February 27, 2015

What We Say vs. What We Do


When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds


Today is Book Day at the kids' school, and so each of them chose a book to take in. My daughter had one in her desk and one in her bag, just in case. My son took in a book I discovered for him recently: When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds, which won the Coretta Scott King Award.  It is so well written and I love the protagonist Ali and his friends Needles and Noodles.  This is what it's about:

In Bed Stuy, New York, a small misunderstanding can escalate into having a price on your head—even if you’re totally clean. This gritty, triumphant debut captures the heart and the hardship of life for an urban teen.

A lot of the stuff that gives my neighborhood a bad name, I don’t really mess with. The guns and drugs and all that, not really my thing.

Nah, not his thing. Ali’s got enough going on, between school and boxing and helping out at home. His best friend Noodles, though. Now there’s a dude looking for trouble—and, somehow, it’s always Ali around to pick up the pieces. But, hey, a guy’s gotta look out for his boys, right? Besides, it’s all small potatoes; it’s not like anyone’s getting hurt.

And then there’s Needles. Needles is Noodles’s brother. He’s got a syndrome, and gets these ticks and blurts out the wildest, craziest things. It’s cool, though: everyone on their street knows he doesn’t mean anything by it.

Yeah, it’s cool…until Ali and Noodles and Needles find themselves somewhere they never expected to be…somewhere they never should've been—where the people aren't so friendly, and even less forgiving.

My husband takes the kids in in the morning, and they all went out to the car but then my husband came back in: "Is this book a kids' book? Is it okay for him to take in?" I assured him it was. I totally understand where he's coming from ~ someone might object to what they think the book is about.

Which got me to thinking.  One of the driving forces of my writing and reading, since I was very young, was the fact that what I felt and understood about the world wasn't what people agreed the world was. In fiction, though, people would talk about those things.  They'd acknowledge the disconnect and hypocrisy in life.

And that's something that flabbergasts me in public life and politics.  On one hand, we tell each other this is the way we are, and then when we think people aren't looking ~ or even when they are ~ we do the total opposite. We crusade against adults doing consentual kinds of things while in our back rooms we're assaulting our own children. We talk about freedom and equality and fairness but what we actually mean is that I should have everything in my favor ~ freedom and equality and fairness only for me.  And ISIS/ISIL ~ don't get me started. How can anyone do those things, such a smorgasbord of horrors?

Even when everyone in the room knows what is reality, they talk around it and construct this story about what's really happening.  There's everybody's reality and then there's what we acknowledge publicly.

Which brings me back to books. They're lightning rods because they can tell the truth under the lie.  They can make people uncomfortable. For example, the book that my son is reading.  This is one type of truth about what it's like to grow up in Bed Stuy. And there's a truth in what it's like to grow up female on a ranch (my book of stories How to Be a Man). And there's a truth about what it's like to be a slave in Texas in the 1870s (I'm reading the wonderful The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson by Nancy Peacock). And so on and so on and so on.

More and more, I realize that the hypocrisy of people is what drives a lot of my outrage. How can they say these things but then do these things? This post has turned into a bit of a rant, but it's a burning question that has always spun me. Why are people such monsters?

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