Testament of Youth

The Book of the Week is “Testament of Youth” by Vera Brittain, published in 1934.  This is the depressing memoir of a young woman in England whose hardships were typical for her generation.

Ms. Brittain wrote, “…To me and my contemporaries, with our cheerful confidence in the benignity of fate, War was something remote, unimaginable, its monstrous destructions and distresses safely shut up… between the covers of history books.”  She was in her late teens at the outbreak of WWI.  She had just started college a couple of years after graduating high school, at one of the women’s schools of Oxford University.  Ms. Brittain would not have been afforded such opportunity had a scholarly friend of her family not convinced her sexist father that educating females was worthwhile. Nevertheless, the entrance exams were rigorous. A glutton for punishment, she decided to major in history– about which she knew little– rather than English literature, which she knew well.

Then, to do her part for the war effort, Ms. Brittain took a leave of absence from school to nurse wounded soldiers for the Red Cross. She spent a total of three years in England and France performing unpleasant tasks, witnessing gruesome injuries and dying men, and chafing at orders of the bitchy matrons who were her bosses.  Her younger brother had also just begun school, when he and three of his school chums were called up to fight in the war.  One of the three became her boyfriend; she was friends with the other two as well.  All parties exchanged numerous letters, detailing their activities, and expressing their fears, hopes and opinions about the war.  In the next two years, all four young men died.

Ms. Brittain remarked, “No doubt the post-war generation was wise in its assumption that patriotism had ‘nothing to it,’ and we pre-war lot were just poor boobs for letting ourselves be kidded into thinking that it had.  The smashing-up of one’s youth seemed rather a heavy price to pay for making the mistake, but fools always did come in for a worse punishment than knaves; we knew that now.”

The author described progress on women’s rights issues, as she considered herself a feminist.  In the early 1920’s, England granted the vote to women over thirty years of age, because there was a disproportionate number of women in the voting population after the war.  Oxford began granting degrees to women, rather than simply allowing them to take classes to further their education.  Postwar, Ms. Brittain was no longer considered rude when she uttered the words “pregnancy” and “prostitution” in public (as opposed to “a certain condition” and “a certain profession.”) She and her friends freely discussed sodomy, lesbianism and venereal disease.

After Ms. Brittain finished her degree, she did some lecturing, teaching and publishing, and went to work for the League of Nations.  She took her time deciding whether to marry a man who had pursued her.  She was thinking, if she had a child, she would hope to a have a daughter, because a son might go to war and die.

Colors of the Mountain

The Book of the Week is “Colors of the Mountain” by Da Chen.  This is the autobiography of someone growing up in China during the middle and later years of the Cultural Revolution under Communist dictator Mao Tse Tung.  Since Da, born in 1962, was the youngest of several brothers and sisters at a time when Mao was reversing China’s education policy toward one of competitive college-entrance exams, Da became his family’s only hope for a better life.

The siblings unfortunately, were doomed to a life of backbreaking toil on the farm, under Mao’s reign.  Da, on the other hand, was provided with the opportunity to take three days of the extremely extensive “regurgitation” exams.  He rose to the occasion, studying with his friend for hours and hours every day for months on end.

His friend, who smoked big, fat cigars, was a nonchalant sort under much less pressure. He could afford to goof off. For, the friend’s family owned a lucrative tobacco farm, and failing his exam would mean merely entering the family business, which was not such a bad consequence.  That is what happened to the friend.

Da’s hard work paid off.  He achieved the highest test scores in his region, an exceptional triumph, since he was from a rural area where students received test preparation inferior to that in urban areas.  He had heard that learning English was very important if one wanted to study abroad.  However, it was rumored to be very difficult for Chinese people to learn to pronounce English with an accent that was comprehensible to people in English-speaking countries.  But learning English was important for increasing one’s options for a better life. Da was treated to a tuition-free university education and learned English.  Read the book to learn how he fared thereafter.

Why Can’t U Teach Me 2 Read?

The Book of the Week is “Why Can’t U Teach Me 2 Read?” by Beth Fertig, published in 2009.  In this book, the author followed the lives of three learning-disabled adult students for approximately two years in New York City, in their belated attempts to learn to read.

For various reasons, all stayed illiterate through grade school and continued living with their parents thereafter.  This blogger opines that mentioning their ethnic group would bias readers, so it will not be mentioned.  However, suffice to say, their home environments were rife with television rather than books, and their parents came from large, low-income families.

Ms. Fertig pointed out that most literate people take reading for granted; “Yamilka,” “Alejandro” and “Antonio” had trouble with the simple verbal activities of daily living, such as reading a subway map or directional signs, purchasing items in a store and reading labels on medicine bottles.  This greatly hindered their ability to work at a job, and certainly, to drive.

Post-high-school age, they discovered they could enlist the help of the non-profit organization, Advocates for Children to sue the school system so that they could be awarded free tutoring by private companies (which would normally cost $80 to $100 per hour) to teach them to read.  The three students won their cases; meaning, for instance, they could get 1,500 hours of tutoring within a two-year period, compliments of New York taxpayers.

