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Family values

The other night I was reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to Jamie just as he was dropping off to sleep.  Inveterate readers of this blog know of Jamie’s fascination with Harry Potter and his knowledge of the first five books in the series, but I don’t think I’ve ever described precisely how Jamie listens to these books as I read them to him.  He climbs into bed around a quarter of ten (being a teenager and all), and even though he’s capable of falling asleep the minute his head hits the pillow, he is so eager to hear the evening’s Harry Potter installment that he keeps one eye open and fights for consciousness as long as he can.

So we reached the second Pensieve scene, in which the young Dumbledore visits eleven-year-old Tom Riddle in the orphanage in order to inform him that he is a wizard and extend him an invitation to Hogwarts.  It’s a dramatic encounter; Jamie raised his head off the pillow and gasped at Tom’s initial reaction to Dumbledore’s invitation (which those of you who have read the book surely remember, and those of you who haven’t should go and see for yourself), and stayed awake for another couple of pages.  But before we got to that point, I read the following passage:

The orphans, Harry saw, were all wearing the same kind of grayish tunic.  They looked reasonably well-cared for, but there was no denying that this was a grim place in which to grow up.

I decided to say a few words about the orphanage, and about Harry’s moment of sympathy for the boy who grows up to become Voldemort.  “Did Harry have a happy childhood when he was growing up?” I asked.  Jamie shook his head no.  “He had the Dursleys,” he said.  I pointed out that Harry and Voldemort are similar in that they grow up without parents, and that the kids in the orphanages are there because they have no parents either.  And I mentioned that Jamie might remember the orphanage in the movie Like Mike, which just happens to be in Jamie’s video collection.

“Or Free Willy,” Jamie suggested.  “Yes, that’s right,” I said with some surprise.  “Free Willy is also about a kid who is growing up without parents, and who has stepparents, and he has trouble getting used to his new home.”

“Or Rookie of the Year,” Jamie said.  “Not exactly,” I replied.  “In Rookie of the Year Henry has his mother, but his mother’s boyfriend is a creep, and we don’t know where his father went before he was born.”

Mrs. Doubtfire,” Jamie offered.  “Nope, that’s about parents who are divorced and live in different houses,” I said, “but still, in Mrs. Doubtfire the father misses his kids and wants to see them, so dresses up as a nanny.”

“What about Babe?” Jamie asked.

“Oh yes, that’s a very good example,” I told him.  “Babe has no parents, and that’s why he is so happy when Fly agrees to be like his mother.”

“And Rex is like his father,” Jamie added.  “And Ferdinand the duck is like his brother.”

Why, yes, I thought—Ferdinand is like his brother.  Hey!  Wait a second!  Who knew that Jamie was thinking, all this time, about the family configurations in these movies?  And who knew that Jamie knew that so many unhappy families, human and pig, are alike?

If I have a spare moment later this week (in the middle of my four-day meeting), I’ll try to get to around to explaining why I’ve bothered to post this update on Jamie’s reading habits.  In the meantime, suffice it to say that he continues to surprise me.

Posted by on 10/25 at 07:58 PM
  1. I have to admit that I’m very anxious about the next installment in this story.

    Posted by Roxanne  on  10/26  at  01:05 AM
  2. Happy families are all alike. Unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way…

    Posted by donna  on  10/26  at  02:06 AM
  3. You leave me missing those kind of moments with my children. They don’t want to be read to any longer. Sigh.

    Posted by  on  10/26  at  10:06 AM
  4. One of the great things with reading to Sylvia, is watching her making connections between the various books. The other day we were reading “Babar’s Mystery” which she had checked out from the school library, and passed by an observation that the Old Lady was going to sit in the lighthouse and write her memoirs—as soon as Sylvia heard “memoirs” she said “Moominpappa!” (who also spends a lot of time writing memoirs), and went on to talk about lighthouses, because in the Moomin book we were reading at the time, Moominpappa is trying to repair an old lighthouse.

    Posted by Jeremy Osner  on  10/26  at  10:37 AM
  5. Michael, I’ve been reading you faithfully for more than a year now, and from my vantage point it is clear that Jamie is way, way more than special. Whatever he does, whatever he is thinking, it does not surprise me in the least! I know that you are a very busy person, but I hope you can find enough time to cherish these days as you live them.

