Work Hard, Be Nice, and Then Work Harder

Work Hard. Be Nice. After reading Jay Mathews’s book “Work Hard, Be Nice” I feel truly inspired.  And also amazed.  Mr. Mathews takes a stunning look at the founding of KIPP and its charismatic leaders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg.  It really makes me appreciate all the hard work and dedication it takes to not only be a good teacher, but also to reform the education system.

On the other hand, it also makes me a bit…wistful and sad.  If those are the right words.  Especially when it comes to salaries.  Don’t get me wrong – I don’t believe monetary compensation is everything.  In fact, far from it.  But the salaries being offered to teachers are abominable.  These are the people who spend 7-8 hours a day (more in the case of KIPP teachers) with your kids.  They provide your kids with the tools they need to succeed in the future, to be productive members of society and to make a difference in the world, and, on a more personal level, to provide a better life for their kids.  And what do we pay them? Barely enough money to survive.  It’s no surprise that many of the best and the brightest don’t go into teaching, despite the challenging work environment and ability to truly make a difference – two characteristics that I think many people value in a job.  Why should they work long hours and be paid pennies, when they can work long hours and get paid like an investment banker?

But I stray from the point.  I highly recommend this book.  I feel like you really get a chance to see what it takes to reform education – the hard work and the passion.  These two men did everything – from negotiating classroom space, to learning from experienced teachers, to knocking on doors to recruit for their school.  And their commitment didn’t stop there.  They extended the school day and even provided their students with a direct line to their teachers, fielding calls from students late into the night when they needed homework help.  That’s dedication.  I think one of my favorite anecdotes, was a class trip to Washington D.C.  Filled with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a ridiculously large number of kids per room, they were able to provide their students with a truly memorable and life changing experience – to teach them not from a classroom but from real life.

Although the book focuses on the KIPP schools, I think that it also exemplifies the risks, setbacks and journey anyone needs to take to truly succeed in life.   With any project, there will be times when you just don’t want to go on, when it just doesn’t seem worth it anymore.  It’s how you deal with these setbacks that truly defines who you are.

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A Look at Race with Beverly Daniel Tatum

” ‘Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?’ “ was originally on one of my friend’s GoodReads lists, and I decided to add it to mine, given my recent interest in education and all things related to education.

This book really opened my eyes to racism and prejudice.  One would assume that being an Asian female, I would be more attune to racism and prejudice being a minority on two levels,  but to be honest, I’ve never really thought about it.  Even though I’ve spent much of my time growing up in predominately white communities, I’ve never felt like I was ostracized or called out for being Asian.

But this book made me realize that racism can be much more subtle than the KKK and that I have experienced racism, just not racism by its traditional definition.

The first thing to establish is Ms. Tatum’s definition of racism.  She uses David Wellman’s definition, which is a “system of advantage based on race.”  This is an important distinction from prejudice which is defined as “a preconceived judgement or opinion, usually based on limited information.”  So, for example, you don’t have to be a member of the KKK to be considered racist.  That’s considered overt racism.  Racism is living in a society where one group systematically gets benefits over another group.  One example she uses is when it comes to jobs.  If a White hiring manager sees two resumes that include race, if they are both roughly the same the “White” resume usually wins out over the “Black” resume.  The assumption isn’t that the Black job seeker is bad – the assumption is the White job seeker is better.

Ms. Tatum also focuses a lot on building positive and healthy racial identities.  To do this, she believes, you have to have a circle of friends who are the same race as you are, who can understand and relate to the experiences you experience.  You can only build a strong racial identity if you have this strong base, and through really understanding yourself, you will be able to better interact with other ethnic groups.  Although I can see where she’s coming from, I am a bit worried about what this means.  If everyone feels closest to those who are like them, how will we ever truly get rid of racism – how will we ever truly be color blind?

Overall I think this book was incredibly insightful and definitely worth a read if you’re interested in racism, and tangentially how that manifests itself in education.  I think the one issue that this book doesn’t address that I wish it did is poverty.  I think that poverty and racism are closely related, and I would definitely like to read her views on how the two are connected.  m are very closely intertwined, and I would have liked to read her opinion

Life as a Circus Veterinarian

When this book first came out, I resisted.  The premise just didn’t seem that interesting to me.  But then the book stuck around.  It continued to be prominently displayed on bookstore shelves and the next then I knew, it was a movie starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon.  And so I caved.   Although an entertaining read, I didn’t find Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen to be that engaging.  The characters were good, but not great and the story drew me in but didn’t keep my attention.  It was a quick read, however, great for a lazy memorial day weekend.

