Book review: Between father and son

511ktu-msbl-_sy346_Between the World and Me

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book is an earnest and fervent warning from Coates to his son and in reading it, I felt his urgency in trying to protect the life–“the body” — of his teen-aged son. Three long essays detail why being black in America is dangerous in ways that those who are not black can never fully appreciate.

Coates understands the reality. He could spend years educating himself, developing a career, acquiring assets, being responsible, and one racist act could end it all. He cites examples from history, the news, and from his own life.

Rather than trying to summarize his thoughts, I’ll let Ta-Nehisi (tah-nuh-hah-see) speak for himself.

The big message:

“…you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know… Indeed you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you… You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”

Race is a social, not a biological construct:

“As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissident; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”

No sudden moves:

“Each time a police officer engages us, death, injury, maiming is possible. It is not enough to say that this is true of anyone or more true of criminals… It has nothing to do with how you wear your pants or how you style your hair.”

 “Should assaulting an officer of the state be a capital offense, rendered without trial, with the officer as judge and executioner? Is that what we wish civilization to be?”

No escape:

“When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of high learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing.”

  “We could not get out. The ground we walked was trip-wired. The air we breathed was toxic. The water stunted our growth. We could not get out. …my father beat me for letting another boy steal from me. Two years later, he beat me for threatening my ninth-grade teacher. Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not escape.”

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic.

I recommend this book as a brief walk in another person’s shoes. I think you’ll find it both troubling and enlightening, as I did.

If you love me, read me a story

read mom dad

I spent over thirty years teaching children to read, and as much as schools may have changed in that time, one thing has not–the importance of reading aloud to children. My career included twelve years as Reading Specialist, as well as years teaching kindergarten, first and third grades. I also worked in Special Education classrooms and at a private reading clinic. Now I volunteer in my granddaughter’s kindergarten class. Again and again I have witnessed the impact of reading aloud–or sadly, the lack of it–on children. Even at so-called “good” schools, in middle class neighborhoods. Children who have been read to early and often simply come to school more ready and eager to learn. Period.

read aloud vaccineOver the years I wrote many columns for the Nevada Appeal about literacy, learning, and how to raise readers. In this column from a few years ago I pose my belief in the form of a fable about two little girls, from the same neighborhood and similar family situations. You can use your own critical thinking skills to deduce the moral of the story after reading A tale of two Saras. 

Throughout my career, I often quoted Jim Trelease, author of  The Read Aloud Handbook. He is the wise read aloud guru. Even if you don’t believe me, you should believe him. His book makes an excellent gift at the next baby shower you attend. Just sayin’.




Reading is antidote to toxic stress of childhood poverty

read aloud 4 Low income children suffer stresses that would buckle our knees and yet we expect them to learn and grow and develop at the same rate as their higher income classmates.

My Fresh Ideas column published this morning in the Nevada Appeal. Click here to read why Reading is the antidote.

Atticus is just a man after all

blog go setAt twenty-six, Jean Louise Finch comes home to Maycomb, Alabama for a two-week visit with her adored father, Atticus. He’s seventy-two now, quite crippled with arthritis but still mentally sharp and practicing law. In Scout’s mind as in the minds of readers who read and loved To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is the perfect father as well as a fair, courageous, and honorable man. He is the archetype of the parent we wish we had and the person we wish to be. His character has achieved mythic status.
But Scout’s world is shaken when she overhears his racist, ungenerous and patronizing remarks made at a citizen council meeting. She is devastated and made physically ill by the thought that she could have been so blind to his true colors. She feels betrayed by everyone in Maycomb, everyone she trusted.

“…You confused your father with God.”

Some of the remarks I’ve read regarding the book are critical of Atticus’s words and beliefs. Readers themselves perhaps feel betrayed by what they perceive as a failing in this father they have come to know and love. Their hero didn’t live up to their expectations and has toppled off the pedestal. Hmmm.

Harper Lee is under no obligation to the reader with regards to Atticus’s character. It is fiction, after all. The Atticus in Watchman is more complex and certainly a man of his time and place. And isn’t it also consistent with normal human development that it’s not until her mid-twenties that a somewhat naive Scout comes to terms with the reality of her father and not just the myth she idolized as a child? Our parents are human, not divine. The world is not black and white. Perhaps we are uncomfortable with the same issues as Scout. Perhaps this is our own coming-of-age story as well as hers.
Well-done, Miss Lee.

