by Pat Holt
Tuesday, June 4, 2002
'OUR LAST BEST SHOT' - LAURA SESSIONS STEPP: PART I
Here we are at a middle school in California where Laura Sessions Stepp is about to engage a hundred 8th and 9th-graders in conversation - far away from teachers and parents.
En route, the kids are boisterous, chatty and *tall* even at ages 13-15. They joke and jostle each other as Laura, like a diminutive coach on the way to the basketball playoffs, attempts to see past her towering players.
Once everybody's seated on elevated seats that allow them to look down at her slight presence, Stepp begins a formal, almost stern-faced opening. "I know how much you all hate to get out of class, so I'm sorry that I had to cut into your academic time." The kids snort and clap in response.
Stepp introduces herself as a reporter for the Washington Post, but she doesn't mention that she's a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer or that her book on early adolescence, "Our Last Best Shot," has been hugely acclaimed since its hardcover publication, taking her all over the country on speaking engagements like this one (the book is now in paperback from Riverhead; 284 pages; $14).
Instead, she explains that tomorrow she's giving a lecture to the students' parents, and wants to know "some of your concerns" as a way of updating her speech.
The First Question: About the word 'Teenagers'
For example, can they answer this question: "A couple of years ago, before you hit your teens, what words came to mind when you heard the word 'teenager'?"
The kids don't hesitate. "Cool!" someone calls from the upper right bleachers. "Independent!" another yells. "Okay, good," says Stepp, writing the words down. "What other words can you think of?
"Yes, you get more privileges when you're in your teens," Stepp says, writing furiously.
"Okay," Stepp says, looking at the list. "These are all very good answers."
Then she says: "Let me ask you another question: What do you think your parents thought a few years ago when they heard the word 'teenager?'"
A silence follows, some nervous laughter, then an explosion of words. "Trouble!" "Rowdy!" "Moody!" "Pain!" "Alien!" "Terror!" "Dangerous!" Someone yells out, "Dear God, we have to drive them!" and everybody including Laura bursts out laughing again.
And more: "Insolent," "rude," "irresponsible," "selfish." From the back again: "Dear God, they get to drive US." More laughter. "Bratty," "lazy," "spaced out," "inconsiderate - "
The Second Question: Parents
Laura holds up her hand. "Do you think your parents have *any* good things to say about teenagers?" A resounding and oddly cheerful "No!" fills the hall.
"Why do you think that's true? Your parents love you, I'm sure of that. They probably will tell me, 'My teenager's fine; it's all the other kids who are rotten. But why do you think they have a negative impression?"
Someone calls out, "Because teenagers want to do stuff that parents don't agree with."
"Teenagers are more intelligent now; they fight back and argue."
"Teenagers want to be more independent than their parents want them to be."
A number of students say their parents often tell them, "I don't want you to make the same mistakes I did."
"That's a common argument," says Laura. "Once you generate your own ideas about things, it's hard for a parent who's raised you from a little kid to give you that independence. When parents say they don't want you to make the same mistakes they did," what do you think that means?
It takes a while, but most agree that parents often don't realize that "kids have to make mistakes in order to learn."
A Third Question: Media Biases
Then Laura asks, "What about the media? Do you think newspapers and TV affect the images that people carry around about teens?"
The kids clamor to respond. "Parents really freak out," someone says, "when they read about car crashes or school-yard shootings." Others add to the list: Parents get extremely worried when they see stories about teen drug overdoses, preteen sex, poor statewide test scores, teen suicides, back alley abortions, joyriding/car thefts, pot smoking, shoplifting and on and on.
Stepp adds: "I started my book when that whole series of school-yard shootings occurred. You all remember Columbine, right? Time magazine came out with a big cover story with a picture of the two boys who shot up the school. The headline read, 'Kid Killers.' Surveys have shown that kind of headline sticks in the reader's mind."
The audience rises almost as one to say that it's not "Kid Killers" who represent teenagers or even problem teenagers. It's the average, "normal" kids who go to school every day trying to figure out how to fit in and be independent at the same time.
