We live in a time when bullying is at the front and center of attention. And it should be. Kids who do not follow social-norm rules are sometimes subject to ridicule, alienation, or even, yes, bullying. How do we protect those brave kids? And, perhaps more importantly, how do we teach all of the kids around them to question those social-norm rules in the first place?
Conversation is key. Questions are imperative. Scrutiny of what we take for granted is vital. But how do we do all of that? Books always have been a great tool for examination of self, other and society as a whole. And books that are explicitly designed to offer half of the conversation, and to ask the reader to engage in the dialogue are even better. Break These Rules edited by Luke Reynolds is a perfect example of such a book.
Teacher, writer and breaker of rules himself...in this guest post Luke explores the realities facing teens, and all of us, today:
The Problem with Rules
By Luke Reynolds
We hear so many of them - endless lists of what to do and what not to do. And they start when we're so terribly young and when we're seeking to know and learn everything we can about the world around us. Rules govern a lot in our lives, and this is sometimes incredibly helpful - I don't want to drive down the interstate and have people cross lanes without blinkers, or drive 100 miles per hour, or be guzzling a beer while they navigate.
So some rules rock.
But there are other rules - many of them silent or suggested; constructed of society, culture, or organizational structures like schools - that are crushing and disempowering, especially for young people. And more than anything young people (and not-so-young-people) want to be free of these unhelpful constraints.
As a teacher, I see so many young people who change before my very eyes from these beautiful beacons of light and joy into fearful, ashamed creatures when peers enter the picture. One-on-one, they can shed the pressures of some rules, but add the rule-oriented peer culture, and bam, they freeze up and remember that - Crap! I am too fat, too pimply, too loud, too quiet, too unbranded, too dark, too light, too short, too lanky, too interested in chess or poetry or robotics! The rules strike at their hearts and my students struggle to resist them.
Or take another set of rules - those coming from us teachers and parents and other well-meaning adults. We're all too influenced by society's mega messages, blasted through media for us, and we pass these messages on to the young people in our care, too: You won't be happy unless you go to college, make a lot of money, be very popular in high school, go to the senior prom, think the same, politically, as me, act the way a man/woman is supposed to act!
In the glorious YA literature out there, images and stories of young people who break these kinds of rules (and others) are everywhere. Books like Okay for Now, by Gary D. Schmidt, which reveals an antithesis to the macho-guy-syndrome, or Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, which explores gender and government in a rule-breaking way, are so important for young people (and, yup, for not-so-young people). Counter-stories, which offer different ways of being and thinking for young people, are crucial right now.
Break These Rules is one attempt at a way of accessing more counter-stories for young people, through the lens of non-fiction rather than fiction. In the book, 35 YA authors share their own counter-stories - their own experiences of breaking one of society's rules in order to be true to themselves and to stand up for what they believe in. Matthew Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook, talks about the need to push ourselves outside of comfort zones - learning to live in the unpredictable, and to resist a culture of fear so often thrust upon us. Neesha Meminger, author of Shine, Coconut Moon, boldly opens up about her own childhood and how she resisted being silenced because of her gender and ethnicity. Wendy Mass, author of A Mango-Shaped Space, shares her counter-story of resisting the 'rule' in society against daydreaming, and towards functionality and logic and efficiency. Mass beautifully and comically explores the need to let minds wander and wonder and roam! Yes! To be creative and to not always link that creativity to a dollar sign or the question: What's the eventual purpose of this suggested course of daydreaming?
We become so accustomed to following so many rules that counter-stories are a beautiful way to help us stop and really contemplate. And reading about and living through the counter-stories of others is essential for young people (and, YES! Not-so-young-people) in order for them to see that the pulse they bear should be a little different from the pulse of the kid in the next chair. That's good. And the point of it all is to work together to create a more just, more loving world - not by being exactly the same, but by being wildly and gloriously different as we work towards the same things: love, justice, cooperation, growth, courage.
The problem with rules is not that rules themselves are bad. The problem with rules is that we too often allow them to become easy stand-ins for true contemplation, action, and reflection. Counter-stories - both fiction and non-fiction - can share snippets of a different way of living with us all, and in the process, inspire us to make decisions that send us down an altogether different kind of life - a life more authentic, vibrant, and meaningful than we can even imagine.
Luke Reynolds grew up in a family of five boys who all - when they became grown men - went to watch the movie The Wedding Planner. Luke and his brothers all like long walks on the beach and endless conversation. (As does Luke's wife, which is cool, and his four-year old son too, as long as there are plenty of pretend voices involved.) Luke has written for teachers and teens.