Academic Service Learning Opportunity

Yesterday I logged my twelfth hour volunteering at Ann Arbor’s 826michigan. To work with this non-profit organization has been such a pleasure that I plan on returning for several weeks to come, though my mandatory time for this class is completed.

When I first heard that 826michigan was one of the opportunities for our ASL for this capstone class, I immediately saw the tutoring side of it and was turned off. Not that tutoring isn’t fantastic, because it is. It’s just something I’ve done in high school and I longed to do something new and interesting, now given the chance to. Everything changed when spokespersons from 826 came to our classroom and laid out the vast amount that their organization does for kids in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area.

I knew I was going to be involved in the Field Trips before they left the class. It all sounded so creative and engaging. So imagination-oriented!!

Many of the Field Trips involved poking fun at boring adults things, thus turning the tables to celebrate childhood. We often began by pretending to facilitate a grownup seminar (i.e. how to do your taxes 101) before the infamous Dr. Blotch calls via Skype and everyone’s jobs are instantly on the line (not to mention the students being fired from childhood. Quite shocking, I know.) if we (aka the students) are unable to write the story Dr. Blotch requires by noon.

It is impossible to detail all of the creative twists and turns these two-hour activities take without rambling on for pages upon pages. But of the literary merit of our trips, I certainly should touch on.

No matter the age and grade level of the students (we had grades 1st through 4th on differing occasions) there was always a story to be told, both through group effort and individual creativity. The youngest students “wrote” a story all together and each came up with their own title and cover illustration. The oldest solved mysteries and wrote letters explaining evidence and clues for an individual hunch. And through each activity, students defined literary terms they knew and learned new ones as well.

So where was my place in all of this? I played minor roles as Dr. Blotch’s relative or neighbor–lots of creative improvising upon being interrogated by students–but also worked assembling the books, typing up the story as the students created it, and, most often, facilitating a table of writing students. While learning some new tasks, the majority of what I ended up contributing to the Field Trips was during these table work sessions. Here, the students had reached the point in the activity where they were refining the group work into something all their own. There may have been a lot of reminding them of character’s names and spelling out words for students, but asking them questions to get them thinking was one of the most important thing I believe I did.

In the training for 826michigan volunteers, there was a lot of stress put on “the Socratic Method,” which generally means asking someone a question to get them thinking for themselves instead of just giving them the answer. While the stories the students were writing didn’t necessarily have “answers” that could be solved, I naturally found myself asking them all sorts of questions. Though having heard of the technique in training, I truly found that the most effective way to get a student to verbalize their train of thought and creative spark was to ask them questions about their story.

Volunteering for the Field Trips specifically reinforced in me the value of children’s imagination and its cultivation through activities like these, which reinforce creative writing and reading. I may not be moving into a career where I’ll be teaching children, but with hypothetical children, nieces, and nephews some five, ten years down the road, these six weeks have meant a lot to me. For my own learning, I think I’ve been reminded why I began writing at an early age, which led me to where I am today. Even though today I’m writing things I never could have conceived of in elementary school, those formative years were essential to building a foundation for the person, the writer, that I am today. And to be able to nourish that in others has been a rewarding experience.

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I want to write Literature: Reaction to “Oranges”

I am about forty pages away from finishing Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson. As I’ve been reading, I’ve somehow felt called not to annotate, underline, or make any sort of markings in the book. Not yet at least. Dog-earing is all I’ve allowed myself to do. Maybe because it’s the first book I’ve read in a long time that I’m actually hoping to reread right after I finish it. There is something about this book. What is it? I’ve been trying to figure it out, because I wouldn’t say it’s my new favorite book and it’s certainly not a book I would recommend to each and every person I come across–that kind of gusto I leave for Mary Schaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This is a very odd book. That’s for sure. So what is it?

