Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers. ~Charles W. Eliot

Sunday, May 22, 2011

His name was Mr. Scott

My 9th grade English teacher told me I was  good writer and could be a great writer and I believed him and, ultimately, in myself. He encouraged me to enter writing contests and to dream big. When a teacher genuinely believes in you as a student, sees your potential and helps you reach and maybe even exceed it and, above all, helps you believe in yourself (no small feat if you happen to be a teenager at the time!), that is a great gift. Those are the teachers who teach so much more than they've included in a curriculum or syllabus.

As parents, we, of course, want only teachers like that for our children. Sometimes we forget that it really only takes a few phenomenal teachers to rock your academic potential. Jeff and I feel very fortunate because each of our daughters has more than one such teacher this year. One of our daughters has a history teacher who called us early in the school year because he was so excited about something she had written that he wanted to make sure she read it aloud to us. She also has a public speaking teacher who had her participate in a model congress last week where she discovered her voice and confidence. One of her sisters has a drama teacher who recognized genius when our daughter performed a monologue as the Easter Bunny (declaring her the cutest Easter Bunny ever - so true!) and encouraged her to participate in the school play and enroll in a drama intensive when school breaks, before camp starts. In an earlier post I wrote about this daughter's English teacher who assigned a book project on historical fiction and then allowed our daughter to convince her that Rick Riordan's The Lost Hero qualified as historical fiction for the purpose of the assignment because she wanted to encourage our daughter's excitement about readng the book. One of our daughters has a Mandarin Chinese teacher who, in less than a year, has taught her to think in Chinese and fall in love with the language and culture it represents; she has a history teacher who is teaching what seems to me to be a college level survey class and who has sparked a determination to excel that blows me away; and she has a piano teacher, with whom she has worked for several years now, who has enriched her life with music, support and a meaningful connection. As the school year quickly comes to a close, it's time to reflect on the gifts those great teachers have bestowed on our kids and how lucky we all are.

Today's book-pick is my choice for the the 2012 Newbery Medal. The Newbery is awarded to the year's most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. The medal is presented by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. Of course, I have nothing whatsoever to do with selecting the Newbery winner but if I did, I have to believe this would be it! The book is Gary Schmidt's Okay For Now and it is one of the 4 best books I have read this year (children and adult books, included)).  The protagonist was a friend of the protagonist in Schmidt's earlier novel, The Wednesday Wars, which was a 2008 Newbery Honor book. This book, however, stands on its own. I can say this with certainty because, I will admit, I never read The Wednesday Wars and I absolutely loved this book (needless to say, I now fully intend to go back and read The Wednesday Wars and Lizzie Bright and everything else Gary Schmidt has written). Okay For Now is the tragic but hopeful story of a skinny eighth grade thug-in-the-making named Doug Swieteck. His dad is an abusive alcoholic and his brother seems to be heading in that same direction. The people of the New York town where they move at the beginning of the book quickly size up Doug's brother as a criminal and Doug's teachers seem to have it in for him, strictly by associating him with his brother. This book covers more issues and topics that I'd have ever thought possible in a single book and yet does so seamlessly and remarkably. As mentioned, there's abuse and alcohol; there's also art, Vietnam. Broadway, illiteracy, friendship, illness, perseverance and teachers who make a difference. After receiving nothing but scowls and a frosty reception from every other teacher at his new school, Doug meets Mr. Ferris, the science teacher, who tells him "in this class, you are not your brother". I cried and cheered all at the same time. This teacher and Mr. Powell, the amazing librarian, saw Doug more clearly than he saw himself and invested themselves in his success.

I think that in addition to the amazing storytelling and the spellbinding story, I loved the fact that it was set in 1968 because I was born in 1966 so the temporal references really struck a chord. I also loved the fact that the author subtly takes the reader on an amazing journey through great children's literature, offering enough hints but not divulging titles so you can play a great guessing game of the books Doug reads to the kids he babysits. I love the amazing amount of detail and the crazy rides I went on as a reader following new paths in the story and I admired the way it all came together. SO WELL DONE!!

When books are published for young people, publishers are encouraged by retailers to identify the age group for whom the book is most appropriate. Publishers would prefer to keep the age recommendation as broad as possible but, at the retail level, it's easier to sell a book that defines its potential customer. I provide this background so that when you note that this book is recommended for children ages 10-14, you'll know to ignore this "guideline". I think 10 years old sounds like a great starting point but I think it's a book that's like those games for people ages 9-99. I firmly believe this one will be enjoyed by older teens and by grownups too. LOVE IT!!

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