    Posted by  on  10/26  at  11:01 AM
  6. ” ‘All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy families are more or less alike,’ says a great Russian writer in the beginning of a famous novel ...” Ada, or Ardor—V. Nabokov.

    Posted by  on  10/26  at  11:42 AM
  7. Donna, Brian, I think Jamie’s point was that Tolstoy was wrong.  (It’s still a great opening line, though.) And that when it comes to reading family configurations, he doesn’t miss a trick.

    Posted by Michael  on  10/26  at  11:56 AM
  8. and just think, all my life i was led to believe that the phrase “happy family” was oxymoronic.  Just goes to show that not all human relationships are created equally.

    Posted by  on  10/26  at  01:37 PM
  9. I meant that Nabokov agreed wholeheartedly with Jamie, against Tosloy, and wrote a whole book about it (of which the quote was the opening line--and I know I’m arriving late for that game).  Jamie is clearly a gifted family philosopher.

    Posted by  on  10/26  at  01:53 PM
  10. These posts are their own best excuse.  Never feel a need to defend their presence here!

    Posted by  on  10/26  at  02:13 PM
  11. Eh. The Rowling craze, like Tolkien a few decades past, appears to be a phenomenon of the liberal bourgeois; fantasy, like the stories of King Arthur and Camelot generally functioning as a type of indoctrination.  For developing children’s reading skills Rowling might be acceptable, though something like HG Wells or Conan-Doyle or 1984 would be more effective and less full of the “magical” content. I’d rather have kids struggle with Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels than with Rowling’s trivial and slightly irrational product, tho realizing GT is not so PC.  Rowling, like Tolkien, stirs up in kids the sword and sorcery “code,” and I for one feel that is a questionable pedagogy. Perhaps the sort of pulpy social realism that kids are exposed to--- say “Of Mice and Men"-- is itself a type of indoctrination, but at least Steinbeck doesn’t instill too many false hopes or romantic expectations.

    Posted by Mister Toad  on  10/26  at  07:00 PM
  12. Mister Toad sez, “The Rowling craze, like Tolkien a few decades past, appears to be a phenomenon of the liberal bourgeois; fantasy, like the stories of King Arthur and Camelot generally functioning as a type of indoctrination.”

    You don’t have much room in your worldview for hopes and ideals, I gather?  I’m proud to say that our 10-year-old has attended 39 science fiction and fantasy conventions with us so far, and is one of the savviest and most clearminded critics of hogwash I know.  Fantasy, like any other genre, can be put to a variety of uses; and her enjoyment of Tolkien, Rowling and Whedon doesn’t keep her from being a fierce little union maid and a righteous advocate for justice and freedom.

    Posted by  on  10/26  at  07:23 PM
  13. The ‘all happy families are alike’ line is the opening line of Anna Karenina. And Dorothy Sayers criticises it in ‘Busman’s Honeymoon’ when she has one of her characters say ‘I have always thought this was the wrong way round. Unhappy families all have a dreary kind of sameness, but happy families all seem to be happy in their own wildly original ways.’ Which certainly seems to be the case in my experience - the strangest families I know are generally the happiest, while unhappy families mostly seem to fall into the same unfortunate mould.

    Personally I can’t think of a better sort of ‘indoctrination’ than the fantasy code - be modest, be loyal to your friends, protect the weak, oppose oppression, do not bow down to superior power or strength, be courageous, avoid cruelty, do your utmost, do not lie, do not steal, do not cheat, do not trick others…

    What sort of ‘pedagogy’ is a child going to get from ‘1984’, for heaven’s sake? ‘Resistance is useless’? ‘Power always wins’? ‘Torture works’? Hell of a thing to teach them.

    Posted by  on  10/27  at  10:49 AM
  14. I must refer you to the magisterial post entitled ”And now let the sneering begin” in fantasy writer Peg Kerr’s LiveJournal: http://www.livejournal.com/users/pegkerr/136986.html

    A couple of pullquotes:
    “I pulled out both Emma Bull’s ‘Why I Write Fantasy’ and Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing as I’ve been thinking about the mean-spirited sneering tones of these two articles [which triggered the entry]. They explain a lot.”
    She wrote it, but it’s about silly little childish things (like friendship, courage, self-sacrifice and death). She wrote it, but it’s really just escapism (friendship, courage, self-sacrifice and death??? Escapism???)”