The story focuses on the life of Jacob Jankowski, a Cornell veterinary student who, a short period before his final exams, finds himself without a family and without a home.  In a state of shock, he hops on a train, and begins his life as a member of the circus.  His veterinary credentials, even though he never completed school, give him a foot in the door as an animal character.  The book gives us a glimpse into the circus life – the slang, the battle between performers and the working men, and the way the circus business works.

In that sense it was interesting – seeing life in the circus, behind the curtains.  It’s the same reason I liked the play “Noises Off”.  But beyond that, I didn’t find the romance to be that believable.  Sure, I feel bad for Marlena and her short-tempered, vicious husband, but beyond that, the main characters didn’t pull me in.  Walter, however.  Walter I liked.  Walter is a circus performer, a midget, whose best friend is his faithful companion Queenie, a dog.  In a lot of ways, Walter is one of the most complex characters in the book  – Ms. Gruen peels away his harsh exterior to show a softie underneath.  All in all, I give this book 3 out of 5 stars, if using a star system.

Re-examining the Bible with Philip Pullman

As part of The Myth series, Philip Pullman retells the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection with a twist in his novel “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.” His big twist? Instead of there being one baby boy born in the manger that fateful day, Mr. Pullman proposes that there are 2 – one strong, healthy boy named Jesus and another weaker one named Christ.  This twist completely changes the story, obviously, turning this biblical story on its head.

In my opinion, this is a particularly interesting re-telling.  Mr. Pullman paints Jesus as a man who preaches his beliefs not to create a religion but simply to spread the word.  In fact, he expressly does not want to create a religion because of all the negative things religion can bring, for example, war.  This is also why he prefers not to perform miracles and provide proof that he is the son of God.

Christ, however, approaches things differently.  He believes that miracles are a great way to “market” Jesus’ word, and based on the encouragement of an “angel” starts to keep track of Jesus’ accomplishments and preachings, retelling history as his view of history – truth with a a bit of embellishment.

As an atheist, Mr. Pullman pokes holes in many of the common beliefs surrounding the Christian faith – for example the resurrection and the “miracle” of one loaf feeding an entire city. He also writes the entire story in a similar voice and style as the Bible, lending his novel some of the solemness of the Bible itself.

Would I recommend it? I’m not sure.  I think the story is interesting, but obviously the writing style, although I understand why he chose it, makes the novel a bit of a dry read.  The book is, however, short.   If you have some spare time, and are interested in religion (in more of a theoretical literary sense versus in a faith-based sense) I find his retelling to be fairly interesting.

Life in a 11′ x 11′ Room

Wow.  Room was an amazing read and the author’s style and approach to the story is incredibly interesting and provocative.  The novel takes place through the eyes of 5-year old Jack, a boy who’s never known a world outside of Room, a 11′ x 11′ space.  When I first started reading, I was a bit thrown off by the style.  I wasn’t really sure what was going on.  But soon I realized that the book would lose its power if not told through the eyes of a child.

This novel took me through an emotional roller coaster ride.  The book begins with Jack happily talking about all the fun stuff he does in Room.  Told through the eyes of a child, the 11′ x 11′ room take a life of his own, with meals, physical education, reading, and playing – a pretty normal, happy childhood.  Even though it struck me that something was weird, especially since the boy never talked about anything outside the room, it didn’t really click.  At one point, I was under the delusion that Jack was actually a robot who was “put to sleep” every night in the wardrobe (I know, I’ve read too many science fiction stories). But as the story continues, details continue to leak out that seem a bit out of place.  The strict bedtime, the fact that nothing leaves or enters the room except Old Nick, the fact that Old Nick comes every night around 9 pm and the bed creaks and creaks and creaks.   It’s easy to overlook these details though, because when they’re told through the eyes of a young child, it’s all suffused with a sense of innocence.  You realize something’s weird, but Jack seems so happy, seems like a normal 5 year old boy with an active imagination, like so many other 5 year old boys.

When the details began to unravel, there is nothing but horror.  You realize how much a child who grows up completely cut off from the world doesn’t know – for example, that the TV world isn’t just in the TV – that it’s images of “the outside”.   You realize the horrible situation Jack’s mother is in, and how strong she is to keep it together for so many years.  Ms. Donoghue does a great job of really helping the reader learn about Jack, building a believable character as he encounters experiences that are everyday to us, but obviously very new to a child who has never seen the outside of a Room.

I highly recommend this book.  It will really take you on an emotional journey as only a book written from the point of view of a 5 year old child can.  By showing the world through a 5 year old’s eyes, it turns a horrible, emotionally traumatic situation into something that is at least palatable, although still only barely so.  And in this way, she really brings to light the trauma that results from an abduction. and the love of a mother, pushed to her limits but keeping it together for the sake of her child.

