Friday, March 30, 2018

Salve on a Wound


Got a really nasty review yesterday from someone who clearly had an agenda and an axe to grind.  Of course it's depressing and painful when that happens. There's a sense of helplessness that someone with access to a significant audience has taken your work and bent it to fit their purposes. It's a cowardly act, a sucker punch, by someone who knows I can't hit back.

But in the strangely cosmic -- and possibly karmic? -- way that things happen, the following email greeted me when I got on the computer this morning:

Hello Mr. Strasser,

When I was in 4th grade, I discovered "Help! I'm Trapped in my Sister's Body" and "Help! I'm Trapped in the First Day of School." From there I read "Help! I'm Trapped in my Teacher's Body," "Help! I'm Trapped in the President's Body," and so many others. I read and reread these over and over on my own time. I loved them - I loved the humor and still think of lines here and there and laugh. I also remember the more poignant lines, like Jake's speech as the president - especially when he says adults put off problems until "they're not ours anymore." I've thought of that line a lot, especially being of voting age starting in 2004. We also read "The Wave" in 7th grade and I loved that too.

I wanted to write to you to let you know I'm still a fan of your work and remember it fondly, even though I'm 32 and long out of school. I also wanted to write and let you know that I've written to you before. I wrote to you in 6th grade, for an assignment to write to our favorite author. You actually wrote me back, and you were one of the only authors to write back in my class. You sent me a personal letter, addressing specific things I wrote about and signing it at the bottom. There was also a picture of you and your dog in the header.

That meant the world to me in 6th grade. It made me feel special knowing an author I admired would take the time to write me back. I still smile when I remember it. I remembered that today, and I wanted to write to you and let you know - and to thank you, even if it's 21 years later.

Your humor and wit both entertained and inspired me. I'm still an avid reader, and I've become a writer as well. I write on the side - I'm a digital professional in the nonprofit sector full-time, which is far less exciting - and my love of writing came from all the great books I've read over the years, including yours. Thank you for your wonderful work, and for writing back all those years ago.
Sincerely,

Todd again: As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, "So it goes." We reap what we sow. The pain of that bad review will pass. Just as water seeks its own level, the book will eventually find whatever place it deserves. And I hope that reviewer will also.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

WHY I WROTE AMERICAN HERO

AMERICAN HERO PUBS IN GERMANY TODAY. IT WILL BE PUBLISHED IN THE US IN JULY UNDER THE TITLE, PRICE OF DUTY.

This is why I wrote it:    

Several years ago, while doing a Skype session about my book, The Wave, with a 9th grade class in Mississippi, I noticed that among the students sitting at their desks, half a dozen were wearing uniforms comprised of a light blue shirt and dark slacks.  I asked the students about their uniforms, and they told me that they represented the U.S. Army Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC).

I was not familiar with the JROTC but it struck me as curious that an organization sponsored by the United States Military would be allowed in a public school to solicit members who were 14 and 15 years old. That is, students who were still basically children.

It raised questions in my mind: At what age should the US military be allowed to begin the indoctrination of young people? Is someone at the age of 14 or 15 mature enough to comprehend the life and death implications of a career track that may include going to war?

I began to do research and quickly learned a number of facts that I found personally disturbing, including the discovery that I was wrong to think that military indoctrination in schools begins as young as 14 years old. Thanks to a program called the National Middle School Cadet Corps (NMSCC), there are nearly 100 middle schools in this country that allow indoctrination to begin at the age of 11, or younger if the student has an older sibling already in the program.[1] The majority of these middle school programs are located in the states of Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Texas.
Here’s some more information about JROTC:

1 There are roughly 3,000 JROTC units in high schools in the United States. These units represent all branches of the military.

2 Most schools that offer JROTC allow students to substitute it for their physical education classes. Furthermore, here’s a National Institute of Health article[2] that found that participants in JROTC were required to do significantly less physical activity than those in a typical high school PE class.

3 In any given year, somewhere between 30% and 50% of JROTC enrollees enlist in the armed services after high school.

4The JROTC and the National Rifle Association (NRA) enjoy a cozy relationship. While weapons training is not allowed in schools, JROTC units frequently receive NRA grants for air rifles, spotting scopes, and pellets.  In addition, JROTC members are encouraged to participate in NRA shooting matches. (Air rifles have come a long way from the BB guns we shot as kids. Today’s air rifles are often designed to look very similar to the various models of M16s currently in use in the military).

