Saturday, March 26, 2011

Breast Cancer Awareness?

This week, I got into it about the "breast cancer awareness" bracelets with a student (culminating in my saying a few things that were probably better left unsaid). When I see someone wearing them in class, I take them. I HATE these bracelets. When I went to go find the picture of them for this post, I found out that the ACLU is in the middle of a case about them, deciding whether or not they should be allowed in schools. What a great use of their time.

Here are the facts. Breast cancer is, undoubtedly, a prevalent and extremely emotional issue. People should, and do, have every right to support family members or other people close to them who have been affected by this disease, the repercussions of which are obviously very real and personal. And this is where it gets dicey. Should you be allowed to say and wear whatever you want about it? Should every single piece of terminology describing it be considered appropriate?

As a teacher, I am held to a certain standard. I cannot discuss my religion, my political views, or really anything personal that could be considered offensive to my students. Is that appropriate? Sure. My job isn't to proselytize, but to teach a certain subject. So, shouldn't students also be held to a standard? When you have a job, there are certain things that the company says are and are not appropriate for work. As a student, school is your job. Shouldn't the school be allowed to make that call? I think so. We say they cannot wear clothing that is overly sexual, contains gang or drug references, nor are they allowed to wear shirts with weapons. Does the word "boobies" fall into the same category? I think it does.

Here is the problem with the bracelets. They are marketed towards young people, who are not emotionally mature enough to handle the terminology. The makers of the bracelets know this, and also know that there are probably a handful of middle school students who have been affected by breast cancer and will want to support it. What happens next is a perfect storm. You have thirteen-year-old boys who genuinely do "heart boobies" and are wearing the bracelets just to say so, and you have other students, particularly girls, for whom the message isn't a sexual thing and might genuinely want to raise awareness about breast cancer. Where does this leave the manufacturers? Rich! Their bracelets are scooped up by every kid who knows you can't make a judgment about their motivation, and are able to potentially sexually harass or simply be disrespectful about wearing them all under the guise of "awareness".

My points are two things. There is no reason that you can't support breast cancer, and it doesn't have to be with the word "boobies". There are plenty of other avenues out there that aren't meant to be controversial and do the job just as well. The second is that if we allow boobies, what's next? Personally, I think that every students who wants to wear a boobies bracelet should also be required to wear bracelets for every other type of cancer. Something tells me that the same boys are not going to be down for bracelets that say "I Heart Buttholes" for anal cancer and "I Heart Dicks" for prostate cancer, which by the way, has as many annual cases as breast cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. There is a company that is marketing "I heart Balls" for testicular cancer - I haven't seen one of those pop up at school yet.

Students need to be taught the difference between appropriate and inappropriate controversy. Awareness to foster discussion is not the same as marketing towards emotionally immature people, and the manufacturers ought to be ashamed.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

That's What She Read - The Help

I know I am the last person to read Katheryn Stockett’s debut novel The Help, a story about three women in Jackson, Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement, but late to the table or not, I am so glad I decided to sit down.

The story is about three women: Aibileen, a black maid working for a white family; Minny, her saucy best friend, also a maid for a white family; and Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a fresh college graduate, returning home to find that her maid, Constantine, who raised her, has mysteriously disappeared. Aibileen has just lost her only son, Minny is facing trying to find a job when her reputation for talking back precedes her, and Skeeter is trying to find her place while attempting to begin a career in writing. Through getting a job at the local newspaper writing a housekeeping advice column, Skeeter strikes up a tentative friendship with Aibileen (her friend Elizabeth’s maid), who helps her write the column. Later, the two of them begin a project writing a book about the relationship between white women and their maids, all while trying to protect themselves from the racial tension of Jackson.

I wish I could demand everyone read this book. Stockett is wonderful at drawing rich, three-dimensional characters, who each have flaws and learn something about themselves as the story proceeds. She also accurately portrays relationships between women, some close, some toxic, and the importance of remembering that the characters are a part of a bigger picture. Abuse, cancer, abandonment, broken engagements, miscarriage, death, infertility, and rejection are tackled with both sensitivity and frankness – something sincerely lacking in today’s literary market. Younger readers will also learn something about the climate of the south during the Civil Rights Movement, and hopefully be able to appreciate how far our country has come. What I enjoyed most about the book though, is that ultimately, each character is able to look forward with unbounding hope, having formed close bonds in the most unlikely places along the way – something we can all relate to.