From this day to the ending of the world…

On the morning of October 25, 1415, I doubt that King Henry V of England had much thought of surviving to the end of the day let alone having his name eternally associated with the date of October 25. Much of the credit for that welcome to one Mr. William Shakespeare, but the fact remains that Henry did something that ensured his connection to October 25.

Several hundred years later and a few hundred miles northeast, another group of men ensured their eternal connection October 25 for a less exciting reason. While Henry V is remembered for his military victory, the Light Brigade of 1854 is remembered for their defeat in the Battle of Balaclava in Crimean War. The Brigade would probably be simply relegated to the lesser pages of history books if not for Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Tennyson took a moment of confusion and brought it to life. He took a disastrous battle and made it unforgettable; he made its warriors immortal with his pen. The story of the battle is not commonly taught in American schools, but the poem is. The poem lives on and carries on with it the memory of all those who died as a result of the battle.

A few years ago, one of my high school students looked at the poem and said, “Oh, I know this! It’s from The Blindside.” Naturally, my response was “Great, but do you know the story?” I slid a few Raglan Cardigan jokes in there and told the kiddos the story. Then we talked about how the story lives on due to literature.

I love literature, and this day (October 25) reminds me of one of my reasons. Literature carries messages to the future. It tells stories to people who might never have otherwise heard them. The British sense of duty is conveyed to future generations by The Charge of the Light Brigade. It tells us what mattered to the world in which that tragedy occurred. Yes, a group of brave men died, but they were committed to their cause and they did their duty to Queen and Country.Those were important values for their society.

I know and love the story of Henry V because of the Shakespeare play of the same name. If not for Shakespeare-and subsequently Kenneth Branagh and The Hollow Crown, I might have encountered him briefly on the pages of a history book as a high school freshmen, but I never would have been enchanted by his story. Literature brought Henry to life for me, and I was enchanted by him.

On October 25, I find myself rejoicing in a victory that happened six centuries ago. I find myself saddened by the loss of innocent lives at the Battle of Balaclava. But most of all, I find myself grateful that literature in all of its various forms helps us to preserve history. And may that continue to be true from this until the ending of the world.

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When you read a book as a child..

“When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.”

-Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail (written by Nora Ephron)

When I was in the third grade, I had a pretty high reading level. I read voraciously, and I read everything that held still long enough. (I knew WAY too much about how much riboflavin was in my cereal, but I didn’t know what riboflavin was.) Somehow, I got my hands on The Diary of Anne Frank that spring. When I told my teacher that I was reading it, she told me that I shouldn’t have been reading it because I couldn’t handle it. I’m not sure what she meant by that, but I ignored her and finished the book. Maybe she thought that I couldn’t really understand what was happening to Anne or I was too young to read about such a dark period in history; I don’t know. I had looked Anne Frank up in the dictionary before I read the book (don’t ask why the dictionary and not the encyclopedia) and I knew that she died in a concentration camp. Also, that wasn’t the first book that I’d read about the Holocaust; I had a pretty clear (but sanitized) idea of what was going on in the book.

Fast forward to seventh grade: I found a copy of A Tale of Two Cities (thanks, Mom!), and I wanted to write a book report on it. I’d read the Great Illustrated Classics version around age eight or nine, and I wanted to read the real book. So I asked my seventh grade literature teacher (Liz Davis, you rock wherever you are!) if I could do a book report on it. She said sure. She told me that if I got into it and found it too hard I could change my mind. I didn’t change my mind. I loved it. Mrs. Davis also let me write book reports on Pride and Prejudice and Oliver Twist. She determined that I could read well enough to understand the text, and I’d handle the material pretty well.

There’s a huge difference between those two teachers. One tried to hold me back to the normal third grade reading level and material; the other let me go explore the world of literature at my leisure-but not unsupervised. As an adult, I can well understand that it can be hard to work with students who are reading above grade level. It can be challenging to find them books that are appropriate for their maturity and their reading level. But I wasn’t trying to read Danielle Steele; I wanted to read good literature.

