Clear Eyes, Full Hearts

ALL THE 14-YEAR-OLD BOYS kill their grandmothers.

I stole the line— “It was the day my grandmother exploded”—from Iain Banks’ novel The Crow Road.

I write it on the whiteboard on the first day of school, and ask my ninth graders to compose a short story starting with that prompt. The girls go for metaphor—their Nanas and Mee-Maws explode in frustration or laughter.

The boys go literal and explode their grandmothers into bone-chunks and guts. Usually I laugh. Not this year. I’m pregnant with a baby boy, and I’d prefer he never explode anything, especially the women who love him.

During the five years I’ve taught this lesson, meant to celebrate the punch of a great opening line, the Tsarnaev brothers blew up the Boston Marathon finish line, George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, Adam Lanza devastated Newtown, Conn., by firing bullets into each of 20 small children and six adults, and Elliot Rodger carried out a misogyny-fueled killing spree in Isla Vista, Calif. I live in Texas, where gun-lovers and worried moms persist in a steady standoff about open carry laws.

My students remain unaffected by these horrors—they’re privileged children at a college prep school, the boys more concerned with GPAs and J.J. Watt’s football stats than the way some males—especially white males—in our country use violence or sullen indifference to respond to their perceived disenfranchisement. They idolize Walter White and George R.R. Martin; most identify as Christians but cannot tell me who Job is or recite the beatitudes.

I worry about my unborn son. How do I raise a good white male? I ask all the good men I know, and they give me the same answer: “He’ll need a mentor.”

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Are Books a Thing of the Past?

Kindle 3photo © 2010 Zhao ! | more info (via: Wylio)Sales of printed books are down 9 percent this year, supplanted in part by digital versions on Kindles, Nooks, and even iPhone apps. But the real threat to long-form, hard-copy reading -- that is, paper books -- is inside our heads, according to Johann Hari, a columnist for the Independent in London.

"The mental space [books] occupied is being eroded by the thousand Weapons of Mass Distraction that surround us all," Hari told me last week. "It's hard to admit, but we all sense it: it is becoming almost physically harder to read books."

[Okay, I admit I didn't actually talk with Hari. The quote is from his newspaper column. But pop over to Twitter, and you can see how, in effect, he gave me permission to paraquote him at #interviewbyhari.]

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah, long-form reading. Hari quotes David Ulin, author of The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, who wrote that he "became aware, in an apartment full of books, that I could no longer find within myself the quiet necessary to read." Ulin wrote that he would sit down with a book, and find his mind wandering, enticing him to check his email, or Twitter, or Facebook. "What I'm struggling with," he writes, "is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there's something out there that merits my attention."