According to Wikipedia, “In May 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union stated that JROTC violates the United Nations sponsored Convention on the Rights of the Child by targeting students as young as 14 for recruitment to the military.[3]  The United States has not ratified the Convention, although it has ratified an optional protocol to the Convention on "the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict." [4]

In essence, while supporting a ban on the use of child soldiers elsewhere in the world, the United States has opted to allow for their training here. How?  By insisting that recruitment for the military is not an official goal of JROTC. (Despite, as I mentioned before, that fact that somewhere between 30% and 50% of JROTC members will enlist). That rate is many times higher than the average enlistment rate of high school graduates at roughly 5%.

JROTC is one of several issues that my new novel for teens, American Hero, confronts. In it, Jake Liddell is a 19-year-old heroic wounded warrior who’s just returned from America’s Forever War in the Middle East – as of this writing, now more than 17 years and running. Thanks to his bravery, Jake is being considered for the Silver Star for valor in combat. A graduate of his high school’s JROTC, he is a hero to his military family and his town.

In many ways, Jake’s high school experience mirrored that of many young people in JROTC today. He believed in his country, right or wrong. He was dazzled by the military’s media campaign (in TV advertisements and on social media) promoting strength, teamwork, and valor. He was aware that the military offers lucrative signing bonuses (up to $40,000) to enlistees. And, as in many high schools around the country, he was tempted to enlist by the recruitment officers who showed up at his school on a weekly basis.

Despite the protests of his family, Jake enlisted immediately after high school. But like so many in his position, his experience in the military was not what he imagined. Nothing prepared him for the reality of war – the horror, the death (not just of soldiers, but of civilians, children included), the mutilation, the psychological toll, the terror. Now he’s returned home, torn between the pressure to be the hero everyone thinks he is, and the shaken, wounded witness to a horror no one but soldiers in combat have known.

In my mind, a school should be a place for education, not militarization. Yes, we do need a military in this country, but I don’t believe that military education should be an option available in schools. At least, not in public schools. When military education is available in schools, and presented as an easy and lucrative option, it can be a temptation.
  
One thing I remember about middle school and high school was the number of students who disliked PE because they didn’t enjoy the exercise and it left them sweaty. In addition, at that sensitive and insecure time of life, it meant undressing in locker rooms and showering with other students.  I don’t know how many young people would have opted for JROTC, had it existed in my school, just to get out of the exercise, sweating and showering. But I suspect some would have for that reason alone.

I also remember being 11 or 12 and playing Army with my friends, using sticks as pretend rifles. We would shoot each other, fall down and “die,” and then get right back up and continue playing. At the age of 12, or 14, or even 16, are young people really prepared to make a decision that will put them on a track that will eventually lead to military service?

While the exact number of students in JROTC programs varies from year to year, it is estimated that at any given time more than half a million young people are enrolled. A significant number of these young people will eventually join the military. Some will go to war. Some will die.
  


[1] http://www.nationalmiddleschoolcadetcorps.com/Home_Page.html
[2] JROTC as a Substitute for PE: Really?  (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4285375/)
[3] "Soldiers of Misfortune" (PDF). American Civil Liberties Union. 2008. 
[4] "11.b Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict". United Nations Treaty Collection. May 25, 2000. Retrieved August 28, 2013.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Teacher Recommends IF I GROW UP After Parkland Shooting

Our weapons of empathy on trial: Guest opinion

A Westview High School teacher speaks out after Beaverton School District administrators banned a book due to "inappropriate content and vulgar language." Books, she argues, allow students "access to new perspectives that build empathy. And in a nation where kids are killing kids, what more can we hope for students but to become more empathetic and connected."(Michael Rubinkam/AP)
By Jacqueline Fitzgerald
The morning after the Parkland shooting, my students eyes are narrowed, arms crossed across their chests, bodies sunken into their chairs. They're making themselves smaller, keeping themselves safe. Twenty years ago as a freshman, I stood in my living room ready to run from the television screen where bodies fell out of windows at Columbine. Here we are again and again and again.