This is Laura's point: She's spoken all over the country to young adolescents from every walk of life, every socio-economic level and racial mix. From school to school, these kids' environment can be as different as night and day.
"But the patterns that emerge are always the same," she tells me later. "The first obvious difference is that adolescents anticipate their teenage years with excitement, hope and positivism; their parents view the teenage years negatively, focusing on the problems ahead, and who can blame them?"
But patterns surface in terms of what teenagers need as well. "Their needs - for respect from adults; for a genuine relationship with parents; for new responsibilities as they grow older (and I don't mean just cleaning your room) - are universal," Stepp says. "And the questions they carry with them into their teens - am I loved and loving; am I 'normal,' am I competent - do not vary."
Perhaps that's why the kids have been so quick to respond to Laura only a few minutes into the assembly. They don't know her and aren't sure what she's going to say to their parents the next day. But their obvious comfort in answering her questions may be inspired by her mild-mannered, uncomplicated, even receding sort of personality, one that seems to elicit the kind of trust at this school that is evident throughout the pages of "Our Last Best Shot."
About the Book
She explains a little bit about the book - how she chose 12 adolescents ranging from 10 to 15 - the very age group that's commonly written off by parents and society as a time of raging hormones, dramatic mood swings, barely conscious behavior and rebellion - and pretty much lived with them for a year.
During that time, Stepp says she confirmed what new studies show: that it's not just the body that's growing by fantastic and erratic leaps and bounds; the brain is, too, growing just as fast and just as much in fits and starts.
This means, Stepp adds, that there are two periods in life in which receptivity to learning is at its highest - ages 1-3 and 10-15. It's important to know, too - though she'll tell the parents and not the kids this fact - that even when they're most pulling away in the most exasperating ways, young adolescents desperately need (and secretly want) parents to be an integral part of their lives.
This she proves in the book, where the emotionally moving, eye-opening stories of Stepp's 12 subjects take us from "sports-crazed" Ulysses, Kansas, a town so small that the nearest shopping mall is hours away (groans are heard from the audience), to a low-income suburb in Durham, North Carolina, where 14-year-old Chip discovers that the only popularity he can get is through drug dealing.
We go, too, to South-Central Los Angeles, where 12-year-old, Eric is the only member of his family (the parents have separated) who can change the bandages on his father's skin-graft surgery before rushing off to sell his mother's art and incense on the Venice boardwalk, all by himself, turning over to her as much as $300 a day.
And there is Alana, who can't look Stepp in the eye when they first meet but becomes a dynamic and confident sixth-grader as the difficult months pass; "little Rodney," so small and stuttering upon first meeting "he flitted like a mosquito on the periphery of [adult] conversation." Yet how we applaud Rodney's ferocity as he battles his family's low expectations.
The Trusted Outside Adult
Both witness and confidante, Stepp becomes that "trusted outside adult" who can often make a difference in the lives of (in this case) white kids, African American kids and Latino kids. She is that someone who's there to observe and listen, someone who won't judge them as they fear their parents might when they "mess up."
And she is the reader's eyes and ears, too. Having researched the latest studies on adolescence - and having raised her own teenager (Jeff, now 17) with her professor husband - Stepp helps us learn through her subjects' eyes how different and more complicated life has become for this generation of adolescents than it was for her own.
She shows us how important it is for parents to stick with their often bewildered and frankly exasperating children at this crucial age; the real effect of "peer pressure" on kids today (much less than is currently believed; the continuing problems with school integration (you can't just put kids of different racial backgrounds together and expect them to change) and the huge gulf between gifted and mediocre teachers:
"The most capable, successful teachers I observed taught me this," she writes. "To teach students just beginning to delve into core subjects, it's not enough to love or understand kids. You also have to know and love your subject and keep up with the knowledge base that supports it.
"Partly that's because the world is changing and so is what kids need to know. And partly it's because knowledge and love of knowledge are essential to inspiration. To reach kids these days,with all the distractions that pull on them, you have to inspire them. Teachers trained in specific disciplines tend to do that."