One tough mother

“You’ll know who you are when you start losing things.”marycoin

“It took a bit of ill-humor to make yourself up out of nothing.”

Wow. Just finished this book this morning. Mary Coin is one tough mother. She did what she had to do to feed and care for six children as a migrant farm worker during the Great Depression. What happens to her, the photographer who took her picture and the present-day historian who is inexplicably drawn to their stories is told in alternating points of view. Silver weaves a story of loss, survival, sacrifice, strength and determination.  Highly recommend.

Mary Coin at amazon

Getting Comfortable in Our Empty Nest

This was written years ago when our baby (who turns 40 next year) moved out. Something reminded me of it today, so I thought I’d share. It was first published on the Nevada Appeal on August 22, 2001.

cage love

“I am bereft,” a friend moaned after her son had left for college. “How do we do this? How do we survive their growing up and leaving home?”

“One day at a time,” I told her, “With lots of e-mail and phone calls and care packages. And the knowledge that you’ve done a good job, that this is what is supposed to happen.” Giving birth to an adult is at least as painful as giving birth to a baby. And just as necessary.

It’s hard to remember the last time I was awakened for a 2 AM feeding, a nightmare, or a curfew check. Children no longer need to be taken to the pediatrician, piano lessons, play practice, or parties. Evenings are not taken up with reading bedtime stories, rehearsing state capitals, or practicing spelling words. The Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy have long since stopped making deliveries.

I know that much of my life before we had children was spent planning and dreaming about them, but now that both girls are grown and gone, I realize how short, how precious those “wonder years” were. And how narrow our focus was. I have learned that just as my life did not begin when the children were born, it did not end when the U-Haul pulled away.

chalkboard fly
As much as I loved all that mommy business, this is nice too. It’s really okay. Nonetheless, there have been changes.

We now have a computer room and a guest room. Both cars fit in the garage.

We eat and shop a lot differently. For example, I can’t remember the last time we ate Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for supper. We’ve been out of peanut butter for two weeks and no one has noticed. The only cereals in the cupboard are old-fashioned oatmeal and shredded wheat. We only buy a quart of milk and sometimes it goes bad before we finish it.

Housekeeping is a mixed bag mostly because we’ve realized the kids weren’t the only ones making messes around here. Emptying the dishwasher and taking out the trash have become our chores again. And when it comes to the kids’ former bathroom, the biggest cleaning problem isn’t damp towels on the floor, soap scum, or hairspray residue anymore—it’s dust.

The phone rings less and when it does, it’s usually a telemarketer. We’re no longer asked to join the PTA; we’re asked to join AARP. We don’t worry about funding their college; we worry about funding our retirement.

The checkbook still gets stretched, but in different ways. In addition to the mortgage, we’re helping with rent on two college apartments. So I guess instead of empty-nesting, you could say we’re really “multi-nesting.” We don’t give our kids an allowance anymore; we give them a credit card. And whereas we used to spend money to send them away in the summer, now we spend money to bring them home.

Our TV viewing habits have changed mainly because only two people wrestle for control of the remote. No one complains when we watch “60 Minutes” or “The Antiques Road Show.” I have no idea where “The Real World” is taping this year.

We appreciate this stage of life. We have regained a degree of privacy and independence. There is no need to check the clocks before getting romantic. No need to lock the bed or bathroom door. We are enjoying each other’s company again.

Our daughters are finding lives that are fulfilling and independent. We are proud of the women they have become– who are intelligent, funny, honest, spunky, compassionate, and principled. The same qualities we look for in our friends. We don’t just love them– we like them.

I’ve often said, “Raising kids never gets easier; it just gets different.” Each phase has its rewards, even this one. Honestly, seeing them graduate from college and start new lives is no less rewarding than watching them take their first steps, swim across the pool for the first time, or star in a school play. Our girls still touch our hearts, make us laugh, and make us proud.

Our house may be empty, but our hearts are full.