

In some ways, a classic immigrant story. Kimberly faces poverty, discrimination, exploitation, and being an outsider. She eventually succeeds spectacularly in many ways, though with an interesting complication of her story in matters of the heart.

You might like this book if you enjoy honest first-person narration. Kimberly’s voice is fresh and engaging. At the same time, the writing didn’t blow me away. I thought at times there was too much explication of meaning in the reader’s direction, and some parts felt repetitive. I would definitely recommend this to my students, because although it’s not a young adult book, it’s a coming-of-age story and would suit a high school reading level.

The House on Mango Street
Sandra Cisneros

Hailed as a classic of Chicano literature– but why don’t we just say of American literature, because this book is as American as you can get. The story of Esperanza who doesn’t like her name, in a house she wants to trade in for a home, on a street where Louie’s cousin steals a car and Lucy and Rachel get cat-called for wearing cute shoes, is at once familiar to anyone who grew up in a neighborhood.

So I’m wondering….  is the fiction of immigration and immigrants uniquely suited to telling stories of growing up, of learning how to belong, of protesting and rebelling and adapting? Or am I more interesting in these stories because they are not my experience, because I find my own coming-of-age to be tinted too pale with suburban stereotypes?  I think that these days I’m looking especially hard for reasons to hopefully believe in America and Americans, and these stories of young people are the ones that draw most light.

Some of the best immigration fiction that I’ve read recently:

Til the Well Runs Dry
Lauren Francis-Sharma

The Book of Unknown Americans
Cristina Henriquez

The Kitchen God’s Wife
Amy Tan

The Woman Warrior
Maxine Hong-Kingston