    Posted by  on  10/27  at  11:10 AM
  15. "What sort of ‘pedagogy’ is a child going to get from ‘1984’, for heaven’s sake? ‘Resistance is useless’? ‘Power always wins’? ‘Torture works’? Hell of a thing to teach them.”

    Yes the message of 1984 is rather unpleasant; sort of like the history of the last 100 years. But I ‘m really sort of skeptical that literature should be taught at all, at least until say junior or senior year in college. Parents give the kids some Tolkien or Rowling; they don’t ususally give them the Rise and Fall of the 3rd Reich or Stalin’s Rise to Power; yet that is far more closer to the “truth” than the little knights and kanves fantasy. Maybe start them with Kafka’s the Metamorphosis or Poe: yes at 12 or so, give them Masque of the Red Death: human life.

    Better Winston Smith and his rat nightmare than wizards and castles and elves and noble Knights vanquishing the evil dark forces. Besides that fantasy “code” of chivalry and knight’s “honor” is about as hypocritical as, say , the Catholic church.

    Posted by Mister Toad  on  10/27  at  01:14 PM
  16. “What sort of ‘pedagogy’ is a child going to get from ‘1984’, for heaven’s sake? ‘Resistance is useless’? ‘Power always wins’? ‘Torture works’? Hell of a thing to teach them.”

    I certainly regret having read it at too young an age (seven).

    Posted by  on  10/27  at  02:02 PM
  17. I’ve noticed that a lot of people seem surprised that children have intellectual lives, that kids think about things including the things some adults would prefer their kids not think about, as somehow that would make the kids less “innocent.” (The conflation of innocence with ignorance has always bugged me.)

    The pleasant thing is that the rest of us, people like you and me who know that kids are thinking all the time, get to be surprised by what they’re thinking. Really, aside from warmth on a cold night, the point of being around other humans of any age is to get surprises like that.

    Posted by Ron Sullivan  on  10/27  at  04:22 PM
  18. Does fiction belong in K-12 public education? It’s debatable. I think history reading, as well as “social sciences” should be considered more fundamental than fiction, as should math and sciences. Maybe Julius Caesar and a few literary texts in high school for the college-bound. 

    The real nightmare is that English is not really a language at all, in the sense that say Latin or German are. “Der Piratenzunge” or something like that is what the Germans call it. Horrible irregular verbs and declensions, primitive case, the bizarre combination of saxon -meets old french and Latin nouns: closer to like icelandic than to Latin or French.  Español has more claims to linguistic authenticity and to Latin-proximity than does ingles. We wuz robbed.

    Posted by Mister Toad  on  10/27  at  05:31 PM
  19. Mr. Toad, I don’t think the presence of fiction in K-12 public education is debateable.  I think it’s been repeatedly and effectively demonstrated to be good practice. 

    How much time have you spent working in K-12 public education?  What do you think happens in a classroom where a 15 or 16-year-old student who has never previously been exposed to literature attempts to read Julius Ceaser?  (Or, as is more frequently the case, the teacher tries to make the student read Julius Ceaser and the student pretends not to notice?)

    Children *like* Rowling.  They like Lemony Snicket and Judy Blume.  Some of them like Tolkein.  Some of them like Shakespeare.  Children also like a shocking variety of works that many adults consider to fall far below the benchmarks of literary quality.  (I think it’s worth noting that large groups of adults also like a shocking variety of works that fall far below the benchmarks of literary quality.) That’s OK.  It doesn’t hurt them. 

    If students are, as you suggest, going to take on JC in high school, they’re going to need some pre-requisite skills first - some sense of what it’s like to read a play, an occaisional fleeting desire to pick up a book and see what’s on its pages, a notion of what foreshadowing looks like, some kind of clue about what an allusion might be and how they might spot one. 

    I think Julius Ceaser is a great play, and I agree with you that high school students should read it.  As a first literary selection, however, it’s a little like the scene in Brave New World where the nurses show the babies books and flowers and then shock them when they crawl too close.  Who’d want to do that twice?

    Posted by  on  10/27  at  08:43 PM
  20. Yay, Jamie.  All that weird stuff like familial relations is hard enough for us neuro-typicals, the fact that Jamie has some serious “clue” is something to put a bottle of bubbly in the fridge for (Fitzmas or not!)

    Thanks, Michael, for sharing this.  Though we parents of autistics (PoAs) deal with a slightly different set of challenges, all and all, there are more similarities than differences, I’d wager.  Great to hear Jamie’s doing so well.

