Monday, May 30, 2011

On Losing Katniss...

Although I am fighting it for all I'm worth, I'm losing Katniss. The loss has been gradual, but inevitable, and I feel it more everyday. I'm trying to hold on to the Katniss I've known for over two years, the one whose battles I've tensed every muscle through, the one whose struggles I've had nightmares over. That Katniss is becoming more and more dreamy; I can still see her, but through a cloudy fog. More and more I'm losing the Katniss that I've imagined, and she's being replaced with...

Jennifer Lawrence.

As a reading teacher, I teach my students to visualize the descriptions in the books they read. My principal refers to it as "the movie in their heads" when they can actually see what they're reading. While reading the Hunger Games trilogy, I visualized Katniss, and she became a friend during those books, one I felt I actually knew, one I missed once the books were completed.

But now The Hunger Games movie is being filmed, here in my own state, so I'm inundated with pictures of Jennifer Lawrence, the beautiful and talented actress playing Katniss. My Katniss was not quite so beautiful...well, she was naturally pretty, I guess, but that's not how I thought of her. She was tough. She was dirty. And she didn't have pouty lips as perfectly shaped as the bow she carried.

Jennifer Lawrence is gorgeous. Jennifer Lawrence doesn't look as if she has it in her to wipe out all the other tributes (16-year-olds selected by lottery to fight to the death - on reality tv - while representing their districts.) But my son the actor says she's a brilliant actress so maybe she'll be able to pull it off. I still miss my Katniss.

I worry about our students' imaginations dying out, becoming extinct from lack of use (like we've been warned about our pinky toes.) Let's take the Twilight series, for example. I haven't talked to one middle school child who can describe the character Edward from details in the book. But they can describe Robert Pattinson the actor to a "t." And Taylor Lautner, too. These guys are plastered all over middle school lockers and notebooks. Their faces (and bodies) are ingrained in the brains of adolescent girls. Who needs an imagination?

And is there one person in the world who doesn't see Daniel Radcliffe when they hear the words "Harry Potter"? But here's J.K. Rowling's description: "Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose." He's also described as being extremely thin and small, wearing baggy clothes that are Dudley's hand-me-downs. Well, I for one, don't remember seeing taped glasses in any of the Harry Potter movies, and Daniel Radcliffe looks pretty normal-sized to me.

As teachers we must make an explicit effort to design lessons that foster the use of imagination. We have to model the transformation from author's description to reader's visualization: "How is Katniss described by the author? What does she look like to you?" If we're lucky every student's rendition is a little different, every imagination taking the author's words to varied shades of different directions.

Also, with a bit of luck, we can get ahead of the movies, ahead of the video games, ahead of the music videos that interpret the songs for our students so they don't even have to bother. Hopefully, we can teach them first to think and imagine for themselves.

My son the actor has met Josh Hutcherson, who'll play Peeta, the male tribute from District 12, and one of my favorite characters in The Hunger Games. Josh was a teenager when they talked at the Teen Choice Awards in 2005. Years later, he and my son would share the same acting coach in New York City, and they would have lunch together.

Lunch with Peeta. I can't even wrap my head around that. But thanks to Gary Ross, director of the movie version of one of my favorite books, I may not have to think or imagine anything. I'll just sit back and watch...and fight like a tribute to not allow my Katniss and Peeta to be erased.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Don't Get Comfortable

'Tis the season: folks everywhere are donning fashionable gowns and moving the tassel from right to left. That moment - when the graduating class of 2011 is introduced - the future will lay ahead for the graduates, the veritable "rest of their lives" will be upon them.

My own nephew became a college graduate yesterday, and I was asked to represent the family by providing some remarks to a gathering on Fraternity Row. I was even given a prompt: "Tell the Sigma Nu brothers what they need to know for the future."

Oh, my. That was a tall order. I don't even know what I need to know for my future. How could I place myself back at 22 years old and find words of wisdom?

But that's exactly what I did: I thought about my own graduation from the very same university 32 years ago, and asked myself what I wish I had been told back then.

And after enjoying the huge feast prepared by Big Sam, the Sigma Nu cook, here's what I said:

Finding eloquent words for a group of brilliant young gentlemen like yourselves shouldn't be difficult. Others out there have shared words of inspiration, great words that we all know - Tim McGraw will tell you to "live like you're dying." Leann Womack hopes "you dance." Even John Mayer will tell you "there's no such thing as the real world" as he's running through the halls of his high school.

These are all great messages, but mine's a little different. I have three words for you: Don't Get Comfortable.

I'm not talking about your basic needs. Of course, we want you to eat well, be healthy, have shelter, and so on. I'm talking about your goals for your professional life...don't get too comfortable when it comes to your career.

I had a dream be a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader. It never happened. And as I look back, I realize the problem: I never went to Dallas.

Evidently, you actually have to go there. The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader Fairy did not come to North Carolina to recruit me. She did not show up on my porch and tap me with a wand, leaving me in tassels and boots.

I had played it safe and stayed home where I was comfortable.

Don't get comfortable. Be a risk-taker. Push yourself beyond what you think your boundaries are. Step out of the safe zone. Be innovative and creative. Don't let complacency rule your life.

I don't want you to look back in 32 years and wonder why you were, um, never a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader. Whatever your goal is, go for it! Move mountains to make your dreams happen. Do whatever it takes.

Just don't get comfortable.

I'm not sure if my words hit their mark with the young brothers of Sigma Nu, but one of the fathers in the audience said to me later, "Hey, uh, Dallas is still there. It's never too late."

Hmmm....something to think about.

My daughter, an NFL cheerleader for the Carolina Panthers, is on the far right, beside the Dallas Cowboy cheerleader, at the NFL Pro Bowl in January 2010.