Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Strike a Match

Until you’ve had a mentally ill child, you can’t understand the isolation and fear and sadness that the parents of the mentally ill endure.

We all know the saying, “The Buck Stops Here.”  Well, that’s parenting.  And all the it-takes-a-village rhetoric is very nice indeed, and in many ways true, but the village can only do so much.  The village of neighbors and teachers and friends and health care professionals can only do so much.  Because at the end of the day, the parent is the one who tucks that child into bed at night … or wrests the sharp nail scissors from his hands at bath time when he suddenly and unexpectedly threatens to injure himself or, worse, his siblings.

While the rest of the “village” sleeps, the parent stares, dreamless and panicky, into the dark and begs the god who created this child to help him, help her, help all of us understand what’s going on ….

One very brave parent, Liza Long, has written an essay called “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” about her struggle raising a mentally ill son. It’s gone viral, and sparked countless comments, and hopefully will move us forward in the conversation not only about violence in our society but about mental illness:


“She’s describing our lives,” one woman commented to me, when we discussed this essay.  “No one understands what this is like.”

“It’s like groping in a dark tunnel with no lights,” another woman once described to me, about their frustrating, heart-wrenching journey toward a “diagnosis” which would explain their young son’s antisocial behaviors.  An entire “village” of professionals tried to help, but ultimately, they could always walk away at the end of the day and go back to their own warm suppers and not-nearly-so-dysfunctional lives, because treating this child was, for them, a job.

But for the parents of the mentally ill, it’s day in, day out, and all night.

One line in Long’s essay really struck me:  “You’ll do anything for [health] benefits.”  Families of the mentally ill know exactly how profound that statement is.  Because health benefits are the keys which unlock the gates to the “village.”  Treating mental illness is staggeringly expensive, and most families cannot begin to pay out-of-pocket for treatment.  And without treatment … meaning doctors, evaluations, therapy, possibly medication …  there truly is no hope for a mentally ill child.  They don’t “outgrow” this stuff.

I know that many advocates for the mentally ill have been angered by Long’s essay, and feel she’s stigmatized her son by writing this.  But I’ve got news for them:  the stigma is already out there.  We see it in the unfair, and dangerous suggestion floating in the news that Adam Lanza might have shot twenty innocent children because he possibly had Asperger’s (which has been described as a mild form of Autism.) 

People with Asperger’s are not sociopaths.  The New York Times had a good column about this today:

We need to shed light on the reality of mental illness, and Liza Long has struck one solitary match in the dark tunnel.  And found, I believe, that she wasn’t in there alone.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Stuff My Mother Says

I’ve been thinking about why kids read.  Actually, why some kids read … a lot … and some kids don’t.  

In the New York Times on Thursday (12/6) there was an article about how even though Latino students make up 25 percent of the school population in the U.S., Latino characters in children’s books are markedly absent.  And the “experts” say that’s a problem.

“Education experts and teachers who work with large Latino populations say that the lack of familiar images could be an obstacle as young readers work to build stamina and deepen their understanding of story elements like character,” the article asserts.

This got me thinking, not only because I write for young people (teens, not little kids) and did happen to include a Cuban character in one of my books, but also because it made me recall by own bookwormish childhood.  I don’t remember “relating” to the characters.  If anything, I loved being plucked out of my own world and transported to another.  Then again, I grew up in a predominately white, upper middle class town, so maybe that’s why books like “Charlotte’s Web” resonated so deeply with me.  I mean, a white girl is a white girl is a white girl, right?  Even if one lives in Jersey and spends Saturdays cruising the malls on Route 17 and another one lives on a farm and raises a pet pig.  There are certain basic, cultural “things” we just “get.”  It’s like knowing the secret handshake which allows you into the club.

The comments following the Times article were interesting.  One in particular snarkily noted that there are hardly any Asian protagonists in children’s books, but “Who are all the valedictorians in American high schools?  Asians.”

Okay, snarky point taken.  But these were, after all education experts pointing out this problem for young readers.  So I decided to consult my own expert:  a bona fide “Latino.”

This gal grew up in an apartment in New York, in the Bronx.  Spanish was her first language and Spanish was spoken at home.  Her parents did not go to college … actually, her father drove a bus down Riverside Avenue.  She grew up far from the upper middle class world of homes stocked with books and newspapers, weekends playing tennis at the club, adults chatting about their work at “the office.”  Yet she was a voracious reader as a child, and continues to be a lifelong reader and learner.

In other words, I called my mom.

“That’s ridiculous,” she said when I told her about the article.  “I read everything I could get my hands on, and I didn’t care what color the characters were.  I just loved stories.  Kids want a good story.”

“My mother,” she went on, “knew that if we were going to make it in America we had to learn English.  So you know what she got me?  A library card.  And the Encyclopedia Britannica.  This guy came to our door, and he said, ‘Mrs. Morales, with a dollar down and a dollar every month, you can have the encyclopedia right here in your home.’  And she went for it.  I remember my brother and I spending hours on the floor reading the encyclopedia.  It was wonderful.”

When I asked her how she recalls turning me on to reading, she says, “That was easy.  For starters, we were the last people in America to have a color television.  Second, if I saw you laying around I’d say, ‘Either read, or help me clean.’  That got you all reading, let me tell you.”

I remember that.  As long as my nose was in a book, mom left me alone.

I know this issue boils down to more than “get a library card” and “clean your room.”  It’s more complicated than that.  But maybe … not that much more complicated.  Maybe we don’t have to reinvent children’s literature, although having more Latino characters (and I mean authentic characters, not just stick figures celebrating Cinco de Mayo) would certainly benefit all readers, especially kids who don’t know any Latinos.

But maybe there’s something to being the last family in America to have a color television.  I know my kids were the last in our town to have cable.

Recently I was at a gathering in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, which, in case you don’t know Maine, is probably the area with the highest per capita income in the state.  The schools are notoriously good, and when I say “notorious” I mean people talk about how tough the public high school is and how high the expectations are.  Anyway, at this gathering I met a fifth grade teacher who talked about how concerned she is about her students, especially her boys, because they aren’t reading.

“I mean, this is Cape!” she said.  “If they aren’t reading here, what’s up?”

We talked about our own kids, all in college now, and how they cut their teeth on the Harry Potter books.  They grew up with Harry, built their reading stamina on those loooong books (and really, what did they have in common with British wizards, anyway?) then moved on to “The Lord of the Rings,” C.S. Lewis, Dickens ….  

The teacher from Cape said she asked her current students who had read “Harry Potter,” and barely a third raised their hands.  However, when she asked how many had seen the movies, virtually every child had seen every Harry Potter movie.  Multiple times.

When the power goes out, we light candles, sit around the table, and play cards.  Pull out the board games.  Talk and laugh.  When the lights go back on, we retreat to our screens.  Our laptops and iPads and televisions and cell phones. 

Maybe, even if the electricity is on, we should abandon the screens and open our books.  Stretch out on the floor with the Encyclopedia Britannica and criss-cross the globe.  Lift our heads every once in a while to comment to the person across the room, “Hey, listen to this,” and read a few lines out loud.

I think that’s how my mother did it.