    I still have to make it through book 4.  I picked them up this summer, and buzzed through 1 - 3, but life caught up and I haven’t had the block of time to finish.  Perhaps if I gave up blogging.  And who really needs the Koufaxes anyway wink?

    Posted by  on  10/27  at  10:45 PM
  21. History and social science may be as effective as literature in teaching reading skills, if not more effective.  What’s more, it’s true--it refers to real events--or at least has a high probability of being true.  And after some reading skill have been developed then they might handle Julius Caesar, but I think Shakespeare is of dubious value for hs kids: it was meant for the Court, regardless of all the PC crap about groundlings. Plato wouldn’t let literature be taught.  It’s only in the last say 100 years that literature was even considered suitable for public education. 

    Literature, however splendid, is not comprised of statements about facts or confirmable truths. That’s not to say 1984 does not contain a type of knowledge: it does, but I think it’s bit different and more intangible than say Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the 3rd Reich.

    Edu-Lit is a lucrative Bidness tho of course and all the PC lit-readers used in K-12 (or the anthology biz in colleges) generate beaucoup bucks for publishing cos. and provide jawbs for all the sensitive Aesthetes doing their best to teach Sensitivity and Val-yoos.

    Posted by  on  10/27  at  11:41 PM
  22. It’s only in the last say 100 years that literature was even considered suitable for public education.

    But then again, it’s only in the last say 100 years that there’s been something called “public education.”

    And about Mister Toad’s comments over the course of this week.  This morning, in response to his fifth comment on this post, I noted that (and I kind of quote myself) he was spending many of his waking hours obsessively reading this blog, peppering every post with various snide comments from his 40,000 proxies.  He promptly replied, in a sixth comment, “That’s not accurate, since I’ve posted about 3 - 4 things in last few days while working at my comptuer. (Or is a certain cynical disdain towards the literary biz not permitted?)”

    In reality, where I live and work, Mister Toad has posted three comments on Monday, six on Tuesday, five on Wednesday, and another four today, for a total of eighteen so far.  Now, while some of you may well want to engage him here in a debate that has nothing to do with my post (since, of course, Jamie is not reading Harry Potter in school—we’re talking about bedtime reading, folks), others of you may want to consider whether it might be wiser to encourage him to take a break from working at his computer and get some nice fresh air.

    Posted by  on  10/28  at  12:20 AM
  23. Why not respond to the point?

    In good east coast lit-fascist fashion you’re doing your Ad Hominem attack on the Non- Hip again, and making insinuations about my income or social class. I am independently wealthy--do you want to verify my credit too? Or is the appearance of some non-ironic, non-humorous writng sort of troubling.

    Your points always seem to be about control: you want to remind someone that You, Professor are the owner and monitor of the site. Who gives a fuck, Mike.  Your posts are featured prominently but you don’t own the comments.  I haven’t done anything illegal or even threatening.  You’re not in charge.  I’ll leave if you ask, since I suspect you are another JEdgar in training like most bloggers, but it’s obvious that your enthusiasm for academic freedom doesn’t extent to your onw comment boxes.

    It’s my contention that the Lit. Biz is not only a symptom of aesthetic indulgence and narcissism, but of racketeering and cronyism. Lit. professors are the academic equivalent of like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky: they don’t kill anyone (as far as we know) but they are for the most part criminals and mountebanks.

    Posted by Mister Toad  on  10/28  at  12:38 AM
  24. Sorry Michael - I got caught up in my defense of what I do (i.e., teaching history to high school students using primary sources including literature) and I completely lost the focus of the post, which is how cool Jamie is. 

    I was thinking (before I got caught up in the Mr. Toad thing) that Jamie’s conception of orphanhood tracks remarkably well with popular notions of the condition.  There’s a tendency to label as an orphan any child from a family that isn’t 100% present throughout the narrative.  It’s sufficiently pervasive that the subject heading for the first Madeline book is Orphans - fiction, even though Madeline’s father sends her a doll house when she gets her appendix out.

    Posted by  on  10/28  at  12:54 AM
  25. Movies, TV shows, give Charlie a way to understand “reality.” MOM-NOS--http:’//momnos.blogspot.com--describes her boy Bud’s evolving understanding via Teletubbies wisely and truly.

    Posted by kristina Chew  on  10/28  at  01:07 AM
  26. In good east coast lit-fascist fashion you’re doing your Ad Hominem attack on the Non- Hip again, and making insinuations about my income or social class.

