Is There a Fault in My Stars?

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I am listening to a book in my car as I travel to and from work. I have lost the time (and energy) for reading outside of my work day. Even my weekends are packed with work tasks and exhaustion. The books I yearn to read feel out of reach. Until now.

I am listening.

The book is a current YA hit, The Fault in Our Stars. Dennise told me that the writing is awful. I had just purchased the book. Disappointing to hear. But Marion liked it. Diana has read it twice. And the movie is coming out.

So I begin to listen.

At first, I am listening for the awful writing. I am reminded of my efforts to read aloud a sports book to Conner a few years back. The interruption of “I said” and “He said” is bothering me. I had just talked to Sami about conferring with students about making dialogue and dialogue tags move the story along. The plot can be forwarded and character sentiments revealed. I thought of James Frey and how he was able to make clear to his reader who was talking without the use of any quotation marks.

But I am getting drawn into the story nonetheless.

I am starting to care about the characters, imagine them, see them.

I think about the latest concerns in education – Common Core standards, close reading, nonfiction overtaking fiction at the center, parents grumbling and pushing (in the wrong direction) – and I think that it is all wrong.

What is happening to me is what matters. And what is happening to me is that I’m making a “text to self” connection. This has of late been scoffed at by many close-reading enthusiasts. Staying within the four corners of the text is what is important. Using text evidence to support your claim. Connecting what you are reading to your own life is superfluous.

Some smart people live within the world of close reading. Kate Roberts and Chris Lehman are two. When I hear them speak or read their book or blog posts, my heart is full. They know that close reading is about living a better life. They talk about the five corners of the text – including the reader’s experience within. I am gratified that they understand and are writing for the world about it.

But so many do not understand.

They are missing the power of fiction and even narrative non-fiction (what I tend to write). I know much of what people read in their lives is informational text. Kids need to know how to navigate it. I get it. But I think back to David talking about doctors needing to read Shakespeare. To really be a force in the world, to really understand other people, you need to read beyond information texts. You need to understand what motivates people; you need models of behavior to emulate or abandon. Behavior to strive for or fight against.

Story matters. You need to lose yourself in it.

That is what is happening to me as I “read” The Fault in Our Stars. (Love the Shakespeare reference for David.)

My heart is breaking.

All of the recent school struggles – the fall resulting in my broken elbow after the 2 AM Board of Education meeting with crying parents fighting against the non-renewal of teachers, the resurgence of questions about the curriculum (my job is director of same “C” word), the teachers who I’ve nurtured and loved feeling apart from me (because I am one of “them” and maybe for other undisclosed-to-me but behind-my-back reasons), the quick-trigger responses to satisfy stake-holders – all of it and more has led me to investigate retirement. I am yet too young and too in debt.

Those struggles were occupying every corner of my mind and heart. Coming to work each day found me lugging a fifty pound weight of sadness and disappointment with me. No joy. No room for my sorrows either.

Now I “read” a novel in my car on my way to work.

Now I make text-to-self connections, even though I shouldn’t.

And all I can think about is him. I haven’t written about him for months. I don’t talk about him much, unless someone affords me an obvious opening.   People are uncomfortable with it. So I have closed it off. Closed him off.

Until this book. Listening to a death book – a death book about children dying – has opened the flood gates. How can I even be walking around each day? It hasn’t yet been two years since his death. I have continued working and living as if my insides hadn’t been kicked out and left with sawdust in their place. I act as if I have feelings when instead I really wonder if there is a fault in my stars that has turned my life into this disaster.

Hazel’s mother said she wouldn’t be a mother anymore if Hazel died. Hazel was her only child. I have other beautiful wonderful children. And my darling grandson. But sometimes – and I know this would hurt them to hear – I feel as though I’m not a mother anymore because I lost him. It isn’t as though I don’t love them, worry about them, get angry on their behalf, have my stomach fall to my toes when they are in danger (even just perched on top of a plastic slide). It isn’t that. It is just that I miss him.

There was something so needy about him – from the very beginning – that installed this instinct in me. It still ignites for all of them. But sometimes when it does, I don’t feel empowered and sure that I can save them, protect them, be their everything.   Sometimes when it kicks in, it makes me feel so useless. Is it that I couldn’t save him so why should they believe in me to be there for them? Just as the naysayers at school have undermined my confidence as an educator, losing him has undermined my confidence as a mother.

Oh, I know it’s crazy to feel that way. So I usually don’t even indulge the thought enough to let it take shape, certainly not enough to let it form words.

