September Discussion: Mental Illness

When I was thirteen years old, things weren’t going so well for me at home. And at school, I was being bullied a lot. I was an honor roll student, so I was allowed to go out by myself into the courtyard during my lunch break–a privilege that few students enjoyed. There was a particular staircase that I would go hide behind to cry every day.

One day, my best frienemy said something a little crueler than usual at the lunch table. I left and went to the library, intent on shelving my books quickly (I was a school media aide) so that I could get to my safe hideaway. I entered the library and looked over at the shelf of non-fiction books to be put away and saw none for my section (the 700s), so I started to sign out. Then, out of nowhere, a boy appeared.

He was tall and skinny with wild, curly black hair and glasses. He looked a lot like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park  (who I thought was so dreamy.) But he also looked like a kid who I had probably seen a million times before but had never noticed. He told me his name was Roberto.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’ve got no books to shelve, so I’m leaving,” I said.

“Why don’t you shelve someone else’s books?”

“Because there are none.”

“There’s a whole shelf of fiction books over there.” He gestured to the other side of the library.

“I don’t know how to shelve fiction,” I said. Then he took my hands in his. He guided me to that side of the library, and he “showed” me. No boy had ever held my hand before.

It will surprise no one that we told each other our whole lives that lunch period. And the one the next day and the next day and the day after that. He told me that he had been abandoned in a basket when he was a baby. We squeezed ourselves between close stacks, our backs pressed together, to shelve books across from each other. He followed me to my locker and flirtatiously read my locker combination over my shoulder. He put his arms around me. His breath was warm on my cheek. A week after we first met, I went to bed and thought, “I can deal with anything now that I have Roberto.”

He never spoke to me again.

Another week passed, I finally gathered my courage and approached him again in the library. “So, you introduce yourself to me one day, and then a week later you just stop speaking to me altogether?” I said.

“Yupp,” he said.

A few days later, I was sitting in science class and another boy told me that some kid at his lunch table, “Robert or something,” was talking about what a “ho” I was. I called Roberto out in front of the buses that afternoon and screamed that if he ever said anything mean about me or any of my friends ever again, then I would kick his a**.

And then I was suicidal for awhile. Weeks, maybe months. It was all I could think of. Ways to do it, mostly. I’ve always had a practical streak. How deeply did you have to cut? Would a fall from my bedroom window be enough? Finally, one day near the end of eighth grade, I said to myself: “Pam, you can either do it, or you can change your life. But you can’t live like this anymore.”

I’m not sure why I chose to live. In hindsight, I see it as grace. At the time, I thought I was just too much of a coward to actually kill myself. But either way, I sat down with a journal (I still have this) and I made a list of all of the popular girls in the school. I wrote down why they seemed to be happy (clothes, hair, boys, grades, athletics etc. . . ) Then I added and subtracted that list from my soul. I intentionally changed myself that day to be like them so that I wouldn’t be miserable and picked on anymore. That’s what I had to do to go on living that day.

This wasn’t my only brush with mental illness growing up. I had been told as a child that my birth mother couldn’t raise me because she was bi-polar. The woman who did raise me struggled with severe depression that kept her in bed most days throughout my childhood and adolescence. I clearly remember my aunt’s suicide when I was five years old. And my cousin, her son, followed her when I was a sophomore in college.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because of Robin Williams, an actor whose work I’ve always enjoyed, whose presence in the world I have always respected and admired. He always acted characters who were full of life and integrity. People who struggled and grew and lived lives with quiet meaning, depth, and humor. And he mad us all laugh. So much. Since his death, I’ve discovered that he supported good causes, without any fanfare,  in his personal life, as well. From the outpouring of grief I witnessed on social media, I know that my sadness over his suicide is shared by many.

As an adult, I’ve learned that far more people than I ever would have guessed struggle with or have struggled with mental illnesses of one kind or another–not just depression. Sometimes it seems as though mental illness is even more prevalent in the writing community than in society at large. But whether or not that is the case, most folks seem to suffer in silence. When someone does tell a story about mental illness, it almost has the tone of a “coming out” story.

