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In 2006 then Senator John Kerry made a comment that was insulting to our military. While addressing students at Pasadena City College, he stated, “You study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. And if you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.” (Hillary Clinton Joins Criticism) I was so upset by the underlying, negative assumptions Kerry’s statement made about those who serve in the military, that I quickly came home and removed my “Kerry 2004” bumper sticker from my car. Those who know me, know that this is no small gesture for a woman who still has her “OBAMA 2008” sticker proudly displayed on her station wagon.

Lately, however, it seems politicians have learned nothing from Kerry’s “botched joke.” Just last week, while trying to justify the cruel budget cuts suggested by the White House, politicians were throwing insulting assumptions all over the place. The budget director explained, “When you start looking at places that we reduce spending, one of the questions we asked was can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs? The answer was no. We can ask them to pay for defense, and we will, but we can’t ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.” (Single Mothers Shouldn’t Have to Pay) The National Endowment for the Arts was also included in that assumption.

I am here to take offense at that assumption. I was a single mother for the first five years of my son’s life. During that time, although cash was quite limited for us, we visited art museums, I enrolled my son in arts programs. Both of my children are artists. They’ve taken music lessons and sculpting. My son took VLACS Economics, so that he could take Advanced Art and still graduate high school on time. Both my son and daughter intend to go to film school. I am a poet and a writer. I’m writing this now and I wrote a poem this morning.

Art is an integral part of our lives and just because we were poor for a while didn’t mean that we forgot about the importance of art to the human experience.

Today, the National Endowment for the Arts is more important than ever. Six giant corporations are the gate keepers for publishing most of our music, films and literature. They also control what and who gets promoted. The current climate in the United States is not one where someone who is an artist can easily make a livable wage doing such. The NEA offers grants and programs that allow artists to flourish. They offer schools  the opportunity to pay artists to bring their experience into schools. They help to fund educational programs like Poetry Out Loud.

I don’t know of any mother, single or otherwise, who wants her children to grow up in a culture that doesn’t value art and artists. I am offended that any politician would suggest such a thing. I vote for my tax dollars to go to artists and to PBS and to Meals on Wheels, before a single dime of it builds a bomb. No matter what those who currently hold power may tell me to be scared of, I am much more afraid of living in a world that doesn’t value art and artists than I am of the terrorists they constantly tell me to fear.

And, while we’re on the topic of insulting and down right ignorant assumptions, what parent, single mom or coal-miner,  hasn’t relied on Big Bird? As my students often say, “When you assume, it makes an ass out of you and me.” Maybe we should have an artist design a bumper sticker with that phrase on it.

 

 

There is an art to choosing
the day when students
recite the words of great

writers, knowing Fate
will say, “No.” Or is it winter?
Twenty-one below with wind;

no kindergarten and all else
must wait. And so, our contest.
Mittens, scarves, boots

will be late. No snowballs
will fly. Organizers
email judges, contestants,

Performers – all – to say
Poetry is once again delayed.

In 1991 my husband, Doug,was enrolled as a Plant Science and Conservation major at the University of Maine in Orono. He walked into the first day of his Soils and Vegetation class that fall a little early. A few other male students had also arrived. When the professor, an older male, walked in he looked around the classroom noting that none of the female students on his roster had arrived yet and declared, “Oh good! No sluts here yet.”

Doug didn’t speak up at first, but sat in horror as each young woman entered the room, notebook and pen in hand, and ready to learn. When the class ended, he immediately went to the Dean of Life Science and Agriculture to report the incident. The Dean informed him that since the professor was close to retirement, they would take no action against him.  I would like to think that today, twenty-five years later, we have made enough progress that the school would do something when a young man steps forward as an ally to the young women with whom he is sharing an education, but I’m not so sure.

This fall my daughter, my niece, and many of my female students will start college in the United States where each of them will statistically have a  1 in 4 chance of being the victim of sexual assault while a student there.

When Donald Trump refers to his recently leaked remarks about women as “just words” or  simple locker-room talk and when others defend him and claim that all men talk like that, they are doing damage to more than the orange tyrant’s campaign. Words spoken from the podium have power not only over how young women view themselves, but  over how young men view them as well.

