Thursday, March 31, 2016

Lesson #4 - The Fault in Our Stars...

What am I feeling?  "My thoughts are stars I cannot fathom into constellations," Augustus once said, and this is how I feel right now, sitting in front of my computer, in my livingroom, quite speechlessI finally decided to dive into The Fault in Our Stars, the book that everyone seems to have read, and loved; the book that has made our March Madness Sweet 16 list; the book that was made into a movie that everyone ran to watch at the movie theater. I was afraid going into it because I am not one for sad stories that seem too real, since experiencing it with my mom when she almost died of breast cancer or the day that I lost a student during my first year of teaching in kindergarten.  But I shall attempt to sort these feelings out.  Reading a book in just one day, plays on one's emotions; every second of the day is consumed from the words moving across the page.    Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis.  But...then a plot  hiccup "twist" named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group. Hazel's story is about to be completely rewritten. Completely.

I had no problem connecting with Augustus or Hazel, which I believe, is why this was the book that placed me on an emotional roller coaster ride.  Hazel has this really sarcastic, dry sense of humor that I tend to really enjoy in characters.   She made an otherwise serious and overwhelmingly emotional tale full of surprising laughter and occasional smiles; something that was completely unpredictable.  Am I the only person out there who wonders what it would be like to be in a situation similar to the one Hazel is in?   Having the opportunity to look inside two teenage cancer patients' brains, is tough to forget and tough to experience as an adult.  No adult wants to see a teenager succumb to an illness; to suffer; to have to deal with adult-like situations.  Not only did I not want the book to end, but I often think of Hazel and Augustus as if I knew them.  I feel like my entire view on grief and pain has been altered. 

This book is different than the usual cancer story because John Green was brutally honest. We step into the whole story--the worry about the family once their gone, the journey to death, accepting ones fate, low points where the pain is so immense that they want to die, and the acknowledgement of "cancer perks." These perks aren't your "Make a Wish Foundation," perks but being given a license after failing your driving test three times with your prosthetic leg because you got your right foot amputated and can't do anything with your left. This perk is not the free trip to Disney with Justin Bieber... the things that people do for the sick people. 

I know it’s not fair to compare the powerful The Fault in Our Stars by John Green to Wonder by R.J. Palacio, but how can I not? It’s not that the plots are similar, but the way that the authors pull the readers into the heart and mind of a character struggling with a illness or a birth deformity.  It's how they follow a similar path and a similar theme that completely tore me apart, by affecting me and my heart.   The Fault in our Stars is so honest about the adversity of surviving cancer through the characterization of Hazel and her voice and her seeing life for what it is and wishing it held more for her and the people around her.  It is real with no sugar coating.  I feel that even though I could strongly connect with characters in The Fault in Our Stars, I almost wanted to feel detached because I didn't want to relive my mom's battle with cancer, my nana's battle with cancer, my uncle's battle with cancer, or my aunt's battle with cancer....  August on the other hand, in Wonder made me just want to reach out and hug and protect him.  With The Fault in Our Stars...I almost feel as if I was trying to protect myself from sadness.  From adversity.  From life.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Lesson #3 - SOMS changes the World

A Chance for Victory! 

Have you ever passed by a penny, tails side up, and only through your imprudent behavior, you chose this simply to prevent bad luck?  Have you ever passed by a fountain in the mall and tossed a handful of change, wishing for endless things such as winning the lottery or having homework disappear?  Our brothers and sisters at Victory Primary School (VPS) in Kaliro, Uganda, have turned these pennies into "change".   Starvation, disease, lack of clean water, and lack of schooling are some of the challenges that used to debilitate the children at Victory Primary School.  Despite these adversities, the students now have access to electricity, a library full of books, food each day, safe dormitories to live in each night and access to clean water on the premises of the school property.  

A Chance for Victory shows some of the countless efforts that have been taken by South Orange Middle School students to help bring change to students half way around the world.  Bake sales, a "silence" day, penny drives, talent shows, fashion shows and "penny wars" are just a few of these extraordinary events.  One of the video scenes shows me entering the school premises to see a mere empty brick-walled classroom with diagrams which replace textbooks on the walls, and dormitories with mosquito nets and partially empty, yellow, plastic, water jugs which were once used to collect the much-needed daily water miles away. I also witnessed a vast abundance of loving children just like you throughout the school grounds.  The children and teachers at Victory Primary School thank South Orange Middle School every day for the love and support they have provided over the past 5 years, and for never giving up on them.  I extend my love to the Victory Primary School for changing me as a teacher and as a person.  I thank my husband for making this documentary; it allows the light to shine on amazing children both here in the United States and in Uganda.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Lesson #2 - One Summer

As I perused the New York Times' Best Seller List, I was in search of another one of those books you can't put down!  My eyes were drawn to One Summer  by world renown author David Baldacci .  My expectations were surpassed within the very first paragraph. The hook unveiled family, death, perseverance, and heroism before I had a chance to turn a single page.  Jack Armstrong was trying to hold on for just one more month so he could share one last Christmas with his wife and 3 children before he succumbed to his dire illness.  As one page unfolded after another, the plot brought many emotions; emotions that spilled out onto my face, emotions that made me scream for joy, but most of all...emotions of anticipation and empathy!

On page 56 the author states, "Jack had no ready answer.  But he did know one thing.  He was not going to waste a second chance at living."  Jack persevered through the adversity of his death sentence, through the unexpected death of his wife and through the isolation of losing his children.  This passage embodies my life back in December of '97 when my mom almost surrendered to cancer.  That year brought new life for me, my mom and my family.  The once Mom who I thought was just the typical mom, embraced me with knew vigor and meaning.  The Mom who had languished through and prevailed through Cancer silently, attended my graduation with no hair, with no light but with dignity and with fight.