As I sat down to read the last section of the 224 page novel, I was struck again by the style of writing the author uses. She passes through time, nothing is linear; she freely goes between relating specific events, to feelings, to statements of what is possible and what is not possible, to snippets of stories that are like fairytales; everything is all over the place and yet everything is together. In short, this modern piece of literature is about as far away from Bright Purple as you can possibly get (that is, besides them both dealing with issues of religion and sexual orientation).

And that’s when I realized: I want to write literature.

…I didn’t realize how much of myself, my own critical eye, my own inner spirals of thought, my own voice I might be losing if I wrote something straight forward…

Wow. Duh, right? An English major wants to write literature. Not very original, huh? But think about it. As I’ve said before, this senior seminar class has shown me that English majors–like other Humanities folk–don’t often fall into the “obvious” fields of work or art that people think they do. We all don’t become teachers, professors, and fiction writers.

For a couple years, knowing that I wanted to write fiction, I felt drawn towards the young adult genre. Why? Because that’s the demographic that’s being put out there, selling copies, making movies, etc. etc. Sure, why wouldn’t a starving artist want to make it one day? Of course I’d love for my books to become movies so that I could reach a larger audience with whatever issues my books are tackling. But I didn’t realize how much of myself, my own critical eye, my own inner spirals of thought, my own voice I might be losing if I wrote something straight forward like Melody Carlson‘s Bright Purple: Color Me Confused.

Not that there is anything wrong with Carlson’s novel. I think it did what she intended it to do. And it work. But that’s not the kind of book I want to write. In fact, feeling like I have to be shoved into this containing box of straight-forward-young-adult-entertaining-novel has really made me struggle with my longing to write. I’ve hit a writer’s block over and over again with every new thing I try to start. And I blame it all on my overwhelming schedule as a college student–which, let’s be honest, is also really not too far off the mark. But when I picked up Oranges this morning and read just two pages, I felt the desire to write again. I cannot tell you what that felt like to me as a writer who has been struggling to find her lost love again. And maybe I won’t start to write for a while. Maybe not for a month or two or not until I graduate. But hope is there and I can’t just sweep it under the rug.

Majoring in the Humanities?!!

Somehow going into this section of the “Senior Seminar” course when we would be talking about the state of the Humanities, the problems with these “diminishing” majors, the value they have, career paths, etc. I guessed I’d come out with a fresh sense of what I’m going to do once I walk off that stage, diploma in hand.

That was not the case. But I learned something far more valuable. Something I knew all along but could never really put into words. Something I could never fully explain to people who respond to “I’m an English major” with any sort of negative response that sounds a lot more like “What the hell are you gonna do with that degree?”

… my years in college have cultivated me, my character, my personal growth, and I have placed the value of my time and tuition in deeper meaning, in empathy, in hearing the stories of world to better understand LIFE.

When I first applied to Eastern Michigan, I declared Creative Writing as my major and later changed it to the Language, Literature, and Writing program. I found that even though I couldn’t put so much focus on exploratory, creative kinds of writing, I couldn’t get away from the English major. And why? I always explained it by saying, “Oh well I love to read–you know how much I love books–but I also love to write and I’m pretty good at it.” It’s true. I might have caved in a long time ago and turned to a more “sensible” degree if I had not had several fantastic professors encourage me the way they did.

Still the same question haunts me everywhere except in the safety of my English classes and the confidence of a few friends and family: “Are you going to read books for a living? What job will you have?” If the past couple weeks have taught me anything about the beauty of the Humanities it is this: my years in college have cultivated me, my character, my personal growth, and I have placed the value of my time and tuition in deeper meaning, in empathy, in hearing the stories of world to better understand LIFE.

I sit here wondering, how many people would read that and say “I’d never spend all that time and money just for that.” Maybe a lot of you wouldn’t. But I am here to say that I have absolutely no regrets.