I’ve also noticed that while there are often clear signs that a child is living in an abusive home situation, it is often very challenging to tell that a child is struggling with serious mental health issues. Why is that?

Let’s have a discussion about mental illness this month.

  • Do you have a story about mental illness–your own or a loved one’s–that you’d be willing to share?
  • What signs do you use to tell that a child is struggling?
  • How have you helped kids who are depressed, OCD, dissociating . . .?
  • What counts as a “mental illness”?
  • How do we treat “mental illness” in our society, and how does this affect those kids who are suffering?
  • What resources do you know of for helping kids deal? What books–fiction and non–are particularly good at talking about mental health issues?

What do you think?

The lovely and talented Rachel Wilson, who received her MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts while I was in the program, will be on here later this month to talk about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and her debut novel Don’t Touch which will be released tomorrow. Please, stop by often this month to share your thoughts and glean wisdom from the other wise people in our midst. A copy of Don’t Touch will go to the person who comments most.

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New Reader-Friendly Blog Format! (w Giveaways)

Hi y’all! I have been thinking about you and this blog a lot in the past few months. And I’ve been thinking most about how I could make this into a site that really benefited teachers, writers, librarians, and other folk who care about and work with kids. I’ve been keeping this blog for three and a half years, and I still believe in it, but I don’t think I’ve done much to generate real dialogue or provide real resources around these issues. And I would really like to. So I’ve decided to change things up here quite a bit.

Starting September, I’m planning to focus on one issue/month. I will do a post (or have a fabulous guest writer) about a topic. Then on a set schedule during the month, I will review books, interview an author who’s work deals with the given topic, and provide a list of resources for folks. And each month, I’ll give away one of the reviewed books to the person who comments the most during the month. I hope that this will generate some meaningful dialogue on these important topics and will make the site generally more useful for everyone. Let me know what you think!

September Topic: Mental Illness (to include an interview w the fabulous debut author, Rachel Wilson, and a giveaway of her novel Don’t Touch out in September)

October Topic: How Books Build Empathy Around Diversity (to include a giveaway of Congressman John Lewis’ graphic novel The March)

And the schedule will be:

  • First of the month: Post introducing the month’s topic
  • 1st wednesday: Book Review
  • 2nd wednesday: Author Interview
  • 3rd wednesday: Book Review
  • 4th wednesday: Book List for further reading
  • Last day of the month: List of Resources & Book Giveaway announced

I hope you all will stop by in September and will pass along the site to others who might find it useful! I for one, can’t wait to have Rachel here talking (metaphorically) about her new book and this important issue. And please let me know your thoughts about the new format and what topics you’d like to see covered here in the future!


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Should the Conversation About Diversity Actually BE a Conversation? (Instead of a Set of Politically Correct Rants?)

So #WeNeedDiverseBooks has incorporated. That’s great. Hopefully they will actually be able to make real change now that they can raise money. And a few posts back I highlighted some of the other great, tangible things that different groups are doing to ensure that the publishing landscape actually becomes more diverse. These all seem to be great steps. But most of the conversation I’ve seen have been tweets in which folks lament the lack of “diverse” writers in the publishing landscape. Not many people seem to be engaging in honest dialogue about what diversity really is, why it’s important, and what our readers really need.

Even the term “diverse” is kind of a disguise. I mean, what are we really talking about here? Are we talking about race? Most of the efforts on the diversity front seem to be about increasing the number of individuals from racial minorities who are represented in the traditional publishing landscape. But I bet many folk engaged in this conversation would say that diversity is more than that. Then perhaps they would mention GLBTQ and religious groups? And then they would say that we need more characters who represent many different groups. Then, perhaps, they would talk about how to make that happen. Maybe I’m dense, but I’m still not quite sure what we’re talking about. And I think that’s because we’re not really talking about it.

