first blood.

Wednesday was my first day with the rising 9th grade (the students who have just completed 8th grade) at the nonprofit organization where I teach full-time during summer academics. I have them for 2 hours Mondays and Wednesdays for essay writing. It’s their last class for the day. I have all 16 kids in one group, which presumably would be similar to last summer, where I had 2 classes of 15 kids each, though each class was 1½ hours instead of 2.

These kids are angry. They are hot. The air conditioning in the school is often broken or barely effective, and the past couple of days have peaked at 102 degrees. The last time I worked with this group, during ELA prep in afterschool program, DeVon threw a metal folding chair at me, or at least in my direction. I’m still not sure how it just barely clipped my shoulder, when I was too startled to really move all that much. I’d chaperoned this group on field trips before too, and witnessed Shaun shaking hands with the skeletons at the Bodies Exhibit. My first class with them was on a 101 degree day, for 3 hours, from 1:00 to 4:00. I know some of them by face but I haven’t earned their respect yet. They don’t know me as someone who will stick around, or someone who gives a damn. Mainly, all they’ve seen of me is that I can’t command their attention in the classroom and I can’t project my voice enough to drown them out.

So I wasn’t entirely surprised when, after I was left alone in the room with them, DeVon and Shaun, who are friends, started play-fighting.  

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the glass isn’t bulletproof.

Last Wednesday, there was a shoot-out at our site. A few coworkers, kids, and I had entered the center. I was starting to help a 9th grader with her resume. The fan was whirring in my ear. Then came the popping sound. One of my coworkers dove down immediately, sprawling, followed by another, who grabbed and shielded a kid as he fell, taking the impact on his shoulder. I dropped next to a man whose name I didn’t know. We were shouting for the kids to get down as they kept spinning on their swivel chairs, checking their email, working on homework. I heard 5 shots; some people, who were still in the foyer when the shooting began, heard up to 8. We phoned parents and asked them to come pick up their kids. We asked them to bring ID. In retrospect I wonder if this might have been in case a gang member came to pick up someone in a mostly gang-affiliated family, since some of the kids spoke very loudly that day about having brothers who’d shot someone, or been shot, in gang shoot-outs before. I helped a usually bubbly 12th grader arrange a ride home with a friend’s parents. I overheard kids muttering, “Man, they buggin’, I gotta go home, I can go myself, this shit happens all the time here.” I helped a 9th grader print his homework. I lent my phone to a 10th grader I’d helped the previous day; after I’d edited his essay, he exclaimed, “Oh man, I’m so happy!” and hugged me. He lived in a decent neighborhood and had never heard gunshots before. He asked me if I was scared: a loaded question. Other kids were listening. I hedged, “No, but it will probably seem more real to me later.” He seemed to respect that. He told me he was scared. That he didn’t quite understand what had been happening, and that to keep his mind off the fact that we were in danger he’d kept doing his homework. Then there was a strange moment of disjuncture where we both looked at his computer screen, which was left on the YouTube video he’d been watching when the shots began: a gameplay demo of an unreleased Xbox shooter game.

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bearing witness.

This month marks the first anniversary of the bloody end of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

On 2009 May 17-18, depending on how you look at it, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (தமிழீழ விடுதலைப் புலிகள்), also known as the LTTE or Tamil Tigers, were routed by the armed forces of the primarily Sinhalese government. The war, which was the product of years of ethnic tension between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority, lasted 25 years and was marked by the ruthlessness of both government military and paramilitary campaigns and guerilla warfare and suicide bombing employed by the LTTE, both with little regard to the cost of civilian life. We saw this magnified in the end stages of the war in May 2009, when the LTTE brought over 80,000 civilians with them into a tiny spittoon of land in the northeast, using them as human shields and impressing them into service (“Sri Lankan Government and LTTE Must Heed Demands from UN Security Council”), and the Sri Lankan army indiscriminately shelled the shrinking warzone, as it had hammered designated no-fire zones such as hospitals, bunkers, and other areas in the Vanni with a known civilian presence in flagrant disregard of the laws of war (“Sri Lanka: Repeated Shelling of Hospitals Evidence of War Crimes”).

In May 2009 my sanity was eroding and I cried almost every night, barely slept, was made numb by President Rajapaksa’s victory speech. People celebrated in the streets of Colombo and throughout the country. Like many others, most of whom were Tamil, this victory felt hollow and strange. Thousands upon thousands of civilians died in the months leading up to May 17. And while I personally condemn the actions of both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government, I didn’t know what to think when confronted with the news of LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran’s corpse. On the news segment his forehead was covered. There were flies. I wanted to see the bullet hole for myself. Wanted proof. Felt like a part of my life had ended. At that point I hadn’t lived my life outside of the shadow of Sri Lanka’s war.

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authenticity and approaching literature

I’ve been thinking about the question that I brought up in class on Monday, about the impact of fiction versus nonfiction, and how genre shapes our reaction to a given piece of literature.  I have to say I was surprised at the prevailing sentiment that nonfiction delivers more of an emotional “punch,” if you will, than fiction—but then, this is the most common approach to the issue of genre.  So why was I surprised?

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“what’s the point of literature?”

So I had my first-year writing literature classes read excerpts from Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. And my students had a difficult time understanding the content as well as its arrangement. The most common initial responses to the reading were “What’s the point?” or “Why did she even write this?” I tackled this in class, but since it came up towards the end, I tried to wrap up the discussion online in the following post. This was drafted in 30 minutes on the NJ Transit train, so it’s less polished than I would have liked, though it did end up modeling the kind of writing I encourage in their Zero Drafts.

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when broken glass floats

“We are like the dust of history being blown away.”

Him, When Broken Glass Floats, p. 330

When I start thinking about war or genocide, I go to the images first.  Maybe this is so I can feel as though I’ve survived something.  Reading the narratives puts it into perspective, or assuages (or feeds) the guilt, that I feel this way when I’ve never experienced it for myself.  Call it whinging, posturing, or vicarious trauma.  I don’t know that the impulse goes by a name.

Chanrithy Him’s When Broken Glass Floats is, to date, the most emotionally difficult survivor account I’ve ever encountered.  She describes her experience living under the regime of the Communist Khmer Rouge, which instated a policy of social engineering that resulted in genocide.  Agricultural “reform” measures and the insistence on total self-sufficiency in the matters of food, water, and medicine led to widespread famine and disease.  By forcing the entire Cambodian population to work as farm laborers, the Khmer Rouge hoped to institute a classless society under a totalitarian government.  Intellectuals, as well as those who only appeared to be educated, were executed; books were destroyed; money and symbols of Westernization, including Western medicine, were looked down on.

This system led to the deaths of approximately 1.4 to 2.2 million people.  Half those deaths were likely by execution, the rest by starvation and disease, such as amoebic dysentery, edema, and cholera.  The Khmer Rouge ruled from 1975 to 1979.  The phrase “Year Zero,” which we use to mean “building from the ground up,” was coined in relation to the 1975 Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh, as it immediately set about destroying all previous evidence of Cambodian culture and substituting new revolutionary ideals in its stead.

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