They need to talk.

"Why haven't we done anything about gun control?" my student asks.

It gets quiet. The quiet resonates with fear and betrayal by those in power who are supposed to protect them.

In this country, we can't ban AR-15s, which make it easy for a teen to murder, but we can ban books. And my school district did.

The week before the Florida shooting, Beaverton School District Deputy Superintendent Steve Phillips overrode the decision of a hearing committee to keep the novel "Stick" by Andrew Smith in our schools and instead banned the book from 9th and 10th grade classrooms due to inappropriate content and vulgar language.

Inappropriate content is social media feeds with live videos of dead teenagers in school hallways. Vulgar language is calling teen shooters "psycho" and "murderer" when they are victims themselves. Victims of broken systems with inadequate access to mental health services. Victims with absent parents holding down two jobs or an opioid addiction. Victims of the politicians who divide us.
Meanwhile in Beaverton, two more books have hearings this month. The danger of banning books containing sexual violence, homosexuality or any human experience is that it justifies banning books with similar content.

"Speak" by Laurie Halse Anderson is about a freshman named Melinda going silent after she is raped at a party. After my freshman class read this last year, a student filled with vivacious energy in September who had begun to collapse into herself, came to me with tears in her eyes.

"I want to tell you something... I am Melinda. That book gave me courage to come forward about what happened to me and heal."

One of my gay students made a nearly fatal suicide attempt in October after his parents shunned him when he came out. He is now living with a foster family. I asked him what's helping him get through. "Books," he said, "they help me feel less alone."

"The Hate You Give" by Angie Thomas is one of his favorites and was banned in a Texas school district last year.

Another student whose father faces deportation and works two jobs to support his mom and two younger siblings, finds escape in "If I Grow Up" by Todd Strasser. My male students of color, who often struggle to find books that they connect with, pass it around like treasure. I can't keep it on my shelves.

Smith, the author of "Stick," when interviewed about the ban in Beaverton said, "When somebody just comes in, blocks, interferes with a kid's access to information or viewpoints, that's absolutely the opposite of what we need right now."

English teachers refer to books as windows and mirrors. They reflect our students' experiences and allow them access to new perspectives that build empathy. And in a nation where kids are killing kids, what more can we hope for students but to become more empathetic and connected.

Do you remember a book that changed you? Helped you reach out rather than retreating into yourself? Can you imagine what your life would be without it?

I wouldn't want to. And our students should never have to find out.

-- Jacqueline Fitzgerald is a language arts teacher at Westview High School. She lives in Southeast Portland.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Lots of Classroom and School Library Skypes

I've been doing lots of Skypes. Many classes ask about The Wave. With others it's about how to write a story. But with all, I try to encourage literacy. In a world that currently feels so divided I can only imagine that the better we can all communicate, the more we've read and know, the more hopeful the future will be.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Contest Entries Pouring In!

We can hardly keep up with the load of mail coming in.

Some samples:

The Stiffs of Gravesend  -- Kelly from Ohio


Velvet's Touch -- Andi from New York

Vision in Indigo --  Philip from Florida

Love You to Death -- Mort from New York

The Unforgettable Moment -- Sarah from New Jersey


To read the first two chapters and find out more about the contest, please go to Wattpad https://www.wattpad.com/373338883-untitled-dieselpunk-roman… Thanks!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Just posted Part 2 of the Untitled Romance. Read it here: And don't forget to enter:


Monday, February 20, 2017

THE CONTEST BEGINS!

People have begun to read the serial and submit ideas for the title. I've even gotten some comments, mostly about wanting more installments. I'm writing the next one now. Hope to post it later this week.

You can read the serial and enter the contest here: 
  https://goo.gl/mYvapb

The two title entries I like the best so far are:

1) The Stiffs of Gravesend

Why? It's wordplay. The Stiffs family are undertakers and stiffs is slang for corpses. Phineas Stiffs is the romantic hero of the story.

2) A Touch of Velvet

Why? Coffins are lined with velvet. Also, the story takes place in a dieselpunk milieu in which I imagine that velvet is often worn.