The other day in my high school English class, Hillary’s Mirrors ad started before a Youtube clip that I was about to show to my students. As the commercial played a few boys in the class said things like, “Yah, Trump’s the man.” As I tried to pause the commercial, I failed to address the incident in a meaningful, teachable moment sort of way; these days, the political realm is so contentious, teachers are afraid to discuss the election. I now realize, however, that not only did I let down every young woman in that room, I also let down those young Trump supporters as well.

When I return to school this week, I will address not only what happened in class, but the ways in which words like those spoken by Trump are harmful to our world and have long reaching effects on the ways that women and men view themselves and each other. They must understand that actions such as domestic violence and rape can result from such contempt. The Representation Project

We need to teach young men to not only respect women, but to stand up for them when they can. Each time a man nods and smiles or laughs at disparaging comments about women without speaking out against them, he’s condoning them.

Where I teach, our feminist club is advised by a cis-gender, straight, male teacher. What a wonderful modeling of allyship for the girls and boys we educate. As much as some are claiming it, it is false that all men talk like that. Some do. Others listen to it. And some speak out against it and work with us to make things better for the women of this world.

At the beginning of the last school year, many of my English department colleagues and I decided to try free-choice reading in our high school classrooms. The practice, which has been used at the elementary and middle school levels for years, has gained popularity in the upper grades in its proven capacity to raise students’ reading ability by increasing the amount they are reading. Among the many questions we had about accountability and evaluating student progress, one question rose to the top: what if a student wants to read EL James’ 50 Shades of Grey?

Before I write on I need to make two things clear: I’m neither a prude nor a fan of censorship when it comes to reading material. When I was a teen reader, books like Judy Blume’s Forever or VC Andrew’s Flowers in the Attic were gateway books that led on to more high-brow naughty books like Peyton Place or Lady Chatterly’s Lover. These led me to discover more classics and to eventually start trying my own hand at novel writing.

One day the librarian in our small town New Hampshire library chastised me for what she deemed my inappropriate choice of a Judith Krantz novel. She shouted, “I don’t think your grandfather [who was an Episcopal priest in town] would approve of you reading this.” I knew that she was wrong. Everyone in my house was a fan of reading – everything.

However, our concerns over our high school students reading this particular naughty book caused me to think about the situation, not because I wanted to censor what my students chose – free choice reading is free choice reading – but because of the mainstream popularity these books were gathering. The trilogy of books have been best sellers for a while. Casting for the mainstream movie is taking place as I type this, with Gilmore Girl’s Alexis Bledel rumored to be one of the picks for the staring female role. At the mall you can buy 50 Shades merchandise – t-shirts with quotes from the novel and bracelets with handcuff charms. I didn’t see this merchandise in Victoria’s Secret or Frederick’s of Hollywood, though. These products were being marketed to teenagers in Icing, a store like Claire’s but for slightly older girls. And there is the problem.

The reigning story is that EL James started writing her books as Twilight fan fiction. Now, I don’t want to get too side-tracked with the quality of Stephanie Meyer’s writing, but I find the ultimate message that her books send to girls disturbing. Twilight is the story of a young woman who is manipulated by and falls in love with a man who’s nearly 100 years her senior. Throughout the course of their relationship, he is angry at her and emotionally abuses her. Eventually, she is willing to give up all of herself, including life, to be with this man. Not a good message for our young women to be receiving. Enter 50 Shades of Grey to up ante on abuse and make it seem like a normal part of a romantic relationship.

It’s one thing if girls are sneaking to read this book in the privacy of their own homes and feeling a little bit guilty about it. After all, isn’t that part of the fun of a dirty book? But people are reading this book openly at tables in restaurants. When I visited Star Island last summer, their tiny library contained the complete 50 Shades trilogy. Newsweek, while still in its print form, sported a blindfolded woman on its cover. What’s happening here is that through the relentless marketing of these books and merchandise, S & M is becoming normalized. And doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

By the end of the school year, our teacher-fears about the droves of students who’d be lining up to read 50 Shades of Grey proved unfounded. I had only one junior level student who included it on her reading reflection, and she’d read the book on her Kindle, so no one would know.

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