October–Sorting out Afghanistan, the DRC, Switzerland, Lithuania & Antarctica

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In an attempt to be festive, I tried to save some particularly scary reads for the month of October; what could be more terrifying than the oppression of women, a sophisticated and violent society of apes, an adulterous spouse, the Holocaust, and of course shipwreck in one of the most unforgiving climates on earth? While not traditionally spooky stories, I would say this wide range of tales were valiant efforts towards scaring the pants off me during Fall Break and the days leading up to Halloween. Of course, I’ll let it be known that I was also delighted to not be wearing pants, regardless of the level of fright.

October is a notoriously challenging month for teachers, so I was a little surprised to have read as much as I did this month. However, between end-of-the-quarter finals and Fall Break, I found myself with some time for R&R and thankful to have a few good books on hand.

It’s been a taxing month at school. Working with children is an emotionally draining job, and it takes its toll from time to time. Additionally, it’s been a busy month for my boyfriend as well, so it’s been a little difficult to cope and unwind with him always on the go. He was in Las Vegas for a cousin’s birthday for half of my Fall Break, which of course made me miss him, but also allowed for ample time to read in our bed for hours, not wear make-up, and do things like eat string cheese for dinner.

I kicked off the month in Afghanistan with Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, a strong, feminist novel about the power of friendship and what it takes the change the world. Full of abuse, rape, and death, it was a moving account about the unglamorous work that goes into transforming a community. While I am by no means up against the Taliban as I teach my students, the behind-the-scenes look at the blood, sweat, and tears you pour into a cause you care about was key for me. Teachers at my school have been struggling to stay motivated–or even show up to work–which isn’t entirely uncommon this time of year. October usually is a prime time for burnout to take its toll. But many staff members seem to have loss sight of our school’s mission, of the fact that this isn’t a regular school, that changing the course of low-income kids and trying to alter the face of public education isn’t a normal job. It’s painful and exhausting and frustrating and comes with major emotional wounds–and occasionally a physical one or two.

Next, I traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo with Congo, expecting to be frightened since Michael Crichton scared me to death with Jurassic Park, and I have a pernicious fear of violent monkeys (to be fair, this book is actually about gorillas). I expected this to be a thrilling vacation read, but it was honestly rather boring–kind of like my Fall Break. Sure, it was alright, but nothing terribly exciting happened.

Another Fall Break read included Hausfrau, set in Switzerland. Again, I had saved this book for break as well, thinking it would be a quick-paced, easy read perfect for relaxing on the couch. While Congo was lackluster, this book might be the first I’ve read for this challenge that I’ve actively disliked. It’s probably good that I read it during break, when my stress level was low, because if I had spent precious free time during my work week on this novel, I would’ve been irate. Anna’s passivity is aggravating, and her infidelity is horrifying. I felt no sympathy for her predicament, as she destroyed her own life and the lives of others. At the root of this story is a message about mental health, so maybe I’m being insensitive, but I spend my day listening to the powerless whining of small children–and Anna honestly felt just like a helpless child, except one wreaking a disconcerting amount of damage.

Lastly, I closed out Fall Break with the saving grace of vacation reads, Between Shades of Gray. While the story of the mass deportation of Lithuanians is far from a light-hearted, guilty pleasure book, this young adult historical fiction was a great read. Lina is a heroine I could stand behind, tough, talented, and caring, and the historical insight was refreshing and interesting. Having finished our unit on Elie Wiesel’s Night last quarter, I was also excited to share this book with students, which made the transition from sleeping in to 5am wake-ups just a little easier to stomach.

The hectic and exhausting close of October was spent in Antarctica with Endurance. Though my life at school at the end of Darktober felt like a disaster on par with Shackleton’s predicament, this was nevertheless a slower read for me. Call it macabre, but I just felt like it took far too long for the disaster to begin-which of course, is the opposite of my life at school, where I feel like things start going wrong as soon as I walk in the door. Whether it’s issues with admin, naughty children, or fighting a paper jam in the copy machine, the feeling of being shipwrecked was not lost on me.

Overall, my month was dominated by schoolwork–which was scary enough–and even though I had selected books to be frightening additions to the season, they fell a little short in comparison to the hurdles in my everyday life. But now that parent-teacher conferences and the wild behavior of October are behind us, I’m looking forward to starting the holiday season at a steadier pace and with quite a few more books!

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