We aren’t talking about race. We’re not talking about religion. We aren’t talking about sexuality. We aren’t talking about socio-economic status. We aren’t talking about mental and physical disabilities. In fact, as far as I can tell, we almost never talk about these things. Never ACTUALLY talk about them. It seems to me that we either don’t talk about them because A) we are part of a marginalized group and we don’t want to be treated badly for owning our connection to that group and talking about it or B) we are too darn politically correct to have such a conversation.

Political Correctness might have its uses, but it might also be the biggest scourge of actual dialogue in our country today. So, if you’re still with me, here is a start to an unpopular conversation that maybe we should actually be having:

Last night on facebook, somebody recounted an experience she’d recently had in which a young woman working at a coffee shop had graciously accepted her tip in coins saying, “Change is money. I don’t know, maybe I’m Jewish but I collect and count my change when I find it in my house.” The person who posted this got the predictable 60 outraged politically correct responses for how she should deal with this situation (many of which suggested going to the girl’s boss). I, myself, didn’t respond because I didn’t want to be flamed.

But can we look at this? So, the direct implication of the comment is that Jews count coins. The possible underlying implication is that Jews are tight. The stereotype that this is coming from is that Jews are rich and careful with their money.

Every single facebook response to that comment was about schooling that young woman that her words were wrong so that she would never say something similar again. But instead of shutting down dialogue by being the politically correct police, is there a way that we could actually open it up?

Nearly all of the really rich people I’ve met in my life (I live in America, I’ve spent a decade in New England and I grew up in Florida) were Jewish. None of them had recently acquired that money. Their families had made it some time back and they had been very good about investing it so that the family money has grown. For that matter, I have known a lot of really poor white folk, a lot of really poor black folk, and a lot of really poor latino folk. None of the really poor folk I’ve met have been Jewish.

Now I can’t even begin to speculate on why this is, but am I a bad person for noticing it? Is it an inaccurate observation? Have any of you noticed the opposite? In short, does the stereotype that Jewish folk have money come from somewhere? Is it completely groundless? And if it’s not, then is there a problem with us noticing it? To be clear: I am not advocating that we go around using slurs and stereotypes indiscriminately. But I am wondering if we could actually talk about them instead of shutting conversation down whenever one of these topics come up.

Essentially, we’ve created a society in which all of these tensions–racial and otherwise–actually exist, but we work to change them without ever talking about them. And without having these conversations, how could we ever actually write a culturally sensitive portrayal of a character from a group that is “other” from ourselves?

Here are some other observations we might have a conversation about: I have worked with a lot of latino kids since moving to New Mexico. And out here, at least, I have noticed that the girls are, in general, much brassier and tougher than other “white” girls. In fact, they’re tougher than “other white” boys, too. And they are also alarmingly in control of their sexuality.

And in my high school growing up, about half the kids were black. My friend, Tris, was accused by her black peers of being “too white” because she was in student government and the math club. We lived in the same neighborhood, we were the same amount of poor, we were in the same clubs at school, but that didn’t mean that I liked listening to hip-hop with her. Nor would I ever have put my hair up in corn-rows. Is it bad to notice that the black kids in my school had their own community and identity? Is it bad that they did?

But here’s another question: if we can’t really talk about race, religion, etc. then how do we talk about kids like Tris who were caught across the cultural divide? Can we actually have a conversation about kids shaming each other for not fitting into their racial group if we aren’t willing to admit that there are racial groups? Or how can we talk about the alarmingly high teen pregnancy rates out here without acknowledging the way the latinas in my classroom dress and carry themselves?

Is our rabidly enforced color-blindness serving us well? And is there a way that we could have honest, non-angry conversations about things like race, religion, money, politics . . .? And what might we gain if we could?


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Orphans Want Homes: Some Books About Longing

I just finished reading Hattie Ever After by Kirby Larson. I have to say, I liked the ending a lot more than the ending of Hattie Big Sky. In fact, I was sitting in a coffee shop when I finished reading Hattie Big Sky and it made me so mad, I threw it across the floor. So why did I even read the sequel?