As a teenager, I remember the days where I looked at my mom with resentment for the rules that were placed upon me... feeling as if I was just coexisting in the family.  I could never understand why my friends were able to do what they wanted, and why my mom had a different plan for me.  The day she attended my graduation changed everything.  Doctors instructed that she not attend my college graduation, for they felt she was too frail for the trip and the heat that would engulf the ceremony.  Her exact words I will never forget, "If this is the last thing I do, I will not miss my daughter's graduation."  Her character has helped me become the person I am today.  She is a mother of two, a devoted wife of over 25 years and loving grandmother.   She beat cancer!  She continues to educate and bolster everyone who walks in her path.  She has not wasted a second chance at living.

Lesson #1 - My Life in Black & White

What if you lost the thing that made you who you are?

My life as a Language Arts teacher sometimes allows me to escape into the literary lives of my students.  Many students from SOMS kept bugging me to read My Life in Black and White by Natasha Friend, so I succumbed to the pressure, and I must admit, the book never left my hands until the end enveloped my reality. Usually, I am the typical reader; I give into the guilty pleasures of indulging in the enticing "hook" on the back of the book.  However, I took the pure recommendations of my students and never looked back.  All of my assumptions were based merely on what the cover revealed.  Naturally, I didn't know what to expect after peeling back the jacket, which in turn added to the appeal, I suppose.  

My Life in Black and White was very interesting and extremely readable. I went into reading it not knowing what it was about and was pleasantly surprised by both the poignant premise and the well-drawn characters. This book invoked so many emotions in me!  I jetted back in my time machine to the emotionally-filled middle school/high school years of my life.  Hard years for everyone, but I needed to in order to truly experience the plot at a level that I felt was necessary.  With a thought-provoking plot, characters that shine with authenticity, intelligent dialogues and an intensely emotional message it carries, My Life in Black and White proved to be a very moving and rewarding read. 

"You think you're the only one?" Theo said. "Everyone has scars. We just don't all wear them on the outside."

     The plot of this novel was not only entertaining and captivating, but also meaningful. Lexi used to be one of the most beautiful girls at school. She had a sweet life, a gorgeous boyfriend, many friends and admirers, and good prospects for the future. Confident, lively, and flawless, she practically built her life around her good looks. And that proved to be a very big mistake. Her idyllic life was shattered to pieces when - shortly after getting in the car with her boyfriend - she ended up in a car crash, disfiguring her gorgeous face... forever. So what do you do when you lose the one thing you valued the most? The one thing that you thought defined your whole existence? Where do you go from there? 

"I know that sounds stupid," I said, glancing away, "but I feel like I've lost everything... Like, Taylor used to be my best friend and Ryan used to be my boyfriend, and now they're not... and I used to be beautiful." I wanted to disappear after I said that. "I mean - not that I went around thinking that or anything, it's just how other people defined me, my whole life. Alexa Mayer is beautiful. And now..." I forced myself to finish. "I don't know how to act. I don't know how to dress. I don't know... how to be."

     I did not expect to connect with Lexi. At all. Truth be told, I usually end up hating characters that are seemingly vain and shallow, and I believed Alexa to be just that kind of character. Fortunately, she proved me wrong. That's not to say that she wasn't focusing too much on her physical appearance, because she was, to the point that when the accident happened, her whole life shifted. At the same time, though, she didn't rely on her pretty face and flawless figure because of her vanity, she was simply brought up this way by her mother. It's her mother who pressured her into being perfect, moulded her, planned her future to the very last detail. This story brings me back to my Junior year in high school with Mr. Forando, the school guidance counselor.  I was on the college track.  There was no other choice given by my parents/grandparents, even though the choice of reasoning in upstate NY was staying local, getting a job and starting a family.  My transcript was ready to be mailed only to have my mentor, Mr. Forando, try to pull the breaks on my future.  Modeling and pageants were his choice for my life path.  College and discovery was not something he felt matched me.  I surpassed this stereotypical presumptuous recommendation, because I knew there were more avenues for me to explore.  I knew I could do pageants cause I had already gone down that path.  I wanted to explore my multiple intelligences, I knew I had been blessed with, and see what else I could change the world with.      

I did end up liking Lexi quite a lot. I really appreciated the transformation she underwent and was very satisfied with how her story ended - or should I say: how her story begunI also loved the side-kicks, especially Ruthie (the geektastic sister) and Theo (the swoon-impersonator) - they rocked my world. Ruthie was the perfect voice of reason and Theo was the ultimate knight on a white horse in disguise. 

"Squirting people with butter, Alexa, is not how I raised you to behave. There are other ways to express your frustration. More socially acceptable ways."

     Overall, I can say that this book has won me over. Natasha Friend writes with incredible sensitivity and lucidity. Her words speak right to your heart, inviting you to lose yourself in the story. The narrative voice is real and convincing, and so are the dialogues. I liked how light and full of humour the story was, in spite of its serious premise. All the funny moments and witty remarks perfectly balanced the insecurity and frustration that Alexa was radiating. 

     I don't think there was a single thing I didn't like about this book. The truth is, this was really a great story. In fact, it was even deeper and more harrowing than I expected it to be. Despite its heavy subject matter, I found this novel to be very entertaining and fun to read. I loved that, although it does get dark at times, and you do witness the character's emotional fallout, it also ends on a hopeful note, teaching you a very valuable life lesson: you can't let the physical beauty define who you are as a person.  I have also learned this in life too and I hope that if you have not learned this yet, that you will.