Yamilka was a 23-year old female who required speech and language therapy.  She had poor short-term memory and trouble with neural processing the sounds of spoken words.

Antonio’s social skills were inferior to his classmates’ and he was easily distracted. Nevertheless, he attempted to return to the high school he had quit, after legal negotiations with the principal.  His classes included the lowest level math, photography, history and reading classes for the learning disabled for his age.

Antonio told the author, “Seeing other kids being successful in class makes me jealous.” This may have been why he had a poor attendance record. The principal expressed his disgust with Antonio when he told the author that a disproportionate amount of time had been wasted on Antonio, as it could have been spent on another, more responsible, harder worker of the school’s 350 special education students.  Antonio “… didn’t know how to reconcile his conflicting desires for a paycheck and more education.”  He delayed collecting the documentation required for acquiring a state ID so he could get a job.

Alejandro did his tutoring. However, his reading and math skills were below the level required to pass the GED, so he also attended no-charge pre-GED classes at a community college in the Bronx.

Read the book to learn what happened to Yamilka, Antonio and Alejandro by the time the book went to press.

Stand for the Best

The Book of the Week is “Stand for the Best” by Thomas M. Bloch, published in 2008.  Thomas M. Bloch is the son of the founder of H&R Block (“Block” in the tax-advisor chain is spelled with a “k” so people do not mispronounce the name). Bloch made a career change in mid-life, becoming a teacher.

Bloch taught at a Catholic school, then co-founded a charter school in a low-income area of Kansas City, with a super-rich friend of his. He approves of private money donations to schools, but admits he is an idealist when it comes to closing the racial achievement gap. The school founders experienced a long, frustrating learning curve, although they thought they knew what they were getting into.

They started with middle-school students, but learned that starting with the early grades and adding older students later, would have been a better approach.  For, students’ problems multiply as time goes on.  In an urban area, in addition to a high dropout rate, gangs, drugs, and disruptive behavior, there may be multiple ethnic groups who must get acculturated.

Bloch relates the quote, “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; and the end of the world is evidently approaching.”  This is not just the lament of a modern teacher, but of an Assyrian sufficiently educated to write on a clay tablet, living in 2800 B.C., proving once again, that there is nothing new under the sun.

A Smile as Big as the Moon

The Book of the Week is “A Smile as Big as the Moon” by Mike Kersjes, published in 2003.  This book tells the story of a Midwestern special education class that got to go to “space camp” at NASA’s facility in Alabama. Each week, the camp engaged students from several schools nationwide in a competition in which the students played the role of astronauts.

The students in the special education class had various problems such as Tourette’s syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, learning disabilities, etc.  However, their teacher wanted to prove to them and the world that they could function just as well as students in regular classes.  They practiced long and hard for weeks prior to the competition.  The teacher was also coach of the high school’s football team.  He was instrumental in instilling confidence in and encouraging teamwork among the kids.  Read the book to find out what happened.

The Merry Baker of Riga

The Book of the Week is “The Merry Baker of Riga” by Boris Zemtzov, published in 2004.  This book described the difficulties of operating a bakery in Riga, Latvia in the 1990’s (just after the fall of Communism).

Latvia used to be a Soviet territory. The half-American author was a businessman and part-owner of said bakery.  Latvian culture was largely to blame for the poor profitability of the capitalist venture, which lasted only a few years.  Language and sanitation were among the myriad problems Zemtzov encountered.

Whenever an employee had a birthday or there was an excuse for a celebratory social gathering (which was often), the consumption of alcohol ensured that nothing got done the whole afternoon.  Alcohol consumption also played a part in a bad experience Zemtzov had with a contractor who was supposed to complete a renovation job in his home.

Nevertheless, Zemtzov described an aspect of Latvian culture that this American blogger found to be quite funny:  on one’s birthday, one is woken up at the crack of dawn by his or her loved ones, is wished a happy birthday, and has a birthday gift shoved in his or her face.

In sum, this was an entertaining tale.

Catfish and Mandala

The Book of the Week is “Catfish and Mandala” by Andrew X. Pham, published in 1999.

This book is the memoir of An, a Vietnamese native whose family fled to California from Vietnam in the spring of 1975, just before Saigon fell. He alternates chapters describing his family’s history, and his bike trip.

An was born in Vietnam, but has mixed Asian blood, so he looks different from everyone. When he returns to Vietnam in his twenties on his bike trip, having been Westernized, he is called the derogatory term, “Viet-kieu.” He flies to, and then cycles through most of the country, to revisit his childhood memories and motherland.

An writes, “… I grew up fighting blacks, whites, and Chicanos… And everybody beat up the Chinaman whether or not he was really an ethnic Chinese. These new Vietnamese kids were easy pickings, small, bookish, passive, and not fluent in English.” So each Asian group segregates itself by nationality in Chinatowns and Japantowns.

An is still grappling with his racial identity. However, writing this book has made it easier, by making others aware of his plight.