I applaud the people out there who know exactly what they want to do, chase after it, and step from the university to their specific job. But I know that for me, it is the exact opposite. I am not going to school with a one-tract mind. I am a writer. And a writer can be everything. It doesn’t matter what I do when I first get out of school, or five, ten, thirty years afterwards. I will be making the world a better place, contributing to my community, advocating for justice, transforming all the theory I’ve learned, all the books I’ve read, all the papers I’ve written into defining and demonstrating the multi-faceted lens with which I see the world. If you think about it, it really boils down to empathy, and somehow I thought that I wasn’t special for possessing such a large store of it. But now I’ve realized that it is a gift I have, one that my journey as a Humanities major has only broadened and strengthened.

… they say that the Humanities have been “under attack” since the 16th century and we’ve not disappeared yet so there must be a reason why.

My colleagues in their presentations have pooled together a large store of doubts, questions, stats, and in the end these are the truths: STEM majors’ unemployment rates are not as significantly lower than Humanities’s as people make it out to be; not learning specific skills for specific fields broadens the range of possible employment opportunities; believing in the values of Humanities and persevering through the doubts of others will keep this kind of knowledge going; because last but not least, they say that the Humanities have been “under attack” since the 16th century and we’ve not disappeared yet so there must be a reason why.

However economically “worthless” they may seem, Humanities programs remind the rest of the world that there is so much more to life (and education!) than working yourself to the grave. I’ve realized that I’m not going to school to get a job. I’m going to school to round myself out in a way I couldn’t have otherwise, doing the things I love, learning about the world, and growing into the person I am and continually evolving to be.

“Bright Purple” Initial Response

Over my university’s spring break I spent time reading through Melody Carlson‘s book Bright Purple: Color Me Confused as it was the first available novel on my list that I would be reading for my project. Going in I had a lot of reservations, knowing that it was a Christian author whose intended audience—as with her other “Color Me” books—is Christian youth. I was weary of the way it would end–what final conclusions would the author make? would those conclusions be written to persuade the audience that that is how issues of homosexuality should be addressed?—as well as how LGBTQ characters would be represented. Still, I had hope going in knowing that because the issue was being discussed—that the lesbian character, Jess, is the best friend of the protagonist, Ramie—that this book would no doubt, in the end, be promoting some form of Christian love.

I couldn’t help underlining and annotating every single page of the book. I have so much I could say! And yet there are key things I know I should hone in on. But first, before diving into the central problem of the novel (“How do I, as a Christian, approach a loved one who comes out as gay?”) I want to acknowledge the strength of intersectionality this book possesses. There are issues of gender when the high school’s girls basketball team is treated as not as worthy of investing in than the boy’s team; class is an issue as Ramie’s family has an economic disadvantage so that her mom is not in position to afford giving her a car, prompting Ramie to consider getting a job instead of playing sports; religion, as it is what tears Ramie initially apart from her best friend; and certainly race, as Ramie herself is biracial—white mom, black dad—giving her some social disadvantages, though she uses her identity as part of a marginalized group to recognize the marginalization of her lesbian friend. In these ways, Bright Purple deals with a bigger, intersectional picture, keeping in mind that there is so much in life that affects people outside of the main conflict in the book: sexuality and religion.

One of the main things I found myself annotating again and again was the self-centeredness of Ramie. From the very first line of book, “My best friend just told me she’s a lesbian. A lesbian!” (7) she does not see Jess’s situation from a vulnerable, brave, trusting coming out point of view. She sees what Jess does only as it impacts Ramie’s own life. To name a few specific places: after receiving the initial news, Ramie thinks “I wish that I’d never met her…Why me? Why does something like this have to happen to me?” (14); Ramie’s outburst to her mother “‘Who deserted who?'” (27) when she is determined to cut off all ties with Jess after Jess’s initial reaching out; then Ramie’s response to her teammates’ negative reaction to Ramie’s voluntary quitting the team because of awkwardness with Jess “This is her fault. She’s the one who brought all this on. But it’s like I’m the one who’s getting tortured here. I’m the one with the friends who are turning against me. I’m the one who lost a spot on the team” (80).