She then takes us into the substitute-teacher quagmire of modern schools: "Students' need for sophisticated, well-trained teachers" is being sabotaged, she says, by "the abundance of substitute teachers used in middle schools." This section is named after the substitute who fills in at length for a beloved math teacher but who's remembered by students only as - "Mr. Bald-Headed Man."
The Value of 'Sideway' Conversations
The book becomes more riveting the longer Laura follows these kids, because we get hooked on each one of them the more we see them growing. She stays in their homes, eats pizza with them, goes to school, with them and follows them to athletic practice, part-time jobs, even parties and gossip sessions with friends.
She hears talk (and quotes it) about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll; she listens to concerns about suicide; she learns there is a myth about the loss of family dinner-table conversations so heralded in advice books for parents a generation ago. Today, she says, parents can have spirited and meaningful talks with their children in what she calls "sideway" conversations while setting the table, emptying the dishwasher, going to the grocery store. Often the worst thing you can do to a teenager is to have that "big talk" at the dinner table.
One more question for the 8th and 9th-graders: If the kids have any message they want Laura to tell their parents when she speaks to them tomorrow, what would it be?
"Don't be so critical." "Listen more." "Put the newspaper down when I'm talking." "Trust me." And from the back: "Tell them a B is not the same thing as an F."
This last one, Laura knows, is going to be a killer.
NEXT: WHAT SHE TELLS THE PARENTS.
DOROTHY BRYANT'S 'LITERARY LYNCHING': CHAPTER 6 - WILLIAM STYRON
Dorothy Bryant's latest installment in the serialization of "Literary Lynching", Chapter 6, is for me the most cantankerous, exasperating, frustrating and downright thought-inspiring chapter in the book.
The first question at the time about William Styron's novel, "The Confessions of Nat Turner, was (and is) this: James Baldwin may have encouraged Styron to give the slave-turned-insurrectionist Nat Turner a first-person point of view through a "literary" inner voice; but isn't it possible, as well, that Styron's very whiteness could have interfered with a more authentic representation of the black experience?
Shouldn't critical readers lend some credence to black writers who accused Styron, as Bryant writes, "of lies, racism,ignorance of history, a defense of slavery and a 'deliberate' literary crime against black people"?
Bryant suggests that these black writers' essays "have the tone and content, not of criticism of a book, but of an emotional release of stored-up, generalized anguish." She quotes one of the writers who contends that white authors had for years been "guilty of two fundamental faults, to which William Styron is no exception.
"First they are incapable of portraying black characters as human types, and second, they look upon the black man's condition of social degradation as being natural to his inferior character."
This is the kind of generalization that I think has an element of truth to it but that Dorothy - well, you'll have to see the tack she takes.
I certainly respect the evidence she marshals to show that in the five years Styron wrote the novel, the Black Power movement had erupted to such an extent that it opened the way for "long-suppressed rage" that turned on white writers like Styron. But I don't think Styron was the innocent novelist whose brilliant work appeared at the wrong time and thus took took the hit that nearly destroyed his career..
I told Dorothy I wasn't even sure if a white man like Styron could successfully write in a black man's voice. This appalled her. "I have been told," she said in an email, "by sexist men and by feminist women, that I should not have written my novel, 'The Kin of Ata...' from the point of view of a man. I have also been told by Italian-American literary scholars and others that in in most of my writing (except maybe 2 books), I do not write as an Italian-American but attempt to disguise my identity.
" 'Famous All Over Town' by Danny Santiago was awarded a Chicano literary prize until it was discovered that Danny Santiago was not a 25-year-old Chicano but a 70-yr-old WASP lefty social worker. Is 'Anna Karenina' a bad book because Tolstoy wrote from the point of view of a woman? You can choose your own examples.
"The only question anyone has a right to ask of an author is this: Is the book good; is it true; can the guy write? Styron was, like Arendt, a victim of the times."
