Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Early Decision

My son recently recommended a novel to me. I am going to go ahead and pass that recommendation along to anyone who has ever applied to college, gone to college, taught in high school or college, or had any kind of personal connection to anyone in any of the first three groups. It's called Early Decision by Lacy Crawford and is the story of one fall in the life of an "independent college admissions counselor" working with students to help them learn how to write the essays that will get them into the college of their choice. Clearly based on Crawford's own experience as an icaa, it's a very smart and funny and at times painfully honest book.

What I am about to say here does not do justice to the strengths of the book as a story. I can testify that it is indeed a good read: I blew through it in about two and half days, and enjoyed every minute of it.  But my primary focus here is going to be on some of what the book manages to convey about the college admissions process and the role of writing—and writing instruction—in that process.

As readers we are first introduced to Anne, the counselor, and then to several of the students she is working with — both through the drafts of the essays they write and through her interactions with them as she works to help them find what they might truly have to say —and then, inevitably their parents, whose emotional stake in these decisions too often turns out to be even more complicated and conflicted than their children's, and who often fail to understand how much the college admissions process has changed since they themselves were applying:

Anne had come to her work at a fortuitous time. A combination of social and economic factors had sent application rates soaring. The sixties had opened the college gates to nonwhites and women, and all of those kids—the baby boomers—had grown up and created more college-bound seventeen-year-olds than the country had ever seen. Growing wage disparity between blue- and white-collar jobs made a degree necessary for a middle-class existence; shifting industries made it impossible to land even some blue-collar gigs without the advanced diploma. Add to that the fetishization of certain schools and the institution of the Common Application, the online form that students could submit to a hundred colleges simply by giving each a credit-card number, and you had a mad scramble for a handful of trophy campuses, a blood race buffeted by corporate hangers-on, some of them standardized testing toughs and some of them media companies producing annual publications ranking schools from one to fifty on dubious metrics pulled together from SAT scores, graduates’ tax returns, and the occasional interview with a hungover senior. And to hear of it, there seemed nothing but the darkness of outer space for everyone who fell short of the bar.  (Kindle location 294)
Given the circumstances, Anne's job is to help students find they way to write with enough authority and self-assurance to get the attention of the admissions officers. Here is a scene from midway through the novel where where she is explaining to a skeptical parent what it is that she is really trying to do on behalf of her charges:

“Okay...So, take a boy who, say, loves sharks...He goes scuba diving in St. Barths and decides all he wants to do is live in shark cages. So over the summer he goes and gets his diving certification, and now he can be trusted to take his tank off and put it back on in the water. Standard stuff. He writes his college essay about great whites, and for good measure he’ll mention that everything is endangered, and he’ll lean on the scuba certification as proof of his dedication. And then he won’t understand why he doesn’t get in anywhere. Worse, he won’t understand why he ends up ten years later in a job he hates and he’s browsing tropical hotel Web sites every spare moment he’s got. But that kid...if I get a chance . . . Let’s say he’ll let slip to me that he happens to have memorized all the Latinate names of the animals. Suddenly he knows genus and species for a zillion critters in St. Barths. This kid who can’t conjugate ĂȘtre and avoir. There’s ability there, because he cares. Because it’s his and his alone and he loves it. If I can help him to understand that he can take that feeling he had underwater and apply it to his life—that there is a whole field of approach to such things, populated by people who treasure them—maybe then he realizes that he’s fascinated by marine biology because it actually means devising smarter and finer ways to understand these creatures and what they do and what they need. Now, he could also be interested in maritime law or conservation ethics or underwater photography, I don’t know, but you get my point. So this kid will go home and, usually without telling anyone, research marine biology departments, and discover several universities with killer programs that allow him to spend entire semesters in flippers. Suddenly college is there for him, not for anyone else—his parents, the annoying college counselor, even me. So that fall he steps it up in his AP bio class and the teacher takes a shine to him, because the teacher is flattered, and that teacher wants to write him his recommendation. And the boy’s essay is focused and clear, and the school college counselor, who has sixty kids assigned to her and doesn’t know a thing about him, realizes that he’s a marine-biologist-in-training and that he’s a great science student, which is a good handle, so she writes him a stronger school recommendation. And his list of schools is whittled to the ones where he really wants to go, and in his supplemental essays he’s able to write intelligently about what each school offers and why it’s a good fit for him. Now think of the admissions office: if they’re assembling a class of people, not just grades, and they can hear this boy’s voice and think, Hey, this kid tells a good story, I’d like to bump into him on the cobbled path out there on his way to the lab, then maybe he’ll get in instead of the other kid whose transcript looks exactly the same, whose grades and scores are equivalent, but who wrote about something dull as dirt. Do you see? I mean, who knows?" 2063