The Trials and Tribulations of a Reluctant Chef

After reading the book “Blood, Bones & Butter” by Gabrielle Hamilton I’ll be honest – I had mixed feelings.  On one hand, I really admire her.  It takes a lot of guts, hard work, and determination to build your own restaurant from the ground up.  It is no small feat and I really respect her for it.  On the other hand, I have a really hard time relating to her story.  I think a lot of it relates to her youth- all the drugs, stealing, and vagrancy.  It’s hard for me to reconcile the fact that she basically wandered around aimlessly and grew up to be a success.  I’m not saying that she doesn’t deserve her success – she really, really does. But her case is one in a million.   A lot of people who have her childhood don’t grow up to be successes  – a lot of them end up on the street.  A lot of these people are the same people that end up on social programs that are paid for by people who took a more traditional route, studying hard and working hard.

And to be honest, I am a bit jealous.  Jealous of her figuring out what she wants to do and pursuing it so wholeheartedly.  I think most people spend their lives working in jobs that they like but aren’t their passion, their true calling.  I know I do.  I like my work, but I like other things at least equally well if not more.  I could not spend 18 hours a day pouring my life and soul into my job and still be happy, the way Ms. Hamilton does with her restaurant.  I am also jealous of her guts and her fighter instinct.  Being abandoned at such a young age to essentially fend for yourself can’t be easy for anyone.   And she does what it takes to survive.  This same drive and fighter instinct is what drives her to be the success she is today.  And she realizes her “bad-assness”, although I’m not sure I agree with how she portrays it.

“At thirteen, when I was stealing cars and smoking cigarettes I wanted to be badass.  I was cultivating badass.  At sixteen, coked out of my head and  slinging chili at the Lone Star Cafe , I was the understudy to badass, and I knew all her lines and cues.  At twenty-five, blow-torching my way through warehouse catering kitchens, cranking out back-to-back doubles, and napping in between on the office floor with my head on a pile of aprons and checked pants, I was authentically badass.” (P. 200).  I don’t know that I would paint her childhood and young adult exploits as badass.  Or cultivating badass.  In fact I think it was all a bit stupid and I feel weird about her glorifying that type of behavior.  I think what made her badass all those years was her ability to survive.  To figure out how to feed herself, take care of herself, lay the foundations to be something in her future life.  Not the stealing. Not the smoking. Not the drugs.

I think one of my favorite parts of the book is her experience as a panelist for a conference called “Where Are the Women?”  I think it brings to light an issue that you don’t only see in the kitchen, but also in society as a whole.  Women are rarely at the top.  Sure, women are in the workforce.  We hold jobs, do well, and are productive members of society.  But when you look at the numbers – where are the women CEOs? The women chefs? The women in positions of power? “Women have self-selected out of the chef life, which can grind you to a powder…”(206).  It’s much the same way in industry, where women are often not the CEOs, partially because we give birth and are often the ones to raise the kids – the ones expected to raise the kids. And because it’s a boy’s club up there at the top.  Being at the top doesn’t really cater to people who can’t eat, breathe, and sleep their job.  And this makes me sad because I do believe that women can fulfill these roles just as well as men.  There are many women who are driven to be in these positions of power but keep bumping up against the glass ceiling, apparently prevalent in all industries.  And the advice is still the same, work hard – as hard if not harder than men – and you’ll succeed.  Would I recommend this book? Yes.  Her life is definitely an interesting one.

Dragons, Dragons Everywhere!

Book 4 of the Fablehaven series – “Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary” –  takes us to Wyrmroost, one of the most dangerous dragon sanctuaries.  Once again the Fablehaven team (along with assorted fellow adventurers) are on a desperate quest to beat the Society of the Evening Star to the five artifacts that, together, will release the evil demon Zzyzx.

Mr. Mull continues to develop the characters, giving Seth magical abilities to talk to demons and other shadow dwellers.  He also makes Seth a more likable character – making him a boy who takes calculated risks versus allowing his curiosity to get the better of him.   I find it great that Mr. Mull is able to develop such cool new characters with every new book.  My favorite new character in this book is, without a doubt, Raxtus, a not so big, and not so scary dragon.  Although he can be a bit of a whiner, he’s a comical character, capable of witty banter and flashes of courage.  I can only hope he plays a bigger and bigger role in the last and final novel, “Keys to the Demon Prison.”

The ending of this book, to be honest, seems to be a bit of a cop out, although I can’t come up with a better way for the book to end.  Although I’ve enjoyed the adventure up through now, I think I’m ready for them to end.  It is possible to have too much of a  good thing and I think this series is reaching that point.

I’m rooting for the good guys to win!