Because it was honest. It might be worth examining why it had the power to make me so angry to begin with–I have never used physical violence with any other book, after all. Hattie is an orphan (and a teenager) and she really wants one thing: a home. A home that is her own that no one else can take away from her. So she concocts this hair-brained scheme to go to the wilds of Montana to become a homesteader. Trouble is: she doesn’t know how to maintain a home. She doesn’t know how to farm crops. She doesn’t know how to do any of the things that someone would need to be able to do to make a go of it as a homesteader. So when, by the end of the book, she fails, it could not have surprised me, really. But it made me mad.

Why did it make me so mad? Because I know how real, how palpable, how very visceral that longing for home is. And, darn it, I wanted her to have it. I’ve mentioned Write A House on here, and I applied for that house. I applied for it even though I’ve never really been fond of cities and everyone tells horror stories about Detroit. I applied because I want a home. And if I don’t get it, I plan to build a tiny house on a trailer.


That overwhelming longing for home and for family is present in every honest book
about orphans I’ve ever read–and I’m not talking about books that just orphan the MC because parents are inconvenient. Anne Shirley longs for a real home with busom friends and a family. Harry Potter . . . I think even the Boxcar Children, living in their abandoned train, are using that as a way to stay together as a family and have a safe home of their own. And who could forget The Great Gilly Hopkins? She has a funny way of showing it, but I’m pretty sure that’s just what she wants, too.

But I think that Patricia Reilly Giff says it best at the opening of Pictures of Hollis Woods:

This picture has a dollop of peanut butter on one edge, a smear of grape jelly on the other, and an X across the whole thing. I cut it out of a magazine for homework when I was six years old. “Look for words that begin with W,” my teacher, Mrs. Evans, had said.

She was the one who marked in the X, spoiling my picture. She pointed. “This is a picture of a family, Hollis. A mother, M, a father, F, a brother, B, a sister, S. They’re standing in front of their house, H. I don’t see one W word here.”

I opened my mouth to say: How about W for wish, or W for want, or W for “Wouldn’t it be loverly,” like the song the music teacher had taught us?

I’ve noticed a lot of other things about orphan stories. Orphans tend to be resourceful, compassionate, both idealistic and naive–at the same time!–and idiosyncratic, to say the least, if these stories can be trusted. And they seem to take life’s lessons more to heart, if that makes sense. But that longing for home is so strong . . . which is why I was more please with the ending of Hattie Ever After, and the hint that she just might get it this time.

Who are your favorite literary orphans? And do these characteristics line up with them?

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Using the Sh** of Life as Fertilizer

My First HalloweenI’ve been struggling with this blog. I’ve been struggling with the way that I present myself to the outside world. (I am a person who struggles.) I blog about tough things on here. I often blog about personal things. And I have some reason to believe that doing so hasn’t served me, personally, well.

I have family members who seem upset with me. (Perhaps for “airing dirty laundry”?) I have friends who are kind, but I have come to realize handle me with kid gloves. I have met people at writing events who seemed very hesitant to talk to me. And I believe that I have been passed over for at least one writing job because of this online presence. And looking into the future: I am working on a book about paradoxes in physics for kids. I don’t think writing about child abuse makes a good “platform” for this sort of book.

And yet, I have this unshakable faith in a God who creates his children as he wants them in order to walk the paths that he has laid before their feet. My childhood was filled with pain. My adulthood has been filled with first a decade-long quest to escape that pain, and since then, years of trying to figure out WHAT IT MEANS and what to do with it. And I am a writer. I can’t help but believe that God gave me challenges, and then safety, and the ability to write about those challenges in order that I might do something positive in the world to help the lives of future (or current) children.

But what, is the question? What can I do? The conversation about diversity in children’s books is huge right now. VCFA has instituted new diversity initiatives including scholarships for writers of diverse heritage and is engaging in conversation on many levels. This year’s kidlitcon will be focused on “Blogging Diversity.” Different groups like Quill Shift literary agency and the Brooklyn Blossoms Club have popped up with unique and amazing ideas to actually help the problem. Independent Presses like Cinco Puntos and Lee & Low are putting quality diverse books into the marketplace. And I have to give another nod to my writing-hero Lyn Miller-Lachmann, through whom I’ve heard about most of these things, and who is actively engaged, seemingly constantly, in generating meaningful dialogue on this issue and many others. I’ve been reading post after post, tweet after tweet, quietly having conversations with other writers and bloggers, and yet I still have absolutely no clue how I might contribute something real to help solve the problem of the lack of diversity in children’s literature or any other of the problems I talk about on here.