One of the things I loved about this book is how it honors the act of writing in exactly this way: not as a vehicle of compliance (writing what you think you want someone to hear and only when they have requested it) but as an act of self-exploration and self-definition and, potentially, self-transcendance. It's a way of thinking about writing that has been at the heart of what I have been trying to do as an educator throughout my career. Writing practice, in this sense, is precisely what our schools so often manage to squash completely out of our students. Here Anne diagnoses the problem of "voice" in a way that is completely consistent with what I have seen every single year of my career as an educator:

When they’re asked to write in the first person...and for something this important, kids switch into what I call English-teacher mode. Their voice on the page—you can hear it when they read out loud—gets higher, affected, like they’re pretending to have an accent from an impressive country they’ve never been to. They choose a topic that bores them witless. Their sentences run on and on because they mistake length for persuasiveness. They dangle modifiers and bury antecedents. They capitalize like Germans. They use the word ‘extremely’ and start sentences with ‘However, comma.’ They drop in semicolons everywhere because they think it looks stylized. They’re reflexive and jumpy, and they strangle every idea they have so they can hurry on to the next one. Nothing is cumulative. They forget where they started and they forget where they were going, and when they start to feel really disoriented, they’ll use an em-dash. If they totally lose it, they add an exclamation point. Somewhere toward the end, it’ll occur to them that they should mention college, so there will be a spasm of references to some school or preferred major or ‘the future’ or ‘the rest of my life.’ If they’re feeling poetic, they’ll end on the word ‘beyond.’ 2186

So given the diagnosis, what's the prescription?

If you get a seventeen-year-old talking about something that really matters to him, just talking, telling the truth, it’s the best. They’re deadly serious and funny as hell and really original. They have great voices with better rhythm than you or I because they haven’t read all the boring crap yet. They don’t know how they’re supposed to sound, so they sound fabulous. All that melodrama, it has a real keening to it, if you can tap into it. It’s wonderful... you listen for the sound of their voice. Sometimes, it only comes up in actual conversation. They’re so guarded, especially in the first drafts. But something will slip through—an image, an idea, a memory, something that they talk about in a simpler, softer, lower tone...That’s the art of it, I guess. I have to help them to write about that thing, in that mode. And then it’s easy. From there it’s just Strunk and White.” 2203 
This is an excellent book at any number of levels. It's a compelling read, the characters are complex and believable, and the writing is terrific. But what resonated most with me was not just that it had smart things to say about kids and families and the college admissions process—and about writing—but that the stories of the particular lives of the students Anne works with are so engrossing and funny and ultimately encouraging. You could be reading it in five minutes if you download it from Amazon now. Go for it.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Output: Three Collages

Managed to find some time in what turned out to be a busier week than I had expected to come with three new small collages. I work with materials from old books: pieces of illustrations, bits of text, fragments of broken bindings.  Sometimes I work in papers I've found on the ground on my way to or from work, or segments from old photographs or newspapers. I start with a pile of stuff and just work from whatever goes down first to whatever comes next. I don't plan them out in advance. I paste the pieces down on heavy paper using acrylic matte medium, or, for heavier pieces, acrylic matte gel.

It's a kind of meditation practice for me, sitting at the table with the paper and the glue, maybe with some music on, piecing things together.  I usually try to work within a range of neutral colors and come up with a stable configuration of shapes. (I also like to do smaller trading card size collages, in which I'm generally a lot looser in terms of architecture.) The connections within the pieces are more felt than thought out. But I do feel like each one has its own wordless story to tell.