Well, you have to check out the comment Dorothy quotes by Henry Louis Gates, the black scholar at Harvard University who recently discovered and published "The Bondwoman's Narrative,' which he believes is the first novel written by a fugitive slave. If anybody should have the final say on this subject, it's Gates - and take your time: His statement ain't what you think.
Holt responds: Egad, Tim is the web master/controller/fascist who designed this website as the luscious golden beauty that it is and who, thank heaven, caught the above mistake. My apologies to Mary Gay Shipley at TBIB.
Tim responds: "web master [sic!]/controller/fascist"? Hey, only my wife calls me that! I'll accept this epithet string in the spirit I'm (almost) sure it was intended.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You wrote about Mary Gay Shipley's That Bookstore in Blytheville:
"Here is the kind of independent bookstore that welcomes you with the feeling of delightful clutter you might encounter in a family living room - books in piles right at the front door with signs and dates of authors soon to come to the store; display dumps clogging the aisles, pleasant and irresistible, loaded with books you just have to pick up and look over."This sounds thoroughly unwelcoming to me -- try and get a wheelchair around displays "cluttering the aisles." I really don't want my bookstores to be like a family living room. I want them to be places where I can find books. However wonderful Ms. Shipley may be as a bookseller, this paragraph reminded me of many frustrating times trying to access retail products (of many kinds, not just books). Please booksellers! I know you want to have as much shelf space as possible, but think about how non-walking readers will be able to navigate the resulting mazes.
Holt replies: I was so entranced by the many display dumps and books piled up in the store that I didn't mention how easily obstructions are moved to the side, which the staff does for author appearances and for comfortable traffic flow. The store truly is a welcoming place for all.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Sharon Jarvis wrote:
"To my amazement, at least two of these four books [about how to sew your own book] used identical language, while the other two were merely similar. I was pretty irate. Did they all copy from each other or did they copy from the same source?I'm not being critical of those writers - they do the job well to meet the publishers' requirements - but they do not have time to check everything, and it is not unknown for their statements of fact to be wrong, sometimes because the product they are writing about changes in its final stages, or they just do not have time to really understand the field they are writing about.
The books by authors who do understand the subject tend to be the last ones to be published, sometimes years after the product is launched, or are published by small publishers, even self-published because the writers are experts only in the tiny field in which they specialize and are not known to the major publishers. Most publishers would be wary of just how expert they are, and even more wary if they criticize other books in the field.
In my case the Rowse review went on to say that my "Publication Production using PageMaker" "covers what the manual doesn't" - and "pulls no punches when it comes to the short-comings and failure points of the product...he guides the reader around the land mines."
I suppose I'm biased, but as a writer and small publisher, I'm still often surprised at how superficial the writing is in some technical books by major publishers. I'm not surprised that in such books much of the core information is untested, just repeated from other "experts." It isn't plagiarism, just information that goes around and around, with none of the many authors actually being called on to follow the instructions.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Jeff Bezos is right - buying used books *is* a great way for people like me (and millions just like me) to try authors and genres I may not have otherwise tried. Buying used books has let me discover plenty of authors that I now eagerly buy new in hardcover. It has also let me buy many more books than I would have otherwise been able to on my budget.
Is my ISP stripping your ongoing series of rants against Powell's for selling used books alongside the new? Did I miss your stinging condemnation of That Bookstore in Blytheville for its origins as a used-book store? I know you have it in for Amazon, Pat, but at least be consistent in your condemnation.
Holt responds: Goodness, there's no need for sarcasm - heaven knows I never use it. Apparently you have been blinded by my admiration for used book sales in brick-and-mortar stores and on Internet sites dedicated to used books. What bothers me is the interruption of hundreds of thousands of new book sales by those Amazon.com folk who know they make more of a profit comparatively by hosting used book sales and don't care that authors lose their royalties. (And yes, I think it's great that some booksellers *save* authors' royalties by selling new books as used rather than returning them to the publisher. But I worry, when it comes to Amazon.com or Bn.com, that this practice may at some point be conducted on such a huge scale that it could damage the fragile distribution structure through which new books are launched and sold.)
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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