I want to use my life experiences to do something positive and meaningful, but I don’t know what. Why do I have so many fewer answers at 30 than I had at 20?

But I did read something useful this morning in Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl writes about his own and other’s psychological experiences in the Nazi death camps. He noticed that some people, when faced with the overwhelming horror of camp life and the uncertainty of any end to it, basically checked out and lived in a fantasy life of past memories.

Such people forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself. Instead of taking the camp’s difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take their life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence. They preferred to close their eyes and live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless.

Naturally only a few people were capable of reaching great spiritual heights. But a few were given the chance to attain human greatness even through their apparent worldly failure and death, an accomplishment which in ordinary circumstances they would never have achieved.

That is quite a revelation. And I think it also applies to those of us who have lived through extraordinary trauma and pain. I have mentioned before that many kids who are tested like this don’t make it. They too check out, or they end their lives. And that is truly awful. But extreme pain is also a real test, and an opportunity, that most of the emo hipsters of the world will never get. (Or like the fictitious Philosopher of Pain, Shan Yu.)

If you have been hurt past the point of normal human endurance. If you have experienced things that most people around you can’t even imagine. If your experiences have ever caused you to hate God just a little, then you have a choice. You can check out, or you can use your pain to discover just who you really are and how strong you can really be. You can grow beyond yourself. And you can use your life to create something that brings light and understanding into the world.

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Where are the People of Color in Children’s Books? by Walter Dean Myers

We’ve lost several of my heroes in the past year. Pete Seeger, Maya Angelou . . . and now Walter Dean Myers. These people spent their whole lives working to improve the lives of others through their words. I hope one day I can look back at my own life and say the same. I want to thank them for their words and wish them peace and rest on the next stage of their journeys. And I hope for us that new folks rise up to take their places.

Walter Dean Myers wrote the piece below about his experience of reading and not seeinghimself reflected back in the pages of the stories he had access to. It was featured in the New York Times a few months ago. Go in peace, friend.

Reading came early to me, but I didn’t think of the words as anything special. I don’t think my stepmom thought of what she was doing as more than spending time with me in our small Harlem apartment. From my comfortable perch on her lap I watched as she moved her finger slowly across the page. She probably read at about the third grade level, but that was good enough for the True Romance magazines she read. I didn’t understand what the stories were about, what “bosom” meant or how someone’s heart could be “broken.” To me it was just the comfort of leaning against Mama and imagining the characters and what they were doing.

Later, when my sisters brought home comic books, I got Mama to read them to me, too. The magazines and comics pushed me along the road of the imaginative process. When I got my first books — “The Little Engine That Could,” “Bible Stories for Every Day,” and “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” — I used them on the same journeys. In the landscape of my mind I labored as hard as I could to get up the hill. I stood on the plain next to David as he fought Goliath, and tasted the porridge with Goldilocks.

As a teenager I romped the forests with Robin Hood, and trembled to the sound of gunfire with Henry in “The Red Badge of Courage.” Later, when Mama’s problems began to overwhelm her, I wrestled with the demons of dealing with one’s mother with Stephen Dedalus in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” But by then I was beginning the quest for my own identity. To an extent I found who I was in the books I read. I was a person who felt the drama of great pain and greater joys, whose emotions could soar within the five-act structure of a Shakespearean play, or find quiet comfort in the poems of Gabriela Mistral. Every book was a landscape upon which I was free to wander.

In the dark times, when my uncle was murdered, when my family became dysfunctional with alcohol and grief, or when I realized that our economics would not allow me to go to college, I began to despair. I read voraciously, spending days in Central Park reading when I should have been going to school.