The books that we read as children are vital. I can’t tell you how many times I read P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins books as a child. I read the Jackson District Library’s illustrated copy of Peter Pan numerous times. I read these books because I was looking for books that I enjoyed and that challenged me. As I got older, my mom (an elementary school librarian) helped me to find books that I would read for challenge and enjoyment. Yes, I read plenty of crappy young adult lit that I’ve forgotten, but I also read a good deal of really quality literature that has helped to shape me into the adult that I am today.

I’ve also reread many of those books as an adult and understood them differently. In my twenties, I am able to relate to and understand Anne Frank and Charles Dickens in ways that I couldn’t when I was a child. But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t have read those books as a kid. Meeting Sidney Carton as a kid helped me to understand that heroes don’t always look or act like we expect. As an adult, I understand and appreciate him in a fuller way. But that doesn’t mean that my initial encounters with him were negative or pointless. Anne Frank gave me an age-appropriate window into the tragedy of the Holocaust, and I will never resent or regret that.

The best bit of reading advice my mother ever gave me was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle when I was in fifth or sixth grade. (I canNOT wait for the new AWIT movie coming in March 2018.) That book turned me on to one of my favorite authors, and I read L’Engle voraciously. I love exploring the worlds she created and the characters who inhabited them. L’Engle taught me, among many other things, that intelligence and faith could coexist. I learned so much about science, literature, faith, and life from L’Engle.

The books that I read as a child helped to shape the adult that I became (or am becoming). Anne Frank taught me about endurance through suffering. J.M. Barrie and P.L Travers taught me about the power of imagination. Madeleine L’Engle opened the world to me. She introduced me to John Donne, Mr. Rochester, Fortinbras, time travel, and tomato sandwiches. In fact, I think that I need to revisit her very soon. It’s time for another round of hot chocolate, tomato sandwiches, and time travel.

Lessons from Neville Longbottom

If you know me, you know that I love Harry Potter. I see a great deal of myself in Hermione. I have a mild to moderate crush on Bill Weasley. I’m inspired by Professor McGonagall. I think that I might be Tonks. I love both Remus Lupin and Sirius Black. I could keep going on this train. But the elder I wax, the character who strikes me time and again is Neville Longbottom.

On the surface, he seems pretty straightforward. He’s clumsy and forgetful. He isn’t too smart or too attractive. His best subject is Herbology, which is a commonly overlooked subject at Hogwarts. He doesn’t appear to be terribly brave. He didn’t demonstrate any indication of magical ability for much of his childhood. He lives with his grandmother. His parents are permanent patients of St. Mungo’s thanks to the “skills” of Bellatrix Lestrange. And yet, in the spite of all of this-or perhaps because of it, he is a true Gryffindor.

Despite his normal awkwardness, Neville shows strength in difficult situations. In the first book, Ron tells the eleven-year-old blunderbuss “Neville, you have got to start standing up to people.” The Neville to whom Ron is speaking not likely to stand up to anyone. He is shy and nervous. He doesn’t actively seek attention. He isn’t about to stand up to one of his own friends-let alone a powerful Dark wizard.

Now as the books go on, we (and his friends) start to learn some of Neville’s backstory. He lives with his grandmother because his parents were horrifically damaged mentally after vengeful Death Eaters attacked them with the Cruciatus Curse after Voldemort’s 1981 fall from power. (You know, that whole thing where the most powerful Dark Wizard of the age was defeated by a toddler who was born the day after Neville. That.) His parents don’t remember who they are, let alone who he is. This greatly impacts Neville. To be honest, there is almost no way that a child couldn’t be impacted by this experience. Both in word and action, his family constantly tells him that he cannot live up to his parents’ legacy. He has had no reason not to internalize this idea.

However even in his early years at Hogwarts, Neville shows hints of the bravery that will one day be acknowledged even by Lord Voldemort. Near the end of their first year, he is not afraid to stand up to Ron, Harry, and Hermione when he sees them doing something he believes to be wrong. Professor Dumbledore later commends him for this saying that it is harder to stand up to one’s friends than one’s enemies. He also stands up to an enemy (Draco Malfoy) at another point, but that is supposedly easier than standing up to the Golden Trio.