Sarah walks down the stairs as I sit here and write.

“Smell my shirt.”

I do.

“It smells just like him.”

How does she know I am writing about him, sniffling about him, curled in my pj’s for the second day in a row because of him?

They all know more than I think they do. They just act as if not because if they act as if, we will all crumble.

Hazel and Augustus are realistic and honest in facing their fate. I wish that I had had that perspective with him. I never believed he would leave me. Didn’t imagine a real good-bye. I read of parents’ responses to dying children and feel more like Peter Van Houten than Gus’s mom. My connection to this world is for other people. For me, I would just as soon disengage. I do – on weekends. Yesterday I slept for four hours midday.

I listen to the story as if I am turning the book’s pages or watching my soap opera that is recorded on the DVR. I slow it down and pause when I get to the good parts. I save it and savor it.

I wipe my eyes when I get to work, trying to act as if my heart hasn’t been ripped out.

I want to tell the parents and the teachers who fuss over the “c” word or their working conditions (in a wonderful small-town school) that they are missing the point, missing what matters.   They won’t understand, so I don’t. I try to drag myself into caring about the work that must get done, but each day it seems harder and harder.

The book seems to matter. The story of these children matters. It is making me feel again. Making me remember my wonderful boy, making me grieve for him and for my loss.

Too bad the feeling is gut-wrenching sadness and loneliness.

Too bad.

I have saved the end of the last disk for my ride tomorrow.

Maybe I’ll buy another book to listen to once I’m done. I can’t promise I will stay within the four corners of the text. That fifth corner makes all the difference to me.

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20 responses »

  1. I can relate with so much of what you are dealing with. The move away from fiction is devastating in this moment and for kids in the future. As a middle/high school teacher who added more Shakespeare every year, I can’t imagine teaching without HIM. You shared your own journey as a reader with us so powerfully as well.
    So glad I clicked on your link to begin my Slicer reading today :)
    Bonnie

  2. Such a gut-wrenching, honest post. I cannot imagine what you are going through, but I am glad that you found comfort in a book by making personal connections. We all need that.

  3. I just tried to leave a comment, but it vanished, so I’ll try again. I’m so sorry for your loss. It’s good you are reading TFIOS and glad you are able to put aside what you’ve heard and let yourself get swept away. Sometimes I hope that kids can do that too–forget what they’ve heard about reading (or school in general for that matter) and let themselves fall into it.

  4. Welcome back. :) Another beautifully written post. So glad you wrote about your experience with that book. I haven’t read it yet, but I plan to this summer. Of course, it really hit home for you. That’s okay. You’re right, that’s what books are supposed to do. :)

  5. Literature really does lead us through life’s experiences – it can open pathways that are otherwise closed off, or hard to navigate. And, luckily, there are so many thoughtful, beautifully written books out there!

  6. I am in the midst of reading it. I completely agree. Works of literature, particularly fiction, is meant to have us explore the inner workings- both of our own minds and existence and how we connect with and relate with others. I don’t understand the disconnect where naysayers claim close reading negates connections to text. It’s all about the connections in my opinion; close reading brings us to those depths… identifying metaphorical references, symbolism, and themes… but it is in our own experiences and connections that we can decipher such. Thank you for your heartfelt insight. I missed your beautiful writing.

  7. Real books and real life. Your soulful post moved me on many levels and I loved reading The Fault in our Stars.
    So saddened to hear the school culture is soured. In my little Intervention corner, if it wasn’t for the kids I wouldn’t want to show up. Teachers can be so awful to each other at times. Disheartening.
    I wonder what your next read will be? I just finished The Goldfinch.

    Thank you for the heart to heart writing.

    • I am broken by the hard things happening at school because I have given my life to this work. But I must find a way to go on.
      My daughter is reading The Goldfinch now. That might have to be next on my list.

  8. Welcome back – it has been awhile! This post is so full of emotions – the same but yet so different. Hope is what we need to cling to. I am clinging to that this week too. I hope you continue to write and share your words. They do matter!

  9. I’ve been thinking and wondering about you. Your post is full of powerful emotions stirred by reading, thinking and reflecting. Somehow reading may be what you (and all of us) need to escape, unpack, and handle the good, bad and ugly parts of life. I need to put this on my list of to be reads.

  10. It’s a powerful book, and I’m glad that it’s providing a place for you to continue to grieve. And no, there is no fault in your stars, just more sadness and loneliness than any mother should have to endure.

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