But there was something missing. I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.

Books did not become my enemies. They were more like friends with whom I no longer felt comfortable. I stopped reading. I stopped going to school. On my 17th birthday, I joined the Army. In retrospect I see that I had lost the potential person I would become — an odd idea that I could not have articulated at the time, but that seems so clear today.

My post-Army days became dreadful, a drunken stumble through life, with me holding on just enough to survive. Fueled by the shortest and most meaningful conversation I had ever had in a school hallway, with the one English teacher in my high school, Stuyvesant, who knew I was going to drop out, I began to write short columns for a local tabloid, and racy stories for men’s magazines. Seeing my name in print helped. A little.

Then I read a story by James Baldwin: “Sonny’s Blues.” I didn’t love the story, but I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.

During my only meeting with Baldwin, at City College, I blurted out to him what his story had done for me. “I know exactly what you mean,” he said. “I had to leave Harlem and the United States to search for who I was. Isn’t that a shame?”

When I left Baldwin that day I felt elated that I had met a writer I had so admired, and that we had had a shared experience. But later I realized how much more meaningful it would have been to have known Baldwin’s story at 15, or at 14. Perhaps even younger, before I had started my subconscious quest for identity.

TODAY I am a writer, but I also see myself as something of a landscape artist. I paint pictures of scenes for inner-city youth that are familiar, and I people the scenes with brothers and aunts and friends they all have met. Thousands of young people have come to me saying that they love my books for some reason or the other, but I strongly suspect that what they have found in my pages is the same thing I found in “Sonny’s Blues.” They have been struck by the recognition of themselves in the story, a validation of their existence as human beings, an acknowledgment of their value by someone who understands who they are. It is the shock of recognition at its highest level.

I’ve reached an age at which I find myself not only examining and weighing my life’s work, but thinking about how I will pass the baton so that those things I find important will continue. In 1969, when I first entered the world of writing children’s literature, the field was nearly empty. Children of color were not represented, nor were children from the lower economic classes. Today, when about 40 percent of public school students nationwide are black and Latino, the disparity of representation is even more egregious. In the middle of the night I ask myself if anyone really cares.

When I was doing research for my book “Monster,” I approached a white lawyer doing pro bono work in the courts defending poor clients. I said that it must be difficult to get witnesses to court to testify on behalf of an inner-city client, and he replied that getting witnesses was not as difficult as it sometimes appeared on television. “The trouble,” he said, “is to humanize my clients in the eyes of a jury. To make them think of this defendant as a human being and not just one of ‘them.’ ”

Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story
I realized that this was exactly what I wanted to do when I wrote about poor inner-city children — to make them human in the eyes of readers and, especially, in their own eyes. I need to make them feel as if they are part of America’s dream, that all the rhetoric is meant for them, and that they are wanted in this country.

Years ago, I worked in the personnel office for a transformer firm. We needed to hire a chemist, and two candidates stood out, in my mind, for the position. One was a young white man with a degree from St. John’s University and the other an equally qualified black man from Grambling College (now Grambling State University) in Louisiana. I proposed to the department head that we send them both to the lab and let the chief chemist make the final decision. He looked at me as if I had said something so remarkable that he was having a hard time understanding me. “You’re kidding me,” he said. “That black guy’s no chemist.”

I pointed out the degrees on the résumé that suggested otherwise, and the tension between us soared. When I confronted my superior and demanded to know what about the candidate from Grambling made him not a chemist, he grumbled something under his breath, and reluctantly sent both candidates for an interview with the chief chemist.

Simple racism, I thought. On reflection, though, I understood that I was wrong. It was racism, but not simple racism. My white co-worker had simply never encountered a black chemist before. Or a black engineer. Or a black doctor. I realized that we hired people not so much on their résumés, but rather on our preconceived notions of what the successful candidate should be like. And where was my boss going to get the notion that a chemist should be black?

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?