    Just for the record, folks, this (and the rest of comment 23) is in response to my observation that Mister Toad claims to have made 3-4 comments recently but has actually made 18.  Now, I can’t see where I made any insinuations about income or social class, but I will say that I imagine it must be cool to be independently wealthy, so hats off to Mister Toad for that.  Back in the late 80s when I was delivering pizza, doing temp clerical work, and using the WIC program to help feed my child, I thought often about being independently wealthy.

    Stikgirl, great point—that’s really bizarre (and telling) about Madeline.  I was simply fascinated at the Babe - Harry Potter link, and didn’t stop to think how normative the “intact family” thing can be. . . .

    As to the question of the pedagogical value of literature, I can’t improve on Sidney’s Apology for Poetry no matter how hard I try.

    Posted by Michael  on  10/28  at  07:29 AM
  27. I thought the institution where Madeleine lived was a boarding school, not an orphanage. Am I mistaken? Or did the person who assigned the book that subject-heading just not read it properly?

    Posted by Jeremy Osner  on  10/28  at  08:41 AM
  28. I’m disappointed. Mister Toad’s ride is not at all wild.

    Posted by Orange  on  10/28  at  09:28 AM
  29. You’re another puffed-up Lit salesman, Mike, to be honest, like most in (or near to, in your case) the Ivy League Lit. swamp. You have nothing of real benefit to say, no real analysis to offer
    --though making use of Kuhn or Pynchon when it suits your purospes. Not surpising that you would also quote some ancient Tory, Sidney, as ideological support; for that is what the eastern Lit. Swamp aims towards--a type of Toryism with the few required PC attitudes. Shelley’s Defense of Poetry is about the best justification for literature yet written, yet a Shelleyan approach demands far too much integrity and honesty (as well as talent), two terms which are anathema to current lit. careerists.

    Posted by Mister Toad  on  10/28  at  10:39 AM
  30. Jeremy, the institution Madeline lives in looks like a boarding school to me, too.  But apparently not to the subject-heading people.

    Posted by  on  10/28  at  11:00 AM
  31. Lit. professors are the academic equivalent of like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky: they don’t kill anyone (as far as we know) but they are for the most part criminals and mountebanks.

    Now that’s just not true. To my knowledge, Prof. Berube has personally killed four men. Including the assistant professor he shot in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, just to watch him die.

    Though I grant that your claim is generally correct. Most lit professors don’t kill anyone -they get their postgraduate students to do it for them in exchange for beer money. (Ah, happy college days...)

    Posted by  on  10/28  at  11:15 AM
  32. Ajay, I thought that was the fun part of being a postgrad—getting to kill people. And I forgot to collect all that beer money!

    I’m thinking there’s a nym here that people suppose references The Wind in the Willows but is actually more Zippy.

    Posted by Ron Sullivan  on  10/28  at  02:58 PM
  33. I’ve come to suspect that the convent school Madeline lives in is a place for the upper classes to have their illegetimate offspring discreetly brought up until they can present them in society as their orphaned nieces or something…

    Posted by  on  10/28  at  04:18 PM
  34. Perhaps it’s best not to feed the trolls.  But then I’m so naive that I seriously thought that the proposal to postpone the teaching of literature until the kids are sixteen, and then start them on Julius Caesar, was referring to the piece of literature that begins “Gaul was divided into three parts”. 

    The damned Jesuits-they really do have you forever!

    Posted by  on  10/28  at  09:35 PM
  35. I agree: don’t feed the “trolls,” whoever they might be. Instead, step in the ring with ‘em and let ‘em demonstrate the errors of your ways.

    Literature is for chi chi nazis: not quite psychotic or strong enough for the Wehrmacht, the Literatteur rests behind the lines and savors his/her Vichy indulgences.......

    Posted by Mister Toad  on  10/28  at  10:22 PM
  36. This is to “Mister Toad”:

    Becky, is that you?  Will you ever, at last, get over being rejected by Harvard?

    Posted by  on  10/31  at  01:28 PM
  37. In below family values that are commonly practised in family:
    Love. Forgiveness. Cooperation in working together both to solve problems and perform work. The teaching of morality. Acceptance of differences.Hard work and perserverance.Putting one’s self second for the good of others.

    Posted by vessel sinks  on  08/19  at  12:21 AM





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