Cat Mummies, Scary Stories, and Facing Uncertainty

2020 has compressed and stretched time in ways that none of us anticipated. Which is to start this post by admitting that in 2020 I hung Christmas lights on our porch Sunday, the first day of the time change and 5:45pm sunset. And I’m writing this under those lights thirty minutes before polls close in Florida, a half block from my polling place at the local gardening club.

Let’s make November festive….

It’s hard to believe it’s been two months since my last Sunshine post, meaning we are now a third of the way through the school year, and yet this post still feels relevant to my day-to-day emotions. I’ve been continuing to note what feels familiar and what feels new, what I want to be an aberration and what I hope continues in future years. As a surprising upside, I feel like my students now understand primary sources viscerally in a way they hadn’t before. We’ve been talking about stating predictions for the election. They know they can’t speak knowledgeably yet, but within the next few days, they won’t be able to keep from knowing the result. In terms of thinking about primary sources presenting someone’s experiences in the moment, rather than after the fact, this has been a non-partisan way of tying the elections to their classes. Primary sources aren’t thusly named because they’re the best but because they capture a moment and all the emotion and uncertainty that entails. Emotion and uncertainty are definitely words that resonate with me now, especially as I’m already seeing the ways that I’m compartmentalizing and contextualizing my stay-at-home spring compared with tonight’s in-the-moment feelings.

7th grade provides another example. After the success of Alan Gratz’s Refugee as a 2018 Global Read Aloud, our 7th grade English teacher decided to read his Ban this Book to her classes this fall. She starts every class by reading for 10 minutes. Even better, this year, every Friday is entirely devoted to reading. The students either read individually, visit the library for new books, or give book talks to their peers! I’ve seen third through seventh grade as the range for Ban this Book; with older students, it catalyzed the conversation before an anti-censorship project during Banned Books Week. Their naiveté was endearing as they interviewed me for PSAs and podcasts. One repeated theme was questioning Bridge to Terabithia and why parents would want to ban a book because it was sad. This prompted the teacher to remember Jacqueline Wilson’s Cat Mummy from when she lived in England. She left it on my desk on Friday. Per the back of the book, it’s also recommended for ages 8 and up.

That illustration of Mabel the cat says it all.

I work with middle and high school students, but I feel fairly confident this book wouldn’t be a best seller for American elementary school students. I loved it, and I’m trying to think how to incorporate into an Upper School storytelling elective since it covers death and grief with empathy, honesty, and humor in a way that’s quickly accessible. I loved it, but reading it hurt my stomach. I was on the verge of tears multiple times. I loved it, and I wouldn’t recommend it to my friends parenting eight year olds. To spoil the plot, “Verity adores her cat, Mabel, and is desperately sad when she dies. Remembering her recent school lessons about the Ancient Egyptians, Verity decides to mummify Mabel and keep her hidden. Verity’s dad and grandparents can’t bear to talk about death, having lost Verity’s mum several years ago – but when they eventually discover what Verity has done, the whole family realizes it’s time to talk.”

As a result of the interviews for the banned books project, I was texting with friends about book challenges. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was referenced as one that one mom was fine to have in the library but not in her child’s hands. Cue Halloween chills! That book woke me in terror! Librarians reading this who are close in age to me are probably recalling their own nightmares. Yet, the books were always checked out of my school’s library, and I myself read them more than once. Santa brought my brother the anthology because it was a book he actually wanted to read. That book was on the edge of many kids’ comfort zones. I know now to be cautious with the horror genre because my vivid imagination preys on disturbing images. That’s an important lesson, and we often learn more when we’re uncomfortable than when we’re feeling secure. (If you want to fall down a virtual rabbit hole like I did last month, did you know they changed the illustrations to make them less scary? And the backlash meant that it was republished with the original drawings?)

Because librarians and editors can’t help but text about books…

I am a librarian partly because I loved reading as a child. I read widely then, and I still try to pursue a variety of genres and authors. We teach others about the metaphor of books as doors and windows, and reading widens our understanding of the world we share and the values we hold. No matter what happens with the election, a portion of this country is going to feel marginalized and misunderstood. The ultimate election results, however, are out of our individual control. So is COVID’s spread across the country. Switching the clocks back an hour this past weekend. Whether our schools are currently virtual.  Books might make us smile or they might make us cry; they might give us nightmares or they might make us forget a bad day. But no matter the specific response, books let us experience emotion at a distance, in patterns proscribed by authors and shared with other readers. As technology increases, our society has become less comfortable with uncertainty. Google, Siri, and even user-review sites like Yelp mean that many people expect their devices to answer their questions immediately. We’re less accustomed to managing our anxieties when we can’t predict our surroundings, anything from the most recommended dish at a restaurant to presidential results. 2020 has taught us that life can be anything but certain.

This isn’t a post with answers, but one about being more comfortable with what makes us uncomfortable. Books might do that, and so might life. I’m already thinking about talking with my senior advisees tomorrow, many of whom cast their first vote in this so-called unprecedented election. One quiet thoughtful student stayed after advisory yesterday because of that term. She’s 17 now and was 13 in the last election. She has been asking her parents what that means, and they encouraged her to talk to others about why this year feels different to adults. Considering this is the oldest grade in our school, her questions have stuck with me and they’re still on my mind. This is generational change in action! We can’t help experiencing events as ourselves, at specific periods in our lives. Remember the election in which you cast your first vote, the candidates and the experience of adulthood?

I voted. And yes this was my bike ride to the library where I voted last week.

If there are conversations happening in your school that would have been unprecedented before this year or something that has been a surprisingly positive change, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Otherwise, I’m most interested in the books of your youth that riled you up and if you’d recommend them to others today. Scary Stories, complete with its original terrifying drawings, still gets two nail-bitten thumbs up from me.

1 thought on “Cat Mummies, Scary Stories, and Facing Uncertainty

  1. Christina, I always love reading your thoughtful posts. Thinking back, I do recall scaring myself to death reading “The Exorcist” when I was in high school. I don’t think I could bring myself to go into the basement for a full year, although I’m not sure why—I don’t think there was a basement involved. I have overheard conversations among students about the election that I haven’t heard since 2016. I’m working on getting better at having brave conversations, but I have a long way to go.

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