And possibly the most important thing about Ramie’s self-centered point of view is the fact that she is blind to the selfishness and hypocrisy it creates in her character—which is very damaging to non-Christians who look to her as a Christ-like example. However, this does at last come to turn on page 129 after Ramie has left Jess, vulnerable and alone, in the middle of their jeering basketball team after Jess swore at teammates who were harassing her. “I realize that I am the one who threw the first stone into Jess’s life. Oh, not literally. But I was the first one that Jess confided in and, as a result, I was the first one to judge her, to condemn her … to basically hate her. I am ashamed. Really ashamed…But eventually I realize that I will have to do more than just bring this to God.” Which leads to the next chapter where she is able to approach her friend with kindness and love without condoning or affirming her sexuality.

I wanted to post this blog fairly recently after I finished reading the book. But after I had started it, it was just too painful to keep going right away. Flipping through the book over and over again, looking for important quotes to use just really got to me. It was several days ago that I finally wrote down every section of the book I had but a star next to. You know, a little reminder that this part is important. Well it turns out that those important moments took up pages and pages of notebook paper. And even after that, I could start writing this. It was all too heavy on my heart. I am weary to encourage people to read this book because of how emotionally straining it can be. Knowing that while Bright Purple is fiction but that out in the world, people are feeling pain and isolation enough to reject God and/or take their own life is something I—as a very sensitive INFJ—can hardly dwell on for long stretches of time.

That being said, to paraphrase Ramie in so many words, it seems to be the typical, righteous reaction to say that: churches who have marry same-sex couples cannot be traditional Christian churches (23); coming out of the closet is selfish and disorienting to the people around you (34); not wanting to associate with people because they are gay is not homophobia (45); it’s okay to tease people, they “really shouldn’t get offended so easily” (52); being rejected by friend group for not wanting to be near an old best friend is “being persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (80); and someone expressing suicidal thoughts because of orientation is manipulation into making others accept their sin (104).

Whew. That was a lot. And those are just the key points. What I think dejected and hurt me so much reading through this book was the first half when basically what is perceived to be “righteousness” is rejection. Jess is rarely seen at ALL through the first half of the book. We only hear about her and how much Ramie doesn’t want anything to do with her anymore. The book does a pretty good job by the end of showing how important it is to not cast LGBTQ people off just because of their identity.

But there was one major question I had at the end stemming from one fact: Jess is never in a relationship throughout the book and expresses no immediate intention for one. While Jess is identifying herself as a lesbian, there is no acting upon it. Justin Lee wrote a fantastic memoir called Torn (2012) in which he spends the bulk of the book arguing that homosexual identity by itself is not sinful—because you’re not doing anything—and that the debate of sin over homosexuality should actually be over actively seeking sexual relationships or not.

This is a recent development in the ongoing debate in the Church—perhaps too recent for 2006 Bright Purple. But whether or not Christians believe that same-sex relationships are not okay, this book is leaning towards the idea of meeting people where they are at and working from there—not pushing “healing” down people’s throats. So maybe Melody Carlson would agree with this. It certainly does take the effort and respect, however, that orientation is not a choice and therefore unchangeable—something that Ramie does not agree with at the conclusion of the book, saying “That doesn’t mean that God can’t rescue us—from anything. And so I still believe that Jess could be rescued from living the rest of her life as a lesbian…” (203).

Still, with the novel’s conclusion with Ramie’s youth pastor trying to have a respectful panel about Christian and LGBTQ people getting along—which goes completely awry—I believe that though the beginning is full of more hetero-normative, rejecting, and sometimes hateful parts, it does end on a note that says that there is hope for the progression of the future. Because if “they will know that we are Christians by our love” and they are called to reach out to all people, that certainly does not equate to eliminating people completely out of their lives because they have one social/biological/religious difference between them. (Agreeing to disagree is okay!! AKA Third Way) Let’s build each other up in Christ again and not block the gate for those wanting to seek Him.