And what are the books that are being published about blacks? Joe Morton, the actor who starred in “The Brother From Another Planet,” has said that all but a few motion pictures being made about blacks are about blacks as victims. In them, we are always struggling to overcome either slavery or racism. Book publishing is little better. Black history is usually depicted as folklore about slavery, and then a fast-forward to the civil rights movement. Then I’m told that black children, and boys in particular, don’t read. Small wonder.

There is work to be done.

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Kids (not) Talking Trauma

This morning I was reading The Sunone of my favorite magazines. This month’s issue features an interview about love with Barbara Fredrickson, the director of the “Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology” Lab at Chapel Hill. I was struck by one interview question and her answer in particular:

[interviewer]: Some Children never experience good emotional bonding with their parents and caregivers. What special challenges do they face later in life in regards to experiencing love?

Fredrickson: I think it’s possible to learn to seek out love at any point in life. In my own life I made a major turnaround as an adult when I discovered how to relate more with people instead of remaining isolated. People can wake up at any time to what they need as human beings regardless of where they started. Positive emotions are our birthright, and we all have access to them. It could be that the families we grew up in didn’t help us to feel them, but the people who raised you can’t take away your capacity to resonate with others. They mag have reduced your skills, but the capacity is still there.

Then this evening, I participated in an “Evening of Exploration” surrounding the theme of “disorientation” at The Academy for the Love of Learning, an organization here in Santa Fe. After all, I have an awful lot of change and disorientation going on in my life right now. This is the second time I’ve been up to the academy, and I’ve found it to be a remarkably rewarding experience both times. From their website: “The mission of the Academy for the Love of Learning is to awaken, enliven, nurture and sustain the natural love of learning in people of all ages.”

What I find most interesting, though, is their pedagogical approach. It starts with an experience (experiential learning). Then you reflect on the experience. Then you try to make meaning from it. You look at critical models. Then you apply what you’ve learned.

OK, so where could I possibly be going with all of this? Well, the leaders of the workshop took us through this process. They had us remember a disorienting event in detail and write about it. Then they had us reflect on it with a stranger. Then we inquired into the different stages of our experience with this event. And then they gave us some critical reading materials to take home.

This was a richly rewarding process. It helped me understand something I’ve been struggling with for weeks. And through the group reflection on the stages of dealing with disorienting events, I realized that even massive trauma is not inherently a bad thing. Some people described divorces or life-threatening illness. They described their initial shock and then anger. But nearly everyone in the long-term in dealing with these events eventually came to acceptance, growth, understanding, strength . . . good stuff.

Death, mistreatment at the hands of a loved one, illness, pain, uncertainty . . . these are what make a life. Not all that make a life, of course, but folks in the room generally agreed that these are the experiences that ultimately tend to cause the most growth and forward movement. But all these benefits of pain, the greater awareness, the growth . . . it struck me that they only come when the event is reflected upon in a meaningful way, such as the academy’s approach.

I think most people have a kind of built-in reflection process when they talk to their parents, their families, their friends about the hard things in their lives. But it struck me that talking about trauma, especially childhood trauma, is not the same. We have a cult of normal and everyone is trying to fit into it. Serious childhood trauma does not fit into that cult. We all know people who can’t stop talking about trauma. Most of us feel a little queazy around these people and, even if unintentionally, we kind of avoid them because we hope we don’t sound as crazy and spazzish as they do. And we almost feel like their psychological not-OK-ness might be contagious.

But seriously, is there any right way outside of a therapists’ office to talk about your childhood if it was dominated by trauma? And the problem is way worse if you are a kid because chances are your parents aren’t going to put you in therapy for a problem that they are probably part of the cause of.

What I’m driving at is, yes, everyone has the capacity to love, to seek out synchronicity, to  recognize what is missing in their lives and seek it out. And yet, we live in a society that is probably even harsher and more stigmatizing towards those with mental illnesses and those who have survived serious childhood trauma than it is even towards women and minorities. I think kids living through trauma (and adults who have) are uniquely denied the tools (of reflection and inquiry) with which to contextualize these events and grow from them.

And I think that’s maybe why books about painful situations are so important for these kids. Because they provide a point of access for reflection into their own life experiences.

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