Friday, October 22, 2010

Visit the country of Panem - and be grateful you can leave!

Every summer, I try and read as many of the Young Hoosier Book Award Nominees as I can. There are always 20 of them, and they are usually entertaining, sometimes thought-provoking books. I read them to try and stay at least somewhat current with what my students are reading.

This year, THE HUNGER GAMES is on the list. Published in 2008, I'd never heard of it until I saw it on the list. I didn't get to it over the summer. I might not have gotten to it at all - shame on me! - if my teacher's assistant (who's a freshman) hadn't raved about it and told me I HAD to read it. She was right.

THE HUNGER GAMES is the first in a sci-fi/fantasy trilogy that is so well-written, and so feasible that I didn't want to put any of them down once I'd started them. The concept behind them is so original, the characters so well drawn, the suspense palpable enough to turn the pages itself, that I seriously cannot recommend these books highly enough.

The gist of the story is this: At some point in the not-so-distant future, North America is ravaged by storms, droughts, and fires, and the oceans steal much of our coastal regions. Wars erupt in an effort to survive, and out of the wars comes Panem, a country of thirteen districts ruled by the Capitol. For a while, there is peace, until the Dark Days come and the districts rebel against the Capital. District 13 is destroyed in the rebellion, which the Capitol eventually squashes, and the remaining twelve districts exist at the mercy of the Capitol.

As a reminder to the districts that they must never try and rebel again, the Capitol institutes the annual Hunger Games. For these games, each district must offer up one girl and one boy, between the ages of twelve and eighteen, as tributes. The 24 tributes are taken to an arena chosen by the Capitol - it could be a desert, or a glacier, or a mountain range, or anything else imaginable - and there, they fight to the death. The one tribute who survives is the winner.

Suzanne Collins created not only action-packed, suspenseful stories, she created psychological studies of us as humans. What would you do to survive? What would you do to keep those you love alive? And how do you live with yourself when it's all over?

I've told my classes about the books, but I decided that wasn't enough. I'm reading THE HUNGER GAMES to them. Some of them can't wait on me to finish. They're clamoring to the library for copies of their own. Our librarian is stopping at Barnes & Noble this weekend to buy more copies.

Yes, those books are really that good. Read them.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

What happens when we live in fear?

I've had a few discussions in the last couple weeks with my eighth graders about Muslims. The first one came about because someone brought up the proposed mosque near Ground Zero. There was a variety of opinions, all over the spectrum. The scary ones were the ones who said we should let them build the mosque and then blow it up, or we should "round up" all of the Muslims and "send them back where they came from." I tried my best to counter those views, and I was heartened when other students seconded my opinion, but I knew I didn't (really) change any of their minds.

The topic came up again on Friday because we were getting ready to read a piece of a memoir written by a woman who was second-generation Japanese and who was sent with her family to one the internment camps we had in our country during World War II. I spent quite a bit of time describing those camps to the kids, many of whom hadn't known they'd ever existed. I drew the lines connecting our internment camps and Hitler's concentration camps, focusing on the fact that the people we put into them were rounded up solely because of their ethnicity.

For the most part, the kids were taken aback to learn about these camps. For the most part, they thought it was horrible that Japanese Americans were robbed of their civil liberties simply because they were Japanese. I took advantage of those feelings to bring up the conversation we'd had before about the Muslims, to remind them about those who'd said we should do to the Muslims what we'd done to the Japanese, what Hitler had done to the Jews. I was hoping I'd see light bulbs go on and that they'd realize this wasn't a road our country should go down again - that we should never cast a net wide enough to catch an entire group of people just because they share a nationality or a religious conviction.

The ones who had earlier said we should round up the Muslims and send them back, that we should, in essence, do away with them all, had not changed their minds one bit. And now, I think I know (at least partially) why. They're scared.

I tried to counter their arguments. I tried to explain what a scary place this country would be if we started condemning groups as they want to condemn all Muslims. Then, one student said, "I think everyone's still so sensitive about 9/11, Mrs. Honeycutt." And I think she's right.

I think we all remember how unbelievably catastrophic that day was, and all of the days that came after, as people tried to make sense of it, tried to recover from it, tried to figure out how to go on. We mourned deeply. And now, nine years later, we've moved on in a lot of ways. But we're still scared.

We're scared it could happen again. We're scared we're going to continue to lose troops overseas. We scared there's no way to really, truly protect ourselves. And what happens when we get scared? We look for the monster under the bed. If we can find the monster, we can chase it out of the house, we can scare it away, we can kill it. We can be safe again.

I think that's where this hatred, this mistrust of all Muslims is coming from in my kids. They need a monster to point at, to chase from the house. And I'm betting that their parents, or other adults they admire and respect, are pointing first. And that scares me.

When we start making characterizations and decisions based on fear, we make mistakes. Creating scapegoats solves nothing, accomplishes nothing. I thought we learned that lesson when Hitler built his concentration camps. But I have students who want to bomb mosques, and I don't know how to change their minds.