Traceries (8x9.5)

Books and Things (5x7.5)

entering the water (5x7)

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Joy Luck Club: Reading Log VII

October 6
45 Minutes
253-288 (end)

Well, I had hoped for an ending that would pull things back together, and I got that. I read the two last chapters today, Lindo Jong's "Double Face" and Jing-Mei (June) Woo's "A Pair of Tickets." The significance of the title of the first comes at the end of the chapter, as she and Waverly are visiting the hairdresser, who comments how much they look alike, which comes at first as an unpleasant surprise, but then leads them to examine one another's faces, and the mother, who has previously told the story about how her own mother had praised her for her straight nose ("A girl with a crooked nose is bound for misfortune" 257) notices that Waverly's nose is crooked, like her own, which was was broken in an accident on the bus. Waverly laughs it off, saying "Our nose isn't so bad... it makes us look devious (266). She goes on to say that people think they're "two-faced." At which point says, in the passage that closes the chapter and closes the book, so to speak, on Waverly and Lindo:

     I think about our two faces. I think about my intentions. Which one is American? Which one is Chinese? Which one is better? If you show one, you must always sacrifice the other.
     It is like what happened when I went back to China last year, after I had not been there for forty years. I had taken off my fancy jewelry. I did not wear loud colors. I spoke their language. I used their local money. But still, they knew. They knew my face was not one hundred percent Chinese. They still charge me high foreign prices.
    So now I think, What did I lose? What did I get back in return? I will ask my daughter what she thinks. (266)

I take that last line as a not-so-subtle indication that the long-standing hostilities between mother and daughter are at an end, that they have learned finally to accept themselves and one another.

The very last chapter belongs to Jing-mei Woo. I noticed today for the first time that while each of the other six narrators has two chapters, Jing-Mei has four. That observation leads to an obvious question: Why? And having asked the question, the answer pops to mind: as the book opens, Jing-Mei's mom has just passed away, and the aunties are asking her to take her mom's place at the Joy Luck Club. So in her Mom's absence, Jing-Mei gets to fill in for her. Which makes sense, right?

Also in the first chapter, questions were raised and left open about Jing-Mei's two sisters: why they were abandoned, and what happened to them. Those questions are answered by Jing-mei's father when the two of them return to China to meet their long-lost relatives and re-establish their connection to their Chinese heritage:

My sisters look at me, proudly. "Meimei jandale," says one sister proudly to the other. "Little Sister has grown up." I look at their faces again and I see no trace of my mother in them. Yet they still look familiar. And now I also see what part of me is Chinese. It is so obvious. It is my family. It is in our blood. After all these years, it can finally be let go. (287-8)

I don't know that I'm ready yet to attempt an overall reaction to the book. I need some time to process, and I'll be interested to see what the students have to say as well. I do think that Amy Tan has done a good job of working out the complicated dynamics of this particular version of the immigrant experience, and in so doing has honored the obvious sacrifices made by the mothers on behalf of their daughters. I've been reading several other books (Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep and John Green's The Fault in Our Stars) at the same time that I've been reading this one with this one  and the thing that seems to be sticking in my head that all three of them have in common has something to do with how difficult it is to appreciate and understand anyone else's subjective experience. Try as we might, the interior lives of even the ones we love best are in some senses unknown to us, much less the interior lives of the thousands and thousands of other souls who occupy the world of our immediate surroundings. It's deeply mysterious. On the last page of Prep, Sittenfeld has her narrator, Lee Fiora, make this observation shortly after graduation from prep school as she stands in the Park Street station in Boston waiting for a train:

I remembered it was Monday. And rush hour—that was why the station was so crowded. Around me on the platform, people passed by, or stopped in a spot to wait: a black man in a blue shirt and a black pinstriped suit; a white teenager with headphones on, wearing a tank top and jeans that were too big for him; two women in their forties, both with long ponytails, both wearing nurse's uniforms. There was a woman with a bob and bangs in a silk shirt and matching jacket, a guy in paint-speckled overalls. All these people! There were so many of them! A black grandmother holding the hand of a boy who looked about six, three more white guys in business suits, a pregnant woman in a t-shirt. What had they all been doing for the last four years? Their lives had nothing to do with Ault.

It seems to me that Amy Tan, in a similar way, is trying to honor the experience of the women whose sacrifices made their daughters' more comfortable but perhaps less heroic lives possible. It concerns me that in the last forty or fifty years the culture of parenting that I grew up with has been to a large degree replaced with a culture that is less about sacrifice on behalf of your children and more about fitting your children into a life whose primary purpose seems to be professional advancement and personal satisfaction on your own behalf. I'm overgeneralizing, of course. But it's out there, and I think that it's one of the less overt but nevertheless significant meta-messages of The Joy Luck Club.

Time Out

Got four minutes? Put whatever else you're doing aside, take a deep breath or two, and check this out. Click on full-screen first.