Neville is also capable of remarkable love and faithfulness. He is loyal to his friends, but more than that, he is loyal to his parents. As he tells Harry in the fifth book, he is proud of being the son of Frank and Alice Longbottom. His parents thrice defied Lord Voldemort; that is decidedly something to be proud of. They may not know him; the only gifts his mother gives him may be gum wrappers. But they were good people who fought valiantly for what they believed was right. Neville does his best to carry their spirit on. As he grows older, he works to fight for the cause that his parents supported and to become a person who they would have been proud to call their son.

In many ways, Neville seems to be determined to be someone of whom his parents would have been proud. He wants to live up to their legacy. He isn’t content to reside in their shadow. A large part of this is a desire to make them proud, but I believe that it also comes from a desire to continue their legacy. Just because his parents’ minds were destroyed and Lily and James Potter died, that didn’t destroy the movement. There will be others who will rise to take their place.

Neville Longbottom shows us the importance of standing up for what we believe in and for always striving to be better. Perhaps our world needs more people like Neville.

Intellectual Stimulation

As you’ve probably heard, I recently finished my masters degree. People keep asking me how I’m doing now that I’m done. They ask if I’m resting or recovering. I’m not entirely sure what people envision my life post-grad school to look like, but I don’t think they’re expecting what it is.

I spent about a week reading books that I’d wanted to read for a while. This meant reading two murder mysteries that I bought earlier in the year but didn’t yet have time to read. But towards the end of the second book I got bored. (I did finish the book.) The book was good, but it wasn’t pushing me or challenging me. Over the course of my grad school career, I’d gotten used to being pushed and challenged. And these books just weren’t cutting it anymore. I needed something else. I needed a new challenge. I felt like this:

So I went to my bookshelf and picked up G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. My brain required stimulation, and Chesterton is graciously accommodating me. Thus far, good ol’ Gilbert Keith seems more than happy to challenge me. He’s making me work and think in a different way than my grad school work did, but he is making me work.

It’s funny, but I’m not sure that I want to rest in the way that people might suspect. I’ve always enjoyed working and learning. I do need a rest, but my mind cannot sit idle. It needs to be pushed. Fluff and chick lit make nice resting places, but my brain can’t live there. My brain needs to be stimulated and challenged.

I suspect that I trained my brain into this over the course of my academic career. I’m sure that I have some natural predilection towards this, but I (and others around me) have also encouraged those tendencies in myself. I want to be one of those people who are, to quote Dorothy Sayers, cursed with both hearts and brains. I want to be someone who is always craving intellectual stimulation and seeking what is next.

So…now I need to go finish reading my Chesterton.

Five Children’s Books that Shaped Me

(Screen cap from You’ve Got Mail, found on Tumblr)

I’m a teacher, and occasionally I like to share my favorite children’s books with my students. I was thinking about a few of my favorite picture books and what they mean to me, and I thought that I’d like to share these with my blog readers. Each of these books is a book that is very special to me and has become a part of who I am. (NB: I am planning a future post about chapter books. For the moment, I want to focus on picture books.)

  1. The Velveteen Rabbit: I liked this book as a child. As an adult, I love it. This story focuses on love and what it means to become Real. It is one of the most beautiful stories that I know of because it talks about the beauty that can come from hardships. It doesn’t sugarcoat life, and I appreciate that.
  2. Madeline: This book is filled with sentimental connections for me. One of my cats is actually named after this book. I love Madeline’s strong will and adventurous spirit. She is a little mischievous, but I think that’s a good thing. I find Madeline to be a good role model for little girls.
  3. A Chair for My Mother: As a child, I loved this book. I loved the character’s desire to get her mother a new chair. I loved the portrayal of love in this book. And I really, really wanted that chair; I thought it was soooo pretty when I was a kid.
  4. Stone Soup: This book focuses on finding and bringing out the good in others. I loved the story as a child because I thought it was fun. It’s also interesting to see how the characters change over the course of the story.
  5. The Mitten: I vividly remember reading this book over and over again as a child. Yes, it has a message about perhaps knowing your limits or something like that. However, mostly, I always find it be an amusing story.

