Saturday, January 17, 2009

Mrs. Wiggs

The first assignment for my tween lit class (4th to 8th grade) was to read a childhood favorite. The first one that came to mind was Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, which I read numerous times when I was a kid. After my stepdad died in 2002 and I was staying with my sister while we were preparing to go to his funeral, I discovered that my niece (then 31) still had the book in her room, and in fact had been reading it, and I think she had also read it several times when she was younger. She got it for me; it was quite dilapidated, with some pages falling out. I think it was something my mom might have picked up in a bargain bin, perhaps having been one of her childhood favorites (It was originally published in 1901). At any rate, everybody in my household (my mom, sister, niece and I all lived together until I left for college) has fond memories of this book.

I discovered it had been digitized on Google Books, so I read it there for the assignment, and I was both delighted and disturbed. The narration is pretty clever and witty sometimes, and I now have more understanding of the references (e.g. the chapter entitled "The Annexation of Cuby" which escaped me in childhood). Mrs. Wiggs has a positive attitude similar to the one my mom tried to project in difficult times, and that really is reassuring when you are a kid.

The disturbing part was that I had forgotten there were about half a dozen racial or ethnic slurs or stereotypes (including The Big One at one point in Mrs. Wiggs' dialogue). I can't remember if it appeared in the edition I had, and if it did, I would have mulled that over. It is a book of its time and place, and it probably would have been authentic for Mrs. Wiggs to say it, although Mrs. Wiggs makes a lot of linguistic miscues; I believe it would have been out of ignorance rather than hostility on the part of her character.

I started feeling kind of guilty for liking this book, and started looking around for more information. There was a paperback edition published in 2004, and a copy is available at Michigan State University. It appears to be beloved by those who are familiar with it, although the person who writes the preface in the 2004 edition (the part that's available to read for free online) acknowledges problems, such as a sometimes patronizing attitude towards poor people.

I have to give a booktalk about this, and I'm trying to think about how to approach it. There is much to recommend it (being aware of others, service, interdependence). Obviously there are people besides me who think it is worthwhile to keep it circulating. Although I loved it as a tween, it was not really originally intended as that kind of book. While certainly no Huck Finn, is that the kind of approach to take in a booktalk? To say, look, this is how it was in that time in that place. And, of course, unlike Huck Finn, I don't think the intention is to satirize that behavior. That's not good, but there you go. And sometimes, if you protect kids from that, they don't understand Now.

The areas of my concern are not really a major part of that book, but as a young student, particularly a member of one of the slurred or stereotyped groups, I might perceive them as major. At the same time, it's a very sweet and funny book, even if somewhat melodramatic and old-fashioned by today's standards.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Working on a fresh year

Winter break is winding down and next week it will be time to get back to work teaching, as well as taking my own classes. I'm excited and not excited at the same time. As far as work goes, I think I'm coming to a time in which I will have to think differently about it one way or the other. I like my work PLACE, and I like my students. However, I have been doing pretty much the same thing for almost eight years now, with variations here or there as time, circumstances, and class dynamics permit. There is a lot of pressure to stuff down a lot of info in a short amount of time, and that, for me, is not conducive to a lot of creativity. Maybe, though, this malaise will inspire me to solve that problem.

Relationships are also different. One thing I have always enjoyed about my job is the collegiality and friendship. Peoples lives have changed quite bit in the past few years, though, with the births of children, marriages, and so on, so the time people can spend together has been affected. Also, underlying conflicts between some people have become more pronounced, making socializing more awkward in certain circumstances. It still happens, but less often, and between fewer people. There has been a change in leadership in the past few years, and two programs have merged, and like most workplaces nowadays, people are doing "more with less." I can't help but think that has also affected the social dynamic.

I'm excited about the classes I'm taking, particularly since I have one online and one face-to-face (which hopefully won't get canceled due to too few participants). That's my favorite combo because I enjoy that there is a certain degree of autonomy in the online classes (even though there are still due dates and such), but I still get the social aspect of the face-to-face classes. The class I'm particularly excited about is the YA literature class because I will get to read books I like to read ...usually, except for some weeks which will not be my favorite genres. I know this is heresy in the online world, but I'm not a big fan of science fiction or fantasy, although I think if I can consume it in graphic novel form (another week's requirements) I will enjoy it more.

I remember feeling so excited two years ago when I started the program. I knew I would take more than two years to finish because the plan was to take one or two classes per semester, including summers. It will probably take me one more semester than I planned because of availability of local or online classes. This program has on-campus, satellite, and online classes, and there have been experiments and changes with that since I started. I'm at the point where people I started with have graduated, even though I noticed one or two familiar names on the face-to-face class roster. Like at work, I'm feeling a little leftover and stale.

I know it is up to me to take steps to freshen things up. I'm just not quite sure how to go about it yet. I'm thinking new shoes will help. New shoes fix everything.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Again, it's almost noon, and I am still in PJs. It's the second of January, and time to start transitioning back to "real life." I have this very weird relationship with the Christmas season. It's a lot of work, and frequently makes me cranky and mean. Then in between and immediately after the holidays, I enter a state of extreme laziness involving staying in my pajamas and reading for hours. But it's still fun, and I love it, and wouldn't have it any other way. (Well, I would have fewer mean and cranky spells.)

Stuff I got for Christmas: My big surprise from my hubby was a new iPod Nano (pink!) to replace the one he got me two years ago, which I then misplaced or lost a year or so later while he was gone...then a bunch of stuff that was on my request list. I got new PJs, cuddly soft ones I'm wearing as I type, matching booty slippers, the novel The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb, the soundtrack from the film Cadillac Records (have not seen the film yet, but wanted the music), a ladies-who-lunch purse from my stepson and his wife (it's a summer purse, and I'm going to buy a Jackie Kennedy kind of sheath dress and two-tone pumps to match when the time comes to use it, for it is that kind of bag) and also a fancy bracelet/watch from them, Starbucks & retsaurant gift certificates from another stepson & wife, beautiful gold grosgrain ribbon/quilted pillows to match my bedroom that my stepdaughter made for my husband and me, and a bunch of other nice, fun, and/or useful stuff.

I love presents, both getting and giving them, and must constantly head off the forces that want to inappropriately (in my view) alter or eliminate this custom. Spending limits are fine, and even reducing the complexity and expense by name-drawing, etc. When you search for or make a present for someone, though, you have to think about them, what they're doing now, what they like, who they are at this point in their life, and that's why it feels bad when I discover I have given them the wrong thing. But when it's the right thing, and they appear delighted, there is no better feeling.

I have also observed that when the present exchanging falls off, so does the making a point of connecting during the holidays. In my family of origin, we have a post-Christmas get-together among siblings, nieces, nephews, etc. The exhanges are mostly modest ones, but still fondly anticipated. I think we all know most of the items are purchased at deep, post-Christmas discounts, and that's actually part of the fun.

Now, though, Ron has started putting away Christmas things, and I must get dressed and become involved in this because I like it done a certain way (until I get tired, and then it's just random).