Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Throwback to Angus Bethune with @ChrisCrutcher, A Story

Several summers ago, I had the honor of working with Chris Crutcher at the Louisiana State University Young Adult Literature conference. I was there to offer a seminar on refugees in young adult literature and was thrilled he was one of the keynote speakers. The writer, Chris Crutcher, was HUGE for my first years of teaching. Why? He was one of the few writers that my students would read.

I began teaching in Kentucky with two passions: I wanted to celebrate all kids and I wanted to promote writing. I didn't declare creative writing as a major, because teachers were supposed to major in literature. Although I give my creative writing background all the credit for any success I've had as a teacher, it was the literary scholars that were positioned authoritatively on my transcript.

I finished two Masters degrees when I first began teaching high school. I was given freshmyn, and taught in one of the most diverse environments in the nation - a school that requested one boy and one girl from each zip code in the city of Louisville. The joke was, "If it's out there, we have it in here, too." There were multiple truths in the population represented at the Brown.

During my first year, I was looking for something to help my students to develop as short story authors and stumbled upon Athletic Shorts: Six Short Stories. My kids loved the tales Crutcher crafted, but year after year reported that "A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune" was the story that helped them to tune their own craft most: the voice, the structure, the genuine recreation of adolescence, the parents, and the humor.

That was 1997. Fast forward to 2017 (oof, that is 20 years!).

Tonight, I am teaching a graduate seminar on developing young adult readers and we are thinking through Deborah Appleman's chapter on Reader's Response. We've been playing with Kylene Beers and Robert Probst's Notice and Notice, as well as Jeff Wilhelm's You Gotta Be the Book. Knowing I wanted to teach a story to help make some cases these researchers are describing for my graduate students, I recalled Crutcher's Angus Bethune, and pulled a copy off my shelf. Rereading it 20 years later, I realize it is a short story that continues to have the same effect. It is perfect. I love it.

A part of me wants to offer my interpretation and analysis on this post, but I'd rather intrigue readers to want to read the story for themselves. I love Angus. He's terrific. He's a product of his environment: sarcastic, insecure, yet awkwardly confident. He's very much like many of the kids I've taught throughout my career - one who is engaged with his world, but arriving from contexts that just don't seem to be normed by society's standards. Still, he perseveres.
"Actually," I say, "I even tried it once, but when I stuck my finger down my throat, I was still hungry and I almost ate my arm" (p. 13). 
That he tells a certain love interest, Melissa Lefevre, during a slow dance at the prom. He responds to her admittance that she's bulimic.

I always loved Chris Crutcher's writing, but after meeting him, it became extra special. For some crazy reason, I was invited to have lunch with him by the LSU School of Education Dean (Okay, not a crazy even...she was from Louisville) while he was there and it was one of the most awe-inspiring, engaging lunches of my life. For a short period, I was invited into the world of counseling and helping kids, listening to the many stories the writer helped in his other life as a counselor. Learning why he transitioned so many stories into print was astounding and I realized at that moment I was with celebrity, integrity, and genius. I knew it before, but sitting with it solidified it all.

I am curious to see how a room full of adults will respond to Angus Bethune after I had such success with him as a high school English teacher. I feel like I've dusted him off some, simply to introduce him to another generation of teachers. Phew. If Angus was 18 in 1997, that puts him in his late 30s today.

Unbelievable and beautiful. So grateful for the genius of this writer. 

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