These are just five of my favorite children’s books, and there are dozens more that I love. What children’s books do you love?

What I’ve Learned from Beatrice

I’ve liked Emma Thompson for a long time. It goes back to high school and first being introduced to Much Ado About Nothing and Sense and Sensibility. I’ve been irrationally angry about the demise of her marriage to Ken Branagh for far longer than they were married. (And I was like five when they divorced.) I’ve only recently started to let that go and forgive Professor Lockhart for leaving Professor Trelawney to be with Bellatrix Lestrange. The point being…I like Emma Thompson. She tends to portray (with the exception of Trelawney) women who inspire me. Think about it…Elinor Dashwood, Beatrice…Mrs. Potts. (I’ve always wanted to be a housekeeper who was turned into a teapot. I do like tea, as you may have heard. Becoming a teapot is merely the next step.)

In the spirit of my love of Emma Thompson and in light of March Ado About Nothing, I want to share with you the most important things that I’ve learned from my favorite of Thompson’s film roles…Beatrice. Beatrice is a strong-willed woman who doesn’t fear much of anything. She isn’t afraid to stand up for herself or her loved ones. I’ve been compared to Beatrice before, and I am genuinely unsure as to whether I’m a natural Beatrice or if I’ve tried (consciously or unconsciously) to become a Beatrice because I like her so much. So…what have I learned from Beatrice?

  1. Be yourself. Beatrice is not interested in conforming to societal norms to make other people happy. Perhaps she could have married younger if she had adapted herself to social norms, but that is not in her nature. She is independent, and she is not willing to change herself to make a man happy. She doesn’t mince words or try to hide behind pretense. She does not allow Don Pedro’s power to intimidate, and even when she is romantically interested in Benedick she doesn’t sit and swoon over him. She keeps being herself, and he appreciates that.
  2. Intelligence is attractive. Beatrice is smart and witty. She is a woman who speaks her mind. Not everyone loves it, but those who understand her appreciate her and value her. People may tease her about her personality, but ultimately, she has several people in her life who value her for who and what she is. For example, Don Pedro is clearly impressed by her wit and her ability to keep up with other intelligent people like Benedick. Their mutual friends seek to pair them up partially as a joke or entertainment but also because they see the ways in which their wits are well suited.
  3. Treat your friends well. Beatrice is a wonderful friend. She treats her friends with respect and puts their own interests ahead of their own. Look no further than her relationship with Hero. Hero is both Beatrice’s cousin and best friend, and Beatrice treats Hero better than she treats herself. When Hero is hurt, Beatrice is willing to do whatever she can to help her. She even goes so far as to endanger her fledgling romance with Benedick to defend Hero’s honor. This works out well for her, but that is due in part to Benedick’s respect for Beatrice as well as his understanding of her relationship with Hero.
  4. Don’t be afraid to laugh. Life is not forever serious, and Beatrice knows that well. We need to laugh and enjoy life. Beatrice does that. As Leonato says, “she hath often dreamed of unhappiness and waked herself with laughing.” (Act II, Scene 1) She does not take life more seriously than it requires. She is serious when the situation calls for it, but she prefers to laugh. “I was born to speak all mirth and no matter.” (Act I, Scene 1) Similarly, Don Pedro speculates that she must have been born in a merry hour because of her disposition.
  5. Be realistic about the world around you. Beatrice knows who she is and her limits within her world. She knows that she would not do well married to the Prince because he is “too costly” for daily wear. He will make a good husband for someone, but she knows that they would not be well suited. She is not meant to be the wife of a prince. She is also aware that a woman is not allowed to defend the honor of another woman, and so she seeks out help from someone who is allowed to take that action. She knows her own limits, and she works within them to the best of her ability. 

Overall, I love Beatrice. I admire her strength and sense of humor as well as her awareness of how far she can push the boundaries of her world. I like being compared to her, and I think she makes a good role model for strong women.

“There was a star danced, and under that was I born. ”

-Act II, Scene 1

If They Had Only TALKED to Each Other…

There’s a point in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing where I get frustrated with the characters and think/say, “This never would have happened if they had only TALKED to each other.” Now, most of the action of the play wouldn’t have happened either, but that’s kind of my point. The entire premise of the play is built on people acting without talking to each other. Shakespeare is trying to make a point to us, the readers and viewers, about communication. What is that point? So much of life’s chaos could be avoided if people only talked to one another.

Crazy idea, right? Who would ever do that?

Clearly the characters in our play didn’t. There are several moments in the play where a character ought to have sought out another character and discussed something with the other and didn’t. Plot and action occur because of this lack of communication, so it’s not the worst thing ever. Plot and action are what we want in our entertainments. But these are not things we want in our real lives. If I found myself in Beatrice’s and Benedick’s shoes, I might not be so happy that my friends were manipulating me (into realizing that I am in love with a person to whom I am extremely well suited).

If Beatrice and Benedick had talked to one another after the staged overhearings in Act II, Scene iii, they might have found out that their friends were lying to them. Now, those lies were well-intended (and they further the plot) but the fact remains that they were lies. In many ways, this lack of communication actually led to a better outcome for the involved parties. (Actually, people, feel free to trick me like that if you find a person to whom I’m extremely well suited but I struggle to treat with kindness and respect.)

But other communication failures in the play are more dangerous. The biggest example of this is Don John’s manipulation of his brother and Claudio. Instead of talking to Hero about these actions that they’ve seen that do not line up with any of their previous knowledge or experiences of her, the pair just off and publicly denounce her. They refuse to trust her previous reputation. They refuse to talk to her.

And in doing so, they hurt Hero and those she loves. Claudio and Don Pedro damage (at least temporarily) Hero’s relationship with her father. They develop an unexpected foe in their former friend, Benedick. On the other hand, this rupture is caused by Benedick choosing to ally himself with Beatrice and Hero. Benedick is suspicious of what he hears from his friends at the failed wedding and chooses to communicate with a person he believes to be trustworthy in order to find the truth.

This is where communication comes into play. Leonato makes the (incomprehensible to me) choice to immediately believe the accusations hurled upon his daughter by Claudio and Don Pedro. (Sexism mayhap?) Before jumping to conclusions, Benedick and Friar Francis both stop and start asking questions.They talk to Hero, they figure out what is happening, and they formulate a plan to hopefully resolve the situation.

Then Beatrice and Benedick talk privately. This conversation is not an easy one for Benedick because the woman he likes wants someone to challenge his closest friends to a duel. But the two of them communicate. They talk about what Beatrice wants from Benedick AND why she wants him. “It is a man’s office but not yours,” she explains. (Act IV, Scene 1) Propriety does not allow women to fight duels, and Benedick is not closely related to Hero, which means that he does not need to defend her honor. Someone from her family ought to do the defending. Nevertheless, Beatrice explains her position, and Benedick comes to understand her to the point where he accepts her challenge.

Benedick is obviously partially motivated on this path by his feelings for Beatrice, but as the action continues we come to understand that he is also genuinely frustrated by his friends. As Act IV continues, they seem almost unaware of the impact of their actions on Hero’s family. They view their confrontation with Leonato and Antonio as something of a joke. Even after Benedick not only confronts them but threatens them, they still do not see the danger of their situation. It is only when they are confronted with Borachio’s confession that they realize what they have done, what they have misunderstood.

In the end, we have two weddings. But I have to suspect that one marriage will be happier than the other. Beatrice and Benedick seem to communicate well while Hero and Claudio seem to struggle in that regard. While we can hope that time and maturity will help them to grow in that area